The belly of the beast

Crossness Pumping Stsation, London

Crossness Pumping Station, London

I received some very strange looks on a train recently, reading Paul Dobraszczyk’s Into the Belly of the Beast:  exploring London’s Victorian Sewers (Spire 2009).  It’s a perfectly sensible subject, with an entirely respectable cover, but maybe the title is a little over-wrought.

(The last time I got funny looks on a train was years ago when I first read Sue Townsend’s delightful The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ [1982]:  I was rolling around the carriage at the Christmas lunch scene where Adrian is lusting after his aunt’s prison officer girlfriend, and ends up eating the wing of the turkey because he’s too embarrassed to ask for any other part of its anatomy.)

Paul Dobraszczyk’s book is a very interesting addition to the somewhat limited literature about what the Victorians called the “sanitary question”, the great environmental issue of the nineteenth century – how to provide the rapidly growing urban areas with clean drinking water, sewage disposal and a dignified, hygienic way of disposing of the dead.

Dr Dobraszczyk analyses how Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Metropolitan Main Drainage system, constructed at huge expense and upheaval, initially between 1859 and 1868, is represented by the illustrative material left behind – maps and drawings, photographs and press coverage.

Among the insights he uncovers is the fact that before Bazalgette could begin to lay down a coherent drainage system for London he needed the area to be surveyed systematically.  All the previous maps had stopped at some arbitrary district boundary, and they were all at different scales or levels of detail.

Another revelation is the identity of the architect of the great steam pumping stations which are the glory of London’s industrial archaeology – Crossness (1862-65), Abbey Mills (1865-68) and the less flamboyant sites at Deptford (1859-62) and Pimlico (1870-74).  This was Charles Henry Driver (1832-1900), who also worked for the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway, provided architectural detail for the seaside piers at Llandudno (1878) and Southend-on-Sea (1887-90), and collaborated on the Mercado Central [Central Market], Santiago, Chile (1868-70) and the Estação da Luz [Station of Light], São Paulo, Brazil (1897-1900)*.

I was concerned that I’d never encountered Driver’s name before, and began to feel I needed to keep up, until I read a review of Dr Dobraszczyk’s book in the Victorian Society’s magazine, The Victorian, which admits “this reviewer had never heard of Charles Driver”.  The reviewer was Stephen Halliday, whose book The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis (Sutton 1999) I greatly admire.  If the name is news to Stephen Halliday, then Charles Driver is a real discovery.

*  The Estação da Luz suffered a disastrous fire, in which one firefighter died, in December 2015:

Abbey Mills Pumping Station is a working installation operated by Thames Water and is very rarely accessible to the public.

The pumping stations at Abbey Mills and Crossness feature in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Temples of Sanitation.  For details, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2015 Cemeteries and Sewerage:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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