The sewers of London are triumphs of planning and hard work.

Joseph Bazalgette

by Marnanel Thurman

The Victorian engineers who built our railways and canals left their mark all over the landscape. But the Victorian engineers who built our sewers left their handiwork mostly underground and unappreciated. The sewers of London, as with many other cities with nineteenth-century sewers, are triumphs of careful planning and hard work, saving us daily from diarrhoea and cholera epidemics. But of course they're like the drummer in a band: nobody notices them unless they go wrong.

One of the Victorian sewer engineers who should be more famous is the wonderfully-named Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891). As chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works, he redesigned and rebuilt London's sewers, built embankments along the Thames, and thus helped the river begin to run clean again. One of his particularly interesting habits was designing sewage plants in architecturally-interesting ways, such as the Abbey Mills "A" building, which has often been described as "the cathedral of sewage". I mean, just look at it. Several more photos are here, including pictures of the inside.

Abbey Mill sewage pumping station

Image by Velela, copyright 2005, cc-by-sa

Thanks to people like Bazalgette, we have pretty good toilet facilities in England, and mostly we don't need to think about how life would be if we didn't. But nearly half the people in the world aren't as lucky, and people die as a result: diarrhoea kills two million children under five every year.

So there is an organisation called Toilet Twinning. You donate some money for building toilets in developing countries, and they twin your toilet over here with one of their toilets over there. Then they send you a photo of the toilet they've built, and you're supposed to frame it and hang it up in your loo. And (more importantly) you get to know that some kids are more likely to make it to their fifth birthday.

Look at me, writing this entire article about toilets but not taking the excuse to make puns. I tell you, I'm flushed with success.