British Isles (1)
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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.

The Roman occupation of England brought Roman engineering -- and baths -- to England. The ruins of many Roman settlements include this quintessentially Roman invention. The Romans built an extensive complex at Aquae Sulis (Bath) around the natural spring, which they considered sacred. The magificent bath-house, still beautifully preserved, was visited by people from all over the Roman Empire. When the Romans withdrew from England, this technology was largely abandoned and English sanitation fell to the abysmal levels typical of the Middle Ages.

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.

   


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Orkney Islands

Skara Brae house site, Orkney Islands. There is evidence that water was piped under the settlement, possibly for sanitation. Several settlements were built on the same site, dating from about 3000 BC.

Source: Photo courtesy Diego Meozzi / Stone Pages

Gurness broch, Orkney Islands, circa 1st century BCE. The broch had a flight of steps leading down from the courtyard to a spring-fed underground water tank.

Source: Photo courtesy Diego Meozzi / Stone Pages

Earth house in Rennibister, Orkney Islands.

Source: Photo courtesy Diego Meozzi / Stone Pages

Scotland

Hollowed wood log pipes in the Museum of Edinburgh, Scotland. Hollowed-out tree trunks were the earliest sewer disposal method used in the city, according to the Museum. Date unknown.

Source: Frans Lamers, Costa Rica.

England

Also on Sewer History

See Diseases and Disease Control.

For
Reference

The Roman occupation of England created a number of settlements built with Roman technology, including baths. Aquae Sulis, at the location of the modern city of Bath, included an extensive religious spa built around the natural springs. It is now one of the best preserved Roman ruins north of the Alps. See the Roman Baths Website.

David Sellers, B.Sc(Eng), C.Eng., MICE, HIDDEN BENEATH OUR FEET: The Story of Sewerage in Leeds, October 1997.

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

Caldarium from the Roman baths at Bath, England. The floor has been removed to reveal the empty space through which the hot air used to flow to heat the floor tiles.

Source: Akajune/Wikimedia Commons.

Great Bath at the Roman baths, Aquae Sulis (Bath).

Source: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia Commons.

The 'sacred pool' of Sulis at the Roman baths of Aquae Sulis is the source of the geothermal spring where the hot water rises before being channelled to feed the other bathing rooms.

Source: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia Commons.

Section of mosaic floor from the Roman baths at Aquae Sulis (Bath). The main figure is a sea horse.

Source: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia Commons.

Roman brick channel for the overflow from the sacred spring of Aquea Sulis (Bath).

Source: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia Commons.

The Great Bath at the Roman baths of Aquae Sulis (Bath).

Source: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons.

Lead pipe in Roman bath in Aquae Sulis (Bath).

Source: Zureks/Wikimedia Commons.

The remains of the Roman public baths in Leicester, England, at the site of Jewry Wall. At the right is the wall itself which used to be the entrance. The baths date from around 150 AD.

The Roman city of Ratae Corieltauvorum was founded around AD 50 as a military settlement upon the Fosse Way Roman road. After the military departure, Ratae Corieltauvorum grew into an important trading and one of the largest towns in Roman Britain. The remains of the baths of Roman Leicester can be seen at the Jewry Wall and other Roman artefacts are displayed in the Jewry Wall Museum adjacent to the site.

Source: Maksim/Wikimedia Commons

Military bathhouse at Vindolanda, England.

Vindolanda was a Roman auxiliary fort (castra) located at Chesterholm, just south of Hadrian's Wall in northern England, near the modern border with Scotland.

Source: Tivedshambo/Wikimedia Commons.

Ruin of the bath house at Cilurnum, a fort on Hadrian's Wall, now identified with the fort found at Chesters (also known as Walwick Chesters to distinguish it from other Chesters-es in the vicinity). It was built in 123, just after the Wall's completion, and is now the best preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain. There is also a museum on the site housing finds from all along the Wall.

Source: SeeSchloss/Wikimedia Commons.

The Welwyn Roman baths are a small part of the Dicket Mead villa, a Roman ruin which was originally built in the 3rd century AD just north of modern-day Welwyn, Hertfordshire. The ruins were uncovered in 1960 by local archaeologist Tony Rook, and the baths were gradually uncovered over the following 10 years by excavation.

Source: Legis/Wikimedia Commons.

London (and related information)

For
Reference

For extensive information about Victorian London, see the comprehensive website at www.victorianlondon.org. 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 http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/museum/walkthrough/stories3.htm, 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.

For a unique look into London sewers, see photos by Steve Duncan of the Fleet Steet River/sewer, the London Bridge sewer, and Westbourne River sewer.

Bored elm pipes from the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, London, England. The use of bored elm pipes underground with quills of lead running off into the houses of the well-to-do seems to have begun in London as early as the 13th century.

All the old London water companies that appeared between the 16th and 18th century used bored elm pipes for distributing water.
- Text from information display at the pumping station (see photo).

Source: Roger C. Cracknell, Bibby Transmissions, UK; with permission from Matthew Wood, Wastewater Archivist, Thames Water, Reading, Berkshire.

Construction of London's main sewer began in 1844.

Source: Mary Gayman, "A Glimpse into London's Early Sewers," Cleaner Magazine, © 1996, COLE Publishing Inc. Reprinted with permission from Pumper and Cleaner.

Street scene in Victorian London showing the squalor common at that time. The boy in the foreground is a street-sweeper who cleaned manure and sewage from the street.

Source: Mary Gayman, "A Glimpse into London's Early Sewers," Cleaner Magazine, © 1996, COLE Publishing Inc. Reprinted with permission from Pumper and Cleaner.

1850 London News illustration showing routine city flooding when the Thames "backed up."

Source: Mary Gayman, "A Glimpse into London's Early Sewers," Cleaner Magazine, © 1996, COLE Publishing Inc. Reprinted with permission from Pumper and Cleaner.

Early sewer designs, England.

Source: Mary Gayman, "A Glimpse into London's Early Sewers," Cleaner Magazine, © 1996, COLE Publishing Inc. Reprinted with permission from Pumper and Cleaner.

Oval sewer designs used in London.

Source: Mary Gayman, "A Glimpse into London's Early Sewers," Cleaner Magazine, © 1996, COLE Publishing Inc. Reprinted with permission from Pumper and Cleaner.

Brick intercepting sewer, Brighton, Sussex, England, 1874.

Source: "Sussex History - A Different View," http://www.sussexhistory.com/sewers.htm; accessed 25 September 2002.

Graphic

Details of Isaac Shone's Pneumatic Sewerage System, circa 1884. This system was successfully used in London. It is a "separate" system, with sewage and rainwater disposed of by separated systems. Gravity delivers sewage to district collectors, then pneumatic ejectors raise sewage and deliver it to disposal points. See pp. 30-33 of source article for detailed information.

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), Plate 11, opposite page 30.

Graphic

Details of Isaac Shone's Pneumatic Sewerage System, used in London circa 1884.

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), Plate 12, opposite page 32.

Graphic

Sections of London sewers, circa 1884.

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), Plate 13, opposite page 50.

   


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