London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of "Flushing" and "Plonging," and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers.


THE next step in our inquiry—and that which at present concerns us more than any other—is the mode of removing the solid deposits from the sewers, as well as the condition of the workmen connected with that particular branch of labour. The sewers are the means by which a larger proportion of the wet refuse of the metropolis is removed from our houses, and we have now to consider the means by which the more solid part of this refuse is removed from the sewers themselves. The latter operation is quite as essential to health and cleanliness as the former; for to allow the filth to collect in the channels which are intended to remove it, and there to remain decomposing and vitiating the atmosphere of the metropolis, is manifestly as bad as not to remove it at all; and since the more solid portions of the sewage collect and form hard deposits at the bottom of each duct, it becomes necessary that some means should be devised for the periodical purgation of the sewers themselves.

There have been modes of effecting this object. The has been the away of the more solid refuse, and the other the of it away, or, as it is termed, in the case


of the sewers, and in the case of the ones. Under both systems, whether the refuse be carted or flushed away, the hard deposit has to be loosened by manual labourers—the difference consisting principally in the means of after-removal.

The of these systems—viz., the cartage method—was that which prevailed in the metropolis till the year . I shall therefore give a brief description of this mode of cleansing the sewers before proceeding to treat of the now more general mode of "flushing."

Under the old system, the clearing away of the deposit was a "nightman's" work, differing little, except in being more toilsome, offensive to the public, and difficult. A hole was made from the street down into the sewer where the deposit was thickest, and the deposit was raised by means of a tub, filled below, drawn up to the street, and emptied into a cart, or spread in mounds in the road to be shovelled into some vehicle. A nightman told me that this mode of work was sometimes a great injury to his trade, because "when it was begun on a night many of the householders sleeping in the neighbourhood used to say to themselves, or to their missusses, as they turned in their beds, 'It's them ere cussed cesspools again! I wish they was done away with.' An' all the time, sir, the cesspools was as hinnocent and as sweet as a hangel."

This clumsy and filthy process is now but occasionally resorted to. A man who had superintended a labour of this kind in a narrow, but busy thoroughfare in , told me that these sewer labourers were the worst abused men in London. No had a good word for them.

But there have been other modes of removing the indurated sewage, besides that of cartage; and which, though not exactly flushing, certainly consisted in allowing the deposit to be washed away. Some of these contrivances were curious enough.

I learn from a Report printed in , that the King's Scholars' Pond Sewer, in the city of , running near the Abbey, contained a continuous bed of deposit, of soil, sand, and filth, from to inches in depth, and this for a mile and a half next the river—the mile yielding more than loads of matter. This sewer was to be cleansed.

"We used a machine," says Mr. J. Lysander Hale, "in the form of a plough and harrow combined; a horse dragged it through the deposit in the sewer; man attended the horse, and another guided the plough. The work done by this machine, in cutting a channel through the soil and causing the water to move through it quickly, was effectual to remove the deposit; but as the sewer is a tidal sewer, and its sole entrance for a horse being its outlet, the machine could only be used for a small part of any day. Sometimes with a strong breeze up the river, the tide would not recede sufficiently to permit the horse to get in at all (and it did not appear advisable to incur the expense of to build a sideway entrance for the animal), so that under these circumstances we were obliged to discontinue the use of the horse and plough; which, under other circumstances, would have been very effective." From this time, I understand, the sewers of London have remained unploughed by means of horse labour.

But the plough was not altogether abandoned, and as horse-power was not found very easily applicable, water-power was resorted to. The plough and harrow were attached to a barge, which was introduced into the sewer. The sluice gates were kept shut until the ebb of the tide made the difference of level between the contents of the sewer and the surface of the Thames equal to some feet. "The gates were then suddenly opened, and the rapid and deep current of water following, was then sufficient to bring the barge and plough down the sewer with a force equal to or horse-power."

This last-mentioned method was also soon abandoned. We now come to the more approved plan of "flushing."

"The term ' sewers' implies," says Mr. Haywood, in his Report, "cleansing by the application of of water in the sewers; this is periodically effected, varying in intervals according to the necessities of the sewerage or other circumstances."

The flushing system has a -fold object, viz., to remove old deposits and prevent the accumulation of new. When the deposit is not allowed to accumulate and harden, "flushing consists," says Mr. Haywood, "simply in heading back and letting off " (hence the origin of the term) "that which has been delivered into the sewers in a certain number of hours by the various houses draining into them, diluted with large quantities of water specially employed for the purpose."

Though the operation of "flushing" is of modern introduction, as regards the metropolis— , indeed, which may be said to have originated in the modern demand for improved sanitary regulations—it has been practised in some country parts since the days of Henry VIII.

Flushing was practised also by those able engineers, the ancient Romans. of the grand architectural remains of that people, the best showing their system of flushing, is in the Amphitheatre at Nismes, in France. The site of the ruined amphitheatre presents a large elliptical area, superficial feet comprising its extent. Around the arena ran a large sewer feet inches in width, and feet inches in height. With this sewer, elliptical in shape, pipes communicated, carrying into it the rain-fall and the refuse caused by the resort of persons, for the seats alone contained that number. "The system of flushing, practised here," says Mr. Cresy, "with such advantage, deserves to be noticed, there being means of driving through this elliptical sewer a volume of water at pleasure, with such force that no solid matter could by any possibility remain within any of the drains or sewers. An aqueduct, feet inches in width, and feet in height, brought this water from the reservoirs of Nismes, not only to fill but to purge


the whole of these sewers; after traversing the arena, it deviated a little to the south-west, where it was carried out at the arcade, east of the southern entrance. Man-holes and steps to descend into this capacious vaulted aqueduct were introduced in several places; and there can be no doubt that by directing for some hours such a stream of water through it, the greatest cleanliness was preserved throughout all the sewers of the building."

The flushing of sewers appears to have been introduced into the metropolis by Mr. John Roe in the year , but did not come into general use till some years later. There used to be a partial flushing of the London sewers years ago. The mode of flushing as at present practised is as follows:—

In the instance the inspector examines and reports the condition of the sewer, and receives and issues his orders accordingly. When the sewer is ordered to be flushed—and there is no periodical or regular observance of time in the operation—the men enter the sewers and rake up the deposit, loosening it everywhere, so as to render the whole easy to be swept along by the power of the volume of water. The sewers generally are, in their widest part, provided with grooves, or, as the men style them, "framings." Into these framings are fitted, or permanently attached, what I heard described as "penstocks," but which are spoken of in some of the reports as "traps," "gates," or "sluice gates." They are made both of wood and iron. By a series of bolts and adjustments, the penstocks can be fixed ready for use when the tide is highest in the sewer, and the volume of water the greatest. They then, of course, are in the nature of dams, the water having accumulated in consequence of the stoppage. The deposit having been loosened, the bolts are withdrawn, when the gates suddenly fly back, and the accumulated water and stirred--up sewage sweeps along impetuously, while the men retreat into some side recesses adapted for the purpose. The same is done with each penstock until the matter is swept through the outlet. The men always follow the course of this sewage-current when the sewer is of sufficient capacity to enable them to do so, throwing or pushing forward any more solid matter with their shovels.

To flush we generally go and draw a slide up and let a flush of water down," said one man to me, "and then we have iron rakers to loosen the stuff. We have got another way that we do it as well; one man stands here, when the flush of water's coming down, with a large board; then he lets the water rise to the top of this board, and then there's two or three of us on ahead, with shovels, loosening the stuff—then he ups with this board and lets a good heavy flush of water come down. Precious hard work it is, I can assure you. I've had many a wet shirt. We stand up to our fork in the water, right to the top of our jack-boots, and sometimes over them." "Ah, I should think you often get over the top of yours, for you come home with your stockings wet enough, goodness knows," exclaimed his wife, who was present. "When there's a good flush of water coming down," he resumed, "we're obligated to put our heads fast up against the crown of the sewer, and bear upon our shovels, so that we may not be carried away, and taken bang into the Thames. You see there's nothing for us to lay hold on. Why, there was one chap went and lifted a slide right up, when he ought to have had it up only 9 or 10 inches at the furthest, and he nearly swamped three of us. If we should be taken off our legs there's a heavy fall—about 3 feet—just before you comes to the mouth of the sewer, and if we was to get there, the water is so rapid nothing could save us. When we goes to work we nails our lanterns up to the crown of the sewer. When the slide is lifted up the rush is very great, and takes all before it. It roars away like a wild beast. We're always obliged to work according to tide, both above and below ground. When we have got no water in the sewer we shovels the dirt up into a bank on both sides, so that when the flush of water comes down the loosened dirt is all carried away by it. After flushing, the bottom of the sewer is as clean as this floor, but in a couple of months the soil is a foot to 15 inches deep, and middling hard.

"Flushing-gates," an engineer has reported, "are chiefly of use in sewers badly constructed and without falls, but containing plenty of water; and they are of very little use where the gate has to be shut hours and longer, before a head of water has accumulated; but where intermittent flushing is practised, strong smells are often caused by the stagnation of the water or sewage while accumulating behind the gate."

The most general mode of flushing at present adopted is not to keep in the water, &c., which has flowed into the sewer from the streets and houses, as well as the tide of the river, but to convey the flushing water from the plugs of the water companies into the kennels, and so into the sewers. I find in of the Reports acknowledgments of the liberal supplies granted for flushing by the several companies. The water of the Surrey Canal has been placed, for the same object, at the disposal of the Sewer Commissioners.

It is impossible to "flush" at all where a sewer has a "dead-end;" that is, where there is a "block," as in the case of the Kenilworth-street sewer, , in which persons lost their lives in .

There is no difference in the system of flushing in the Metropolitan and City jurisdictions, except that for the greater facilities of the process, the City provides water-tanks in Newgate-market, where the heads of sewers meet, and where the accumulation of animal garbage, and the fierceness and numbers of the rats attracted thereby, were at time frightful; at Leadenhall-market, and elsewhere, such tanks were also provided to the number of , the largest being the Newgate-market tank, which is a brick cistern of gallons capacity. Of these tanks, however, only are now kept filled, for this collection of water is found unnecessary, the regular


system of flushing answering the purpose without them; and I understand that in a little time there will be no tanks at all. The tank is filled, when required, by a water company, and the penstocks being opened, the water rushes into the sewers with great force. There is also another point peculiar to the City—in it all the sewers are flushed regularly twice a week; in the metropolitan sewers, only when the inspector pronounces flushing to be required. The City plan appears the best to prevent the accumulation of deposit.

There still remains to be described the system of "," or mode of cleansing the open sewers, as contradistinguished from "," or the cleansing of the covered sewers.

When we go plonging," one man said, "we has long poles with a piece of wood at the end of them, and we stirs up the mud at the bottom of the ditches while the tide's a going down. We has got slides at the end of the ditches, and we pulls these up and lets out the water, mud, and all, into the Thames." "Yes, for the people to drink," said a companion drily. "We're in the water a great deal," continued the man. "We can't walk along the sides of all of 'em.

The difference of cost between the old method of removal and the new, that is to say, between carting and flushing, is very extraordinary.

This cartage work was done chiefly by contract and according to a Report of the surveyors to the Commissioners (), the usual cost for such work (almost always done during the night) was the cubic yard; that is, for the removal of a cubic yard of sewage by manual labour and horse and cart. In (the date of another Report on the subject), the cost of removing a cubic yard by the operation of flushing, was but This gives the following result, but in what particular time, instance, or locality, is not mentioned:—

 79,483 cubic yards of deposit removed by the contract flushing system, at 8d. per cubic yard . . . . . £ 2,649 
 Same quantity by the old system of casting and cartage, 7s. per cubic yard . 27,819 
 Difference . . . £ 25,170 

It appears, therefore," says Mr. Lovick, "that by the adoption of the contract flushing system, a saving has been effected within the comparatively short period of its operation over the filthy and clumsy system formerly practised, of 25,170l., showing the cost of this system to be ten and a half times greater than the cost of flushing by contract.

An official Report states: "When the accumulations of years had to be removed from the sewers, the rate of cost per lineal mile has varied from about to , or from to per lineal yard. The works in these cases (excepting those in the City) have not exceeded lineal miles."

"On an average of weeks," says Mr. Lovick, in his Report on flushing operations, a few months after the introduction of the contract system, in , "under present arrangements, about miles of sewers are passed through each week, and deposit prevented from accumulating in them by periodic (weekly) flushing. The average cost per lineal mile per week is about

"The nature of the agreements with the contractors or gangers are now for the prevention of accumulations of deposit in a district. For this purpose the large districts are subdivided, each subdivision being let to man. In the district there are , in the and Finsbury , in the Surrey and Kent, subdivisions.

The Tower Hamlets and Poplar districts are each let to man.

In the Tower Hamlets it will be perceived that a reduction of has been effected for the performance of precisely the same work as that heretofore performed; the rates of charge standing thus:—

 "Under the day-work system 23l. per week. 
 " contract " 15l. " 

In those portions specially contracted for, the work has been let by the lineal measure of the sewer, in preference to the amount of deposit removed.

In the Surrey and Kent districts the open ditches have been cleansed thrice as often as formerly.

A large proportion of the deposit removed is from the open ditches; in these the accumulations are rapid and continuous, caused chiefly by their being the receptacles for the ashes and refuse of the houses, the refuse of manufactories, and the sweepings of the roads.

In the covered sewers of the chief sources of accumulation is the detritus and mud from the streets, swept into the sewers.

The accumulations from these sources will not, I think, be over-estimated at -thirds of the whole amount of deposit removed.

The contracts in operation, , with the districts which they embrace, are as follows:—

"table No. I.
 Districts. Sewers let for Prevention of Accumulations of Deposit. Average Rate of Work performed in Sewers passed through each Week. Contract Charge per Week. 
   Lineal Feet. Lineal Feet. £ s. d. 
 Westminster ...... 485,795 150,615 40 0 0 
 Holborn & Finsbury 355,085 118,000 23 0 0 
 Tower Hamlets .... 223,738 30,000 15 0 0 
 Surrey and Kent .. 440,642 40,000 75 0 0 
 Poplar ............ 26,000 2,000 6 16 0 
   1,531,260 340,615 159 16 0 
 Westminster—Attendance on Flaps, &c. .... 4 0 0 
       £ 163 16 0 

The weekly cost prior to the contract system was in the several districts as follows:—


"table No. II.
     £ s. d. 
 In the Westminster District .............. 78 10 0 
 " Holborn and Finsbury do........... 24 17 0 
 " Tower Hamlets do. ................ 23 0 0 
 " Surrey and Kent do................. 56 8 0 
 " Poplar do. ........................ 6 13 0 
     189 8 0 

Hence there would appear to have been a saving of effected. But by what means was this brought about? It is the old story, I regret to say — a reduction of the wages of the labouring men. But this, indeed, is the invariable effect of the contract system. The wages of the flushermen previous to , were to a week; under the present system they are to Here is a reduction of per week per man, at the least; and as there were about hands employed at this period, it follows that the gross weekly saving must have been equal to , so that, according to the above account, there would have been about left for the contractors or middlemen. It is unworthy of to make a parade of economy obtained by such ignoble means.

The engineers, however, speak of flushing as what is popularly understood as but "a makeshift"—as a system imperfect in itself, but advantageously resorted to because obviating the evils of a worse system still.

With respect to these operations," says Mr. Lovick, in a Report on the subject, in February, 1849, "I may be permitted to state that, although I do not approve of the flushing as an ultimate system, or as a system to be adopted in the future permanent works of sewerage, or that its use should be contemplated with regulated sizes of sewers, regulated supplies of water, and proper falls, it appears to be the most efficacious and economical for the purpose to which it is adapted of any yet introduced.

A gentleman who was at time connected professionally with the management of the public sewerage, said to me,—

Mr. John Roe commenced the general system of flushing sewers in London in 1847. It is, however, but a clumsy expedient, and quite incompatible with a perfect system of sewerage. It has, nevertheless, been usefully applied as an auxiliary to the existing system, though the cost is frightful.

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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