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The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis Paperback – Feb 1 2001
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.Read more ›
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.
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.