The advancement of public sanitation systems—such as garbage and recycling—have helped to reduce disease and make cities cleaner. Such public health improvements have just as much to do with the advancement of technology as they do with the application of law. The story of London’s sewers illustrates this well.
London’s earliest-known toilets date back to the mid-eleventh century. Simple tunnels drained into water flow-throughs below residences. These toilets were called “garderobes.”The name translates as “guarding one’s robes” and is believed to have originated from the practice of hanging one’s wardrobe in the toilet shaft because ammonia from urine would kill fleas. By the 1200s, many of the extremely well-to-do in London had elaborately-constructed garderobes.
For those without a garderobe—and there were many—other forms of medieval toilets existed. Private and public latrines were built over running streams and moats. As well, the cellars of many homes had cesspools with a latrine built overtop. The cesspools were periodically cleaned out, with the waste sold to farmers for fertilizer.
Other people used chamber pots. The pot’s contents were tossed into street gutters. Because the gutters did not always flow well, the person whose residence abutted the gutter was responsible for keeping the gutter clean and clearing out any clogs.
The end-destination of all of London’s waste was the River Thames. With the river filled with garbage and human waste, most Londoners used well water for drinking.
Because the polluted streets and waterways created environmental concerns, laws were needed to preserve London’s public health and cleanliness. By 1347, a concerned King Edward III forbade anyone from throwing rubbish or human waste into the city’s streams and rivers. Instead, such filth was to be hauled out of the city by street cleaners called “muckrakers.”
Attitudes and laws about dumping waste in London’s waterways changed as years passed. In 1383, latrines—but not garbage—could again be dumped into the Thames and its feeder streams. But banishment returned in the mid-1400s. Latrines over the Walbrook and the Fleet, two of the Thames’ feeder rivers, were restricted.
By 1531, London’s growth in population required more drastic action. In response King Henry VIII put forth a Bill of Sewers. The bill was a major coordinated effort to construct and regulate underground pathways for London’s waste.
By the early 1800s, London had a somewhat organized public sewer system. However, the system suffered two major problems. The first problem was that the sewers were primarily meant for rainwater. Household waste was not yet linked to the city’s sewer system. The second problem was a lack of coordination. London had no true central government, leaving parishes and boards to oversee each neighbourhood’s sewer.
Meanwhile, strict restrictions on dumping into rivers drove up the need for cesspools. By 1810, London had over 200,000 cesspools for its population of just over one million. The contents of these pools leeched into the ground water, spreading diseases such as cholera. It has been said that the “sparkling wells” of the city were sparkling because of the presence of ammonia and other organic materials from waste.
By 1850, London was in the throes of great change. Its population hit two million. The flush toilet or “water closet” went from niche item to commonplace. And the agricultural market for cesspool waste collapsed. As a result, legislation was put in place requiring homes to be connected to sewers. But with all this waste draining into the River Thames, disaster was brewing. When the thermometer rose in the summer of 1858, the stench from the Thames made London unbearable. Thus began The Great Stink.
So bad was the smell, the Palace of Westminster—the riverside meeting place of the United Kingdom government—was virtually uninhabitable. Members of Parliament were seen rushing out of the legislative chamber holding handkerchiefs over their noses. Curtains were soaked in lime chloride to absorb the foul stench blowing in. With legislators now suffering first-hand, something was about to be done.
What London required was a centralized and orderly sewer system capable of moving its sewage out of the city and closer to sea. Unfortunately, what London had was a sewer system controlled by 1,000 commissioners from various neighbourhood authorities.
The United Kingdom’s Parliament concluded that a central government had to be given authority to build an integrated sewer system. The Metropolitan Board of Works, a central public works board with elected members from each area of the city, was created by Parliament to rebuild London’s sewer system. The new sewer system would discharge London’s waste downstream from the city and closer to the ocean. This, it was hoped, would abate The Great Stink.
Opposition to the Metropolitan Board of Works was rampant. When the idea was first proposed, many were concerned that a central authority of public works undermined the authority of local government. Some opponents even speculated that the Board was the end of government accountability to the people.
Despite criticisms, the Board took office. When it was given authority to construct a central sewage system, its opposition changed tacts. They now argued that flushing sewage out of London interfered with, as Prime Minister Lord John Russel put it, “individual will and freedom from control.” The British magazine The Economist also believed that cleansing London of sewage was a responsibility for individuals and not the government. They editorialized that:
“Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions; they cannot be got rid of; and the impartial attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.”
In the end, good sense trumped arguments of individualism. London’s Metropolitan Board of Works was entrusted with constructing a central sewage system.
By 1870, London’s new sewage system was discharging the city’s waste outside the city limits. The most obvious effect was the elimination of stench coming from the River Thames. More importantly, the efficient removal of sewage from London eliminated many water-borne diseases such as cholera.
In retrospect, even those who opposed the sewer were still winners. The construction of London’s central sewage system improved the environment and freed all Londoners from many diseases. In fact, it has been said that John Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the system, probably “saved more lives than any single Victorian public official” due to the public health benefits of an integrated and effective sewer system. The laws and regulations that created London’s public sewer system allowed for the resolution of centuries of sanitation issues. Thus, the law achieved one of its purposes: protecting citizens.