on December 25, 2007
This is quite an extraordinary book on many levels. Born in London in 1934, from the age of 6, I lugged my bicycle up and over the steps of the green embankment which separated my school from my home only half a mile away, never knowing what history I was walking over, and how lucky I was to be able to drink clear safe water from the tap in my house.
At times the book read like an exciting whodunnit, with the good guys and the bad guys fighting it out until Gladstone circumvented democracy and made the unilateral decision that water poisoning was the cause of the repetitive outbreaks of cholera, not the air vapors of the Florence Nightingale group.
On another level it is an excellent, readable history of London and its influence around the world in the 19th century, lavishly illustrated with pen and ink etchings of the great inventors of the century and persons of importance, concise autobiographies, providing a useful reference book with quick retrieval later on.
The remarkable engineering achievements and their description for the lay person are only part of the books elegance. At age 73, an immigrant in Canada, I would like nothing more than to go back for a holiday, this book in hand, and visit all the sights where Bazalgette left his mark, all still in remarkable good condition. Alas, I am now too disabled.
The steps up the green embankment are still there, I have a photograph taken last year by my sister. Part of it has been turned into a cycle path called the Greenway and part an artificial ski slope quite close to my home which I found on the excellent map of the tunnel system supplied in the book.
This book has merit for all ages, it is easy to skip the parts one does not find interesting but better to leave them in to complete the work, as in any good reference book.
on May 17, 2001
Halliday's book tells the story of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works (London's first metropolitan government) from 1856 to 1889.
His greatest achievement was building for London a sanitation system of unprecedented scale and complexity. Throughout history, the main cause of death has been the contamination of drinking water by sewage. In particular, cholera spread when the faeces of sufferers contaminated drinking water: cholera epidemics in London killed 6,536 people in 1831-32, 14,137 in 1848-49, and 10,738 in 1853-54.
In the long hot summer of 1858, the stench from rotting sewage in the Thames drove MPs from Westminster. The 'Great Stink' forced them, belatedly, to act. Bazalgette was charged with building a system to prevent sewage getting into Londoners' drinking water, which he did. The 1866 cholera epidemic killed 5,596 people in the East End, the sole part of London that had not yet been protected by Bazalgette's intercepting system. After the system was completed, cholera would never again kill Londoners. Bazalgette had turned the Thames from the filthiest to the cleanest metropolitan river in the world and added some twenty years to Londoners' lives.
But this was not Bazalgette's only success. He constructed the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments, where he introduced the use of Portland cement. He laid out Shaftesbury Avenue, Northumberland Avenue, Charing Cross Road, the Embankment Gardens, Battersea Park and Clapham Common. He built the bridges at Hammersmith, Putney and Battersea. He introduced the Woolwich Free Ferry and designed the Blackwall Tunnel.
In 1889, the London County Council replaced the Board: Bazalgette's successes had proven the value of local government for great cities. Roy Porter wrote that Bazalgette stands with Wren and Nash 'as one of London's noblest builders'. John Doxat wrote, "this superb and farsighted engineer probably did more good, and saved more lives, than any single Victorian public official."
on July 6, 2000
If anyone thinks the social, environmental and health problems we face today are daunting, they should read this book. The descriptions of life in London before the construction of a sewage system make facinating, if terrifying, reading.
The good thing about this book is that is is basically a very easy read. Although it is about a civil engineer, and although it concentrates very much on the engineering aspects of Bazalgette's life, it is entirely non-technical and an excellent choice for the general reader. Anyone with a general interest in public health, Victorian London, urban development or municipal politics will find it easy to read and a good starting point for further reading or research.
One of the points which comes out of the book is how slow public health reforms are to come about - you have to kick up a pretty big stink before anything happens. Bazalgette was more of a provider of solutions than a public health campaigner, but none the less admirable for that.
Today public building in London seems to be a race between Norman Foster and Richard Rogers - I was astonished to learn how many buildings, bridged and other projects in modern London were Bazalgette'. He was a busy and capable man, and his life is a very interesting read.
on November 11, 2001
A fascinating story and worthy tribute to Joseph Bazalgette, an underappreciated Victorina-era engineer responsible not only for designing and overseeing the construction of London's huge sanitary sewer system, but also the construction of Victoria, Chelsea and Albert Embankments, forever changing the face and character of central London. We take so much of our modern cities for granted, not realizing that entire rivers are flowing under the streets, blissfully unaware of the level of vision and committment required to create an infrastructure that provides health and convenience.
The writing style is breezy and lucid, although the author has a distracting habit of repetition. Certain factoids, such as "the embankments reclaimed 52 acres of land" are repeated over and over again, and several favorite quotes are repeated at least 3 times.
I won't ever look at a modern city the same way.
on October 12, 2000
While the title implies the book's focus will be London's "Great Stink" of 1858, it is in fact a short biography of the eminent Victorian civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Less remembered than his fellow engineers Isambard Brunel or Robert Stephenson, Bazalgette was the Chief Engineer of London's Metropolitan Board of Works for some 30 years.
During his tenure, he oversaw the construction of the great intercepting sewers of London which effectively removed the recurring threat of cholera from the city even before that disease's transmission mechanism was fully understood. In addition, the great Embankments along the Thames were designed and built by Bazalgette which make the modern waterfront as we know it today. He also built three bridges still standing across the Thames and designed many of the modern thoroughfares of London.
This book focuses on the long political battles waged in Parliament, the press, and within the City itself to solve the massive problem of human waste disposal in the world's largest western metropolis of the day. Although ostensibly about a civil engineer, there is not much engineering in the book - making it highly accessible to the layperson. Copious contemporary illustrations out of "Punch" and the "Illustrated London News" along with lengthy quotations from "The Times" make the Victorians' view of this smelly problem come to life. It's fortunate that this is not a scratch-and-sniff book.
The main chapters include those devoted to the invention of the water closet (a sewage nightmare), cholera and sanitation, and the building of the embankments. Throughout the book, small sidebars give potted biographies of key players and interested parties of the day such as Dickens, W.H. Smith, Gladstone, Dr. John Snow, and others. These are great little tidbits on the people featured in the main narrative and they are liberally sprinkled with caricatures from "Spy".
The book does touch on Bazalgette's early endorsement and use of Portland cement as a technical innovation as well as the quality assurance testing techniques that he enforced during his projects. So engineer, take heart! There are interesting bits for you as well.
If dark places under the heart of the metropolis is your area of interest, see also "London Under London" by Richard Trench & Ellis Hillman for sewers, the Tube, and more subterranean passages. And if you simply must have olfactory re-enforcement to imagine the past, try "Victorian Vapours" by Mary J. Dobson.