London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the City Sewerage.


AS yet I have spoken only of the sewers of London "without the City;" but the sewers within the City, though connected, for the general public drainage and sewerage of the capital, with the works under the control of the Metropolitan Commissioners, are in a distinct and strictly defined jurisdiction, superintended by City Commissioners, and managed by City officers, and consequently demand a special notice.

The account of the City sewers, however, may be given with a comparative brevity, for the modes of their construction, as well as their general management, do not differ from what I have described as pertaining to the extra-civic metropolis. There are, nevertheless, a few distinctions which it is proper to point out.

The City sewers are the oldest in the capital, for the very plain reason that the City itself, in its site, if not now in its public and private buildings, is the oldest part of London, as regards the abode of a congregated body of people.

The ages (so to speak) of these sewers, vary, for the most part, according to the dates of the City's rebuilding after the Great Fire, and according to the dates of the many alterations, improvements, removal or rebuilding of new streets, markets, &c., which have been effected since that period. Before the Great Fire of , all drainage seems, with a few exceptions, to have been fortuitous, unconnected, and superficial.

The public sewer built after this important epoch in the history of London was in Ludgatestreet and hill. This was the laudable work of the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's, and was constructed at the instance, it is said, and after the plans, of Sir Christopher Wren. There is, perhaps, no official or documentary proof of this, for the proclamations from the King in council, the Acts of Parliament, and the resolutions of the Corporation of the City of London at that important period, are so vague and so contradictory, and were so frequently altered or abrogated, and so frequently disregarded, that it is more impossible than difficult to get at the truth. Of the fact which I have just mentioned, however, there need be no doubt; nor that the public City sewer was in , commenced in , the year after the fire.

There are, nevertheless, older sewers than this, but the dates of their construction are not known; we have proof merely that they existed in old London, or as it was described by an anonymous writer (quoted, if I remember rightly, in Maitland's "History of London"), London ""—London before the fire. These sewers, or rather portions of sewers, are severally near Newgate, St. Bartholomew's Hospital sewer, and that of the Irongate by the Tower.

The sewer, however, which may be pointed out as the most remarkable is that of Little , London-wall. It is formed of red tiles; and from such being its materials, and from the circumstance of some Roman coins having been found near it, it is supposed by some to be of Roman construction, and of course coeval with that people's possession of the country. This sewer has a flat bottom, upright sides, and a circular arch at its top; it is about feet by feet. The other older sewers present much about the same form; and an Act in the reign of Charles II. directs that sewers shall be so built, but that the bottom shall have a circular curve.

I am informed by a City gentleman— taking an interest in such matters—that this sewer has troubled the repose of a few civic antiquaries,


some thinking that it was a Roman sewer, while others scouted such a notion, arguing that the Romans were not in the habit of doing their work by halves; and that if they had sewered London, great and enduring remains would have been discovered, for their main sewer would have been a solid construction, and directed to the Thames, as was and is the Cloaca Maxima, in the Eternal City, to the Tiber. Others have said that the sewer in question was merely built of Roman materials, perhaps discovered about the time, having originally formed a reservoir, tank, or even a bath, and were keenly appropriated by some economical or scheming builder or City official.

That the Britons," says Tacitus in his "Life of Agricola," "who led a roaming life, and were easily incited to war, might contract a love for peace, by being accustomed to a pleasanter mode of life, Agricola assisted them to build houses, temples, and market-places. By praising the diligent and upbraiding the idle, he excited such emulation among the Britons, that, after they had erected all those necessary buildings in their towns, they built others for pleasure and ornament, as porticoes, galleries, baths, and banqueting-houses.

The sewers of the city of London are, then, a comparatively modern work. Indeed, threefourths of them may be called modern. The earlier sewers were—as I have described under the general head—ditches, which in time were arched over, but only gradually and partially, as suited the convenience or the profit of the owners of property alongside those open channels, some of which thus presented the appearance of a series of small uncouth-looking bridges. When these bridges had to be connected so as to form the summit of a continuous sewer, they presented every variety of arch, both at their outer and under sides; those too near the surface had to be lowered. Some of these sewers, however, were in the instances connected, despite difference of size and irregularity of form. The result may be judged from the account I have given of the strange construction of some of the sewers, under the head of "subterranean survey."

How modern the City sewers are may best be estimated from the following table of what may be called the dates of their construction. The periods are given decennially as to the progress of the formation of sewers:—

 1707 to 1717 . 2,805 
 1717 " 1727 . 2,110 
 1727 " 1737 . 2,763 
 1737 " 1747 . 1,238 
 1747 " 1757 . 3,736 
 1757 " 1767 . 3,736 
 1767 " 1777 . 7,597 
 1777 to 1787 . 8,693 
 1787 " 1797 . 3,118 
 1797 " 1807 . 5,116 
 1807 " 1817 . 5,097 
 1817 " 1827 . 7,847 
 1827 to 1837 . . . 39,072 feet. 
 1837 to 1847 . . . 88,363 " 

Thus the length made in the years previous to was more than double all that was made during the preceding years; while in the years from to , the addition to the lineal extent of sewerage was very nearly equal to all that had been made in years previously.

This addition of feet, or rather more than miles, seems but a small matter when "London" is thought of; but the reader must be reminded that only a small portion (comparatively) of the metropolis is here spoken of, and the entire length of the City sewerage, at the close of , was but miles; so that the additions I have specified as having been made since , were more than -half of the whole. The con- structions are not included in the metage I have given, for, as the new sewers generally occupied the same site as the old, they did not add to the length of the whole.

The total length of the City sewerage was, on the , no less than miles; while the entire public way was at the same recent period, miles (containing about separate and distinct streets, lanes, courts, alleys, &c., &c.); and I am assured that in another year or so, not a furlong of the whole City will be unsewered.

"The more ancient sewers usually have upright walls, a flat or slightly-curved invert, and a semicircular or gothic arch. The form of such as have been built apparently more than years ago, is that of semicircles, of which the upper has a greater radius, connected by sloping side walls; those of recent construction are egg-shaped. The main lines are not unfrequently elliptic; in the case of the Fleet, and other ancient affluents of the Thames, the forms and dimensions vary considerably. Instances occur of sewers built entirely of stone; but the material is almost invariably brick, most commonly inches in substance; the larger sewers , and sometimes inches.

The falls or inclinations in the course of the City sewerage vary greatly, as much as from in to in , or, in the case, from a fall of feet, in the latter, of course, to times such fall, or feet per mile. There are, moreover, a few cases in which the inclination is as small as in ; others where it is as high as in . This irregularity is to be accounted for, partly by the want of system in the old times, and partly from the natural levels of the ground. The want of system and the indifference shown to providing a proper fall, even where it was not difficult, was more excusable a few years back than it would be at the present time, for when some of these sewers were built, the drainage of the houserefuse into them was not contemplated.

The number of houses drained into the City sewers is, as precisely as such a matter can be ascertained, ; the number drained into the cesspools is . This shows a preponderance of drainage into the sewers of . The length of the house-drains in the City, at an average of feet to each house, may be estimated at upwards of miles. These City drains are included in the general computation of the metropolis.

The gully-drains in the City are more frequent than in other parts of the metropolis, owing to the


continual intersection of streets, &c., and perhaps from a closer care of the sewerage and all matters connected with it. The general average of the gully-drains I have shown to be for every mile of street. I am assured that in the City the street-drains may be safely estimated at to the mile. Estimating the streets gullied within the City, then, at an average of miles, or about a mile more than the sewers, the number of gullydrains is , and the length of them about miles; but these, like the house-drains, have been already included in the metropolitan enumeration.

The actual sum expended yearly upon the construction, and repairs, and improvements of the City sewers cannot be cited as a distinct item, because the Court makes the return of the aggregate annual expenditure, as regards pavement, cleansing, and the matters specified as the general expenditure under the Court of Commissioners of the City Sewers. The cost, however, of the construction of sewers comprised within the civic boundaries is included in the general metropolitan estimate before given.


[] Of the derivation of the word Sewer there have been many conjectures, but no approximation to the truth. One of the earliest instances I have met with of any detailed mention of sewers, is in an address delivered by a "Coroner," whose name does not appear, to "a jury of sewers." This address was delivered somewhere between the years 1660 and 1670. The coroner having first spoken of the importance of "Navigation and Drayning" (draining), then came to the question of sewers. Sewars," he said, "are to be accounted your grand Issuers of Water, from whence I conceive they carry their name (Sewars quasi Issuers). I shall take his opinion who delivers them to be Currents of Water, kept in on both sides with banks, and, in some sense, they may be called a certain kind of a little or small river. But as for the derivation of the word Sewar, from two of our English words, Sea and Were, or, as others will have it, Sea and Ward, give me leave, now I have mentioned it, to—leave it to your judgments. However, this word Sewar is very famous amongst us, both for giving the title of the Commission of Sewars itself, and for being the ordinary name of most of your common water-courses, for Drayning, and therefore, I presume, there are none of you of these juries but both know— 1. What Sewars signify, and also, in particular, 2. What they are; and of a thing so generally known, and of such general use. The Rev. Dr. Lemon, who gave the world a work on "English Etymology," from the Greek and Latin, and from the Saxon and Norman, was regarded as a high authority during the latter part of the last century, when his quarto first appeared. The following is his account, under the head "Sewers"— Skinn. rejects Minsh's. deriv. of 'olim scriptum fuisse seward à sea-ward, quod versus mare factæ sunt: longè verisimilius à Fr. Gall. eauier; sentina; incile, supple. aquarum:'—then why did not the Dr. trace this Fr. Gall. eauier? if he had, he would have found it distorted ab *(gdwr, aqua; sewers being a species of aqueduct:—Lye, in his Add., gives another deriv., viz. 'ab Iceland. sua, colare; ut existimo; ad quod referre vellem sewer; cloaca; per sordes urbis ejiciuntur:'—the very word sordes gives me a hint that sewer may be derived à '*sairw, vel *sarow, verro: nempe quia sordes, quæ everruntur è domo, in unum locum accumulantur; R. *swros, cumulus: Voss.'—a collection of sweepings, slop, dirt, &c. But these are the follies of learning. Had our lexicographers known that the vulgar were, as Dr. Latham says, "the conservators of the Saxon language" with us, they would have sought information from the word "shore," which the uneducated, and, consequently, unperverted, invariably use in the place of the more polite "sewer"—the common sewer is always termed by them "the common shore." Now the word shore, in Saxon, is written score and scor (for c = h), and means not only a bank, the land immediately next to the sea, but a score, a tally—for they are both substantives, made from the verb sceran (p. scear, scær, pp. scoren, gescoren), to shear, cut off, share, divide; and hence they meant, in the one case, the division of the land from the sea; and in the other, a division cut in a piece of wood, with a view to counting. The substantive scar has the same origin; as well as the verb to score, to cut, to gash. The Scandinavian cognates for the Saxon scor may be cited as proofs of what is here asserted. They are, Icel., skor, a notch; Swed., skâra, a notch; and Dan., skaar and skure, a notch, an incision. It would seem, therefore, that the word shore, in the sense of sewer (Dan., skure; Anglice, shure, for k = h), originally meant merely a score or incision made in the ground, a ditch sunk with the view of carrying off the refuse-water, a watercourse, and consequently a drain. A sewer is now a covered ditch, or channel for refuse water.

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 Title Page
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work