Tubes, bridges & sewers: The centuries old infrastructure Londoners still use today

Believe it or not, this is part of the sewer system: the inside of Crossness Pumping Station, south east London. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikipedia Commons.

An accusation often levelled at the modern era is that it’s one of waste: that we are a throw-away society, over-consuming off paper plates with disposable cutlery. If this is the case, then we should take inspiration from our not-so-distant ancestors, the Victorians. They really knew how to build things to last.
Today’s Londoners would be hard pressed not to use at least some of the infrastructure left over from the 19th Century. If you’ve taken the Tube, crossed the Thames or even gone to the toilet in the capital recently, then you’ve used something Victorian.

But it wasn’t us they had in mind when all these durable things were built: in their own time, the era’s city planners faced plenty of infrastructure problems of their own. In the 19th century, London was the largest city in the world, and its population more than tripled from just under 2m in 1840 to almost 6.5m by 1900. With the fabric of the city facing unprecedented burdens, the engineers of the day began to build.

The Tube

There are few things as synonymous with London as its underground. Begun during the second half of the 19th century, the system was created in part to deal with the overcrowding that population growth had brought to the city’s roads.

First opening in 1863 the original Metropolitan Railway was just four miles of route, between Paddington and Farringdon. But other lines swiftly followed: the District arrived before the decade was out, and what would become the Circle line was completed in the 1880s. The first deep level tube, a stretch of the Northern line, opened in 1890.

Last year, a magnificent 1.4bn rides were taken on the London Underground – all the more impressive when you consider that the engineers maintaining and upgrading today’s network are still working on a system first opened while Abraham Lincoln was president.


Sewer System

The density of London’s population also created huge sanitary problems. The Thames was an open sewer, and the streets were little better. Through the Miasma Theory of disease, deadly illnesses such as cholera were blamed on ‘bad air’ – and not on the fact that people were relieving themselves in their drinking water. Something had to be done.

Following a particularly warm and noxious few months in 1858 – a period known as The Great Stink – the local government of the day rolled its sleeves up. The Metropolitan Board of Works commissioned its chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette to create a new system of sewers and pumping stations.

Bazalgette installed 82 miles of “intercepting sewers” parallel to the river Thames, with a further 1,000 miles of interconnected “street sewers”. Most used gravity to funnel waste to the east; but series of pumping stations were included, to offer a helping hand. All this did wonders for London’s poorly and no doubt the city’s smell – and created the Embankment in the process.

Rudolf Hering’s 1882 map of London’s sewers. 

The system has been used ever since. The historian Peter Ackroyd puts this relatively unknown engineer alongside giants such as Christopher Wren in his pantheon of London heroes.

With London’s population at an all-time high, dealing with the capital’s waste is top of the agenda again, and the authorities are now building the 16 mile Thames Tideway tunnel under the river. Let’s hope it lasts as long as the 150 year old Victorian system.

Bridges

You can’t really go anywhere but the loo to appreciate London’s sewage system – so if you want to ogle some Victorian engineering, why not visit the river?

Nearly two thirds of the 33 bridges that cross the Thames were built by those intrepid engineers, and they include nearly all the best lookers: the Albert Bridge, the Hammersmith Bridge, to name but two.

Tower Bridge.

In Tower Bridge, the last to be built by the Victorians, we’ve got both a looker and an incredible piece of engineering. Not only does it draw visitors from across the world (it’s currently listed on TripAdvisor is the 7th ranking attraction in the world’s number one destination city); the bridge can also raise its central section, to allow large boats to pass. A functional beauty: those 19th century builders did it again.

Internationally, Victorian Britain gained the unfortunate – and accurate – reputation of being arch-colonialists. Domestically, though, they did us a lot of good, building exceptional structures that are still in use a century and a half later.

We can only hope that the massive infrastructure projects of today will last nearly as long. HS2 and Crossrail, the ghost of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is watching.

 
 
 
 

These maps of petition signatories show which bits of the country are most enthusiastic about scrapping Brexit

The Scottish bit. Image: UK Parliament.

As anyone in the UK who has been near an internet connection today will no doubt know, there’s a petition on Parliament’s website doing the rounds. It rejects Theresa May’s claim – inevitably, and tediously, repeated again last night – that Brexit is the will of the people, and calls on the government to end the current crisis by revoking Article 50. At time of writing it’s had 1,068,554 signatures, but by the time you read this it will definitely have had quite a lot more.

It is depressingly unlikely to do what it sets out to do, of course: the Prime Minister is not in listening mode, and Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom has already been seen snarking that as soon as it gets 17.4m votes, the same number that voted Leave in 2016, the government will be sure to give it due care and attention.

So let’s not worry about whether or not the petition will be successful and instead look at some maps.

This one shows the proportion of voters in each constituency who have so far signed the petition: darker colours means higher percentages. The darkest constituencies tend to be smaller, because they’re urban areas with a higher population density. (As with all the maps in this piece, they come via Unboxed, who work with the Parliament petitions team.)

And it’s clear the petition is most popular in, well, exactly the sort of constituencies that voted for Remain three years ago: Cambridge (5.1 per cent), Bristol West (5.6 per cent), Brighton Pavilion (5.7 per cent) and so on. Hilariously, Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North is also at 5.1 per cent, the highest in London, despite its MP clearly having remarkably little interest in revoking article 50.

By the same token, the sort of constituencies that aren’t signing this thing are – sit down, this may come as a shock – the sort of places that tended to vote Leave in 2016. Staying with the London area, the constituencies of the Essex fringe (Ilford South, Hornchurch & Upminster, Romford) are struggling to break 1 per cent, and some (Dagenham & Rainham) have yet to manage half that. You can see similar figures out west by Heathrow.

And you can see the same pattern in the rest of the country too: urban and university constituencies signing in droves, suburban and town ones not bothering. The only surprise here is that rural ones generally seem to be somewhere in between.

The blue bit means my mouse was hovering over that constituency when I did the screenshot, but I can’t be arsed to redo.

One odd exception to this pattern is the West Midlands, where even in the urban core nobody seems that bothered. No idea, frankly, but interesting, in its way:

Late last year another Brexit-based petition took off, this one in favour of No Deal. It’s still going, at time of writing, albeit only a third the size of the Revoke Article 50 one and growing much more slowly.

So how does that look on the map? Like this:

Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of an inversion of the new one: No Deal is most popular in suburban and rural constituencies, while urban and university seats don’t much fancy it. You can see that most clearly by zooming in on London again:

Those outer east London constituencies in which people don’t want to revoke Article 50? They are, comparatively speaking, mad for No Deal Brexit.

The word “comparatively” is important here: far fewer people have signed the No Deal one, so even in those Brexit-y Essex fringe constituencies, the actual number of people signing it is pretty similar the number saying Revoke. But nonetheless, what these two maps suggest to me is that the new political geography revealed by the referendum is still largely with us.


In the 20 minutes it’s taken me to write this, the number of signatures on the Revoke Article 50 has risen to 1,088,822, by the way. Will of the people my arse.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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