British Isles

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The Orkney Islands are the location of excavations that show drainage systems dating as early as 3000 BCE. Lavatory-like plumbing systems were fitted into recesses in the walls of homes, with drained outlets, and certain liquid wastes were drained to area(s) either under or outside of buildings/homes. (See Photos Section.)

London's early sewers were basically open ditches sloped to convey the wastes to the Thames River, thence out to the sea. These ditches received everything that people could throw into them. King Henry VIII decreed in the late 1500s that homeowners were responsible for cleaning that portion of the "sewer" on which their property fronted. He also created a Commission of Sewers to enforce these rules.

A law was passed during the reign of Henry VIII (in the mid to late1500s) that afforded the legal basis for almost all sanitary sewerage works well into the nineteenth century. For the next 300 years, the metropolitan area outgrew the city limits of London. By 1850, London contained only 5% of the metro area's homes. Each community evolved its own drainage system -- with no thought (physically or cooperatively) to interconnecting with an adjacent community's drainage system.

By the early 1700s, nearly every home in London had a cesspit beneath it -- and the commensurate foul (and often deadly) odors. The odors were especially bad during quiet nights. Cholera epidemics (1830s, 1840s, and 1850s) awakened the need for sewers.

In 1847-48, the British Parliament adopted a sanitary code that applied to all of England and Wales -- but not London. The sewer commissioners heard about attributes of the sewerage systems developed by their ancestors on the Isle of Crete and in Greece; those systems served as examples for the designers of the new sewers soon to come in the London area. The years of the "Big Stink" in London (1858 - 59), led to the installation of large new sewers to deliver wastes to the Thames River -- this time, to a discharge point downstream of the Parliament Buildings! Queen Victoria was so excited about the new larger sewer tunnels that she ordered a small rail line to be installed therein to transport people through the sewer.

See Tracking Down the Roots of Our Sanitary Sewers for more information.

For Reference

For extensive information about Victorian London, see the comprehensive website at There is a large section about Sewers and Sanitation under "Health and Hygiene," and materials can be found under "Diseases" (cholera and typhus) and by searching "sewer". This website provides a graphic look, in the words and pictures of the time, into the horrible conditions that preceded modern sanitation. A huge thanks goes to Lee Jackson, the creator of the website, for this impressive collection of original materials.

Water-related Infrastructure in Medieval London (pdf). This extensive article includes a section about wastewater systems.

Ernest L. Sabine, Latrines and Cesspools of Mediaeval London (pdf).

Article in Slate online magazine about the sewers of London. "...Joseph Bazalgette is still the emperor of London's sewers, even though 150 years have passed since he was tasked with revolutionizing them, thus ridding the city of cholera and foul smells..." ( html version avail if article is offline)

There is a story that the Bank of England once had a sewer directly under its bullion vault. A sewer worker discovered an opening into the vault, but stole nothing -- and was rewarded for his honesty. A film called "The Day They Robbed the Bank of England" was loosely based on the existence of the sewer entrance.

  • Accessed at, 9-10-2007. If site is offline, see here.

Joseph Bazalgette was the prime architect of London's sewer system, built in the mid-1800s.

John Snow Archive and Research Companion for literature, graphics and information about John Snow and the struggle to end cholera in London. Also see the UCLA John Snow webpage.

School of Civil Engineering (University of Leeds) history website for links and information about disease and sanitation.

Delivery of water and sanitation services to the poor in nineteenth century Britain.

The Sewers of Brighton, England

The Story of Sewerage in Leeds, England (can be accessed locally also), and Hidden Leeds

Sewerage in Nottingham


"Life in the Sewers," The Living Age, Volume 5, Issue 48 (April 12, 1845) - reprint from the original article about sewer scavengers in England.

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Joseph Bazalgette, "On the Main Drainage of London," March 14, 1865

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From University of Leeds website.

George E. Waring, Jr., "Chapter XI: House Drainage and Town Sewerage in Their Relations to the Public Health," Draining for Profit and Draining for Health (New York: Orange Judd & Co., 1867), pp. 222-239.

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Zerah Colburn and William H. Maw, The Waterworks of London (Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, Industrial Publisher, 1868). Scanned by Google Books.

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C. G. Force, Jr., "Design and Construction Table for Egg-shaped Sewers," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Volume IX (May 1880), pp. 202-205.

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Edward S. Philbrick, American Sanitary Engineering (New York: The Sanitary Engineer, 1881), pp. 53-66, 82-89.

Lecture IV: "The Drainage of Towns" (pp. 53-66)
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Lecture VII: "The Ventilation and Cleaning of Sewers" (pp. 82-89)
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See Design - before 1900 for other lectures from this book.

Samuel M. Gray, Proposed Plan for a Sewerage System, and for the Disposal of the Sewage of the City of Providence (Providence: Providence Press Company, Printers to the City, 1884), Appendix A, pp. 3-116 and Plates I - XVI and XXIII.

Table of Contents
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"Public Latrines in London," Engineering News and American Railway Journal, 31 May 1894.

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Colonel E. C. S. Moore, "Introduction, Chapter I, Chapter II, Chapter III," Sanitary Engineering, Volume I, 3rd Edition revised by E. J. Silcock (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1909), pp. 1-69.

This reference work includes a large number of examples from England.

"Introduction" (pp. 1-4)
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Chapter I: "Conservancy Systems" (pp. 5-15)
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Chapter II: "Sewerage" (pp. 16-51)
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Chapter III: "Sewage Lifting" (pp. 52-69)
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Henry Lemmoin-Cannon, Sewage Disposal in the United Kingdom (London: St. Bride's Press, Limited, 1912). Digitized by Google Books, thanks to Tom Bates for locating and contributing this book.

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Isaac Shone, The Evolution of Greater Britains's Antiseptic House & Town Sewage-Drainage Systems of the Twentieth Century (London: E. & F. N. Spon, Ltd), 1914.

This book is largely an advertisement for the author's Shone system, which he counterposes to various hazardous sewer designs.

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Leonard Metcalf and Harrison P. Eddy, "Introduction: The Lessons Taught by Early Sewerage Works," American Sewerage Practice, First Edition, McGraw-Hill (New York 1914), pp. 1-31.

Discusses early design in England and the United States.

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F. E. Turneaure and H. L. Russell, Public Water-Supplies - Requirements, Resources, and the Construction of Works (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1916), pp. 1-3, 5, 7-14.

See pages 9-10 for section on England.

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Sir George W. Humphreys, Main Drainage of London (London: London County Council, November, 1930), pp. 1-54. Courtesy of James Joyce, P.E., Technical Director, Odor and Corrosion Technology Consultants, Inc., Houston, Texas.

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Plan no. 2 (jpeg file - 363K)
Plan no. 3 (jpeg file - 901K)

Harold Farnsworth Gray, "Sewerage in Ancient and Medieval Times," Sewage Works Journal, Volume 12, No. 5 (Sept. 1940), pp. 939 - 946. Reprinted with permission from Sewage Works Journal. Copyright 1940 Water Environment Federation, Alexandria, VA.

See pages 943-946 for section on England.

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"London's Main Drainage System," Greater London Council, Department of Public Health Engineering, June 1972. Courtesy of James Joyce, P.E., Technical Director, Odor and Corrosion Technology Consultants, Inc., Houston, Texas.

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