London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions.

THE Corporation of the City of London may be regarded as the Commission of Sewers in the exercise of authority over such places as regards the removal of the filth of towns. In time, but at what time there is no account, the business was consigned to the management of a committee, as are now the markets of the City (Markets Committee), and even what may be called the management of the Thames (Navigation Committee). It is not at all necessary that the members of these committees should understand anything about the matters upon which they have to determine. A staff of officers, clerks, secretaries, solicitors, and surveyors, save the members the trouble of thought or inquiry; they have merely to vote and determine. It was stated in evidence before a Select Committee of the on the subject of the Thames steamers, that at that period the Chairman of the Committee was a bread and biscuit baker, but "a very-firm-minded man." In time, but again I can find no note of the precise date, the became a of Sewers, and so it remains to the present time. Commissions of sewers have been issued by the Crown since the year of the reign of Henry VIII., except during the era of the Commonwealth, when there seems to have been no attention paid to the matter.

As the metropolis increased rapidly in size since the close of the last century, the public sewers of course increased in proportion, and so did Commissions of Sewers in the newly-built districts. Up to these Commissions or Court of Sewers were in number, the metropolis being divided into that number of districts.

The districts were as follows:—

. The City.

. The Tower Hamlets.

. St. Katherine.

. Poplar and .

. and Finsbury.

. and part of Middlesex.

. Surrey and Kent.

. Greenwich.

Each of these Commissions had its own Act of Parliament; its own distinct, often irregular


and generally uncontrolled plan of management; each had its own officers; and each had its own patronage. Each district court—with almost unlimited powers of taxation—pursued its own plans of sewerage, little regardful of the plans of its neighbour Commission. This wretched system— the great recommendation of which, to its promoters and supporters, seems to have been patronage —has given us a sewerage unconnected and varying to the present day in almost every district; varying in the dimensions, form, and inclination of the structures.

The commission districts, I may observe, had each their sub-districts, though the general control was in the hands of the particular Court or Board of Commissioners for the entire locality. These subdivisions were chiefly for the facilities of rate-collecting, and were usually "western," "eastern," and "central."

The consequence of this immethodical system has been that, until the surveys and works now in progress are completed, the precise character, and even the precise length, of the sewers must be unknown, though a sufficient approximation may be deduced in the interim.

To show the conflicting character of the sewerage, I may here observe that in some of the old sewers have been found walls and arches crumbling to pieces. Some old sewers were found to be not only of ample proportions, but to contain subterranean chambers, not to say halls, filled with filth, into which no man could venture. While in a sewer in the newly-built district of St. John'swood, Mr. Morton, the Clerk of Works, could only advance stooping half double, could not turn round when he had completed his examination, but had most painfully—for a long time feeling the effects—to back out along the sewer, stooping, or doubled up, as he entered it. Why the sewer was constructed in this manner is not stated, but the work appears, inferentially, to have been , which, had there been a proper supervision, could hardly have been done with a modern public sewer, down a thoroughfare of some length (the Woronzow-road).

But the conflicting and disjointed system of sewerage was not the sole evil of the various Commissions. The mismanagement and jobbery, not to say peculation, of the public moneys, appear to have been enormous. For instance, in the "Accountant's Report" (), prepared by Mr. W. H. Grey, , Lincoln's-inn-fields, I find the following statements relative to the of the several Commissions:—

The Westminster plan is full of unnecessary repetition. It is deficient in those real general accounts which concentrate the information most needed by the Commissioners, and it contains fictions which are very inconsistent with any sound system of book-keeping.

The ledger of the Westminster Commission does not give a true account of the actual receipt and expenditure of each district.

The Holborn and Finsbury books are still more defective than those of the Westminster Commission. . . . . . There are the same kind of fictions. . . . . . But the extraordinary defect in these books consists in the utter want of system throughout them, by keeping one-sided accounts only in the ledger, with respect to the different sewers in each district, showing only the amount expended on each.

The Tower Hamlets books have been kept on a regular system, though by no means one conveying much general information.

"With respect to the accounts," says Mr. Grey, "the books produced are the most incomplete and unsatisfactory that ever came under my observation. The ledger is always thought to be a in book-keeping; but here it has been dispensed with altogether, for that which is so marked is no ledger at all."

Under these circumstances, the Report continues, "It cannot be wondered at that debts should have been incurred, or that they should have swollen to the amount of , carrying a yearly interest of , besides annuities granted to the amount of a year.

The Poplar and Greenwich accounts (I quote the official Report), confined as they are to mere cash books, offer no subjects for remark. . . . . . .

No books of account have been produced with respect to the St. Katherine's Commission.

On the , the new Commissioners ordered all the books to be sent to the office in ; but it was not until the , that all the minute-books were produced. There were no indexes for many years even to the proceedings of the Courts; and the account-books of of the local Courts, if they might be so called, were in such a state that the book called "ledger" had for several years been cast up in pencil only.

This refers to what may be characterised, with more or less propriety, as or though in such mismanagement it is hardly possible to escape inference. I now come to what are direct imputations of , and where is flourishing or easy, no system can be other than vicious.

In a paper "printed for use of Commissioners" (), entitled "Draft Report on the Surrey Accounts," emanating from a "General Purposes' Committee," I find the following, concerning the parliamentary expenses of obtaining an Act which it was "found necessary to repeal." The cost was, altogether, upwards of , which of course had to be defrayed out of the taxes.

"This Act," says the Report, "authorized an almost unlimited borrowing of money; and , in , notices were issued for works estimated to amount to ; and others, we understand, were projected for early execution to the amount of ..... Considering the general character of the works executed, and from them judging of those projected, it may confidently be averred that the of , the progressive expenditure of which was stayed by the 'supersedeas' of the old Commission, would have been " [The are not those of the Reports.]



The Report continues, "It is to be observed that each of the district surveyors would have participated in the sum of percentage on the expenditure for the extension of the Surrey works. Thus the surveyors, with their percentages on the works executed, and the clerk, by the fees on contracts, &c., had "

Instances of the same dishonest kind might be multiplied to almost any extent.

After the above evidences of the incompetency and dishonesty of the several district Commissions —and the Reports from which they are copied contain many more examples of a similar and even worse description—it is not to be wondered at that in the year the district courts were, with the exception of the City, superseded by the authority of the Crown, and formed into body, the present Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, of the constitution and powers of which I shall now proceed to speak.

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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