28 May 2017 | 24.2 °C

The Huge Shit Pump Beneath Big Ben

The Huge Shit Pump Beneath Big Ben

The Great Stink of 1858 which brought the nation's legislature to a standstill is one of the tumultuous moments in London history — like the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz. But the sewers were built and that was the end of it, right? We have opened the drains and uncovered another Stygian ferment which literally moved the foundations of Parliament in 1886.

Photo: 1FAM

In the middle of a debate on Irish affairs on 27 May 1886 Mr E. Rider Cook, Member for West Ham North, felt compelled to interrupt:

I do not rise… to take part in the discussion upon the Amendment before the Committee, but to call attention to the abominable atmosphere in which we are sitting. It seems to me that the air of this House is not only disagreeable, but that we are really sitting here at the risk of our lives. Unless something can be done, and that immediately, to remedy the evil, we ought, out of respect for ourselves and respect for our wives and children, to report Progress, and adjourn the House until such time as we can have an atmosphere in which it is proper for us to sit.

Most people know that a Great Stink arose in 1858. In fact, there had been recurring outbreaks of water-borne cholera from 1832; the government was impassive. Finally Parliament was suspended due to an overpowering smell of sewage. On 11 June 1858 the parliamentary record stated that:

Honourable Gentlemen sitting in the Committee Rooms and in the Library were utterly unable to remain there in consequence of the stench which arose from the river.

In short order, after years of dithering over costs, Sir Joseph Bazalgette was ordered to commence constructing our great network of sewers.

The construction of an embankment in Lambeth

The uninterrupted flow of ordure from human bottom to valley bottom in the years since the advent of the water closet and the abandonment of cess pits wrought horrible consequences. Sewage turned the turbid Thames an excremental ochre. Hot weather in 1858 reduced the flow and led to it beaching its burden of turds. The air became heavy with the hum of sun baked faeces.
Engineer Bazalgette knew the only way was Essex. All the alimentary waste was intercepted in colossal conduits and piped out to the east of London. Sewers were incorporated into new Thames embankments on both sides of the river. The area now called Beckton became the capital's new back passage on the north side of the Thames. The sewers under the embankments were situated as low as possible to catch the sewage heading riverwards but not below the level of the Thames which would make the work too challenging. (We're only just starting now to build a new lower level sewer beneath the river, the Thames Tideway Tunnel. But that's another story.)

There was only one problem. Right on the banks of the Thames, where the embankment should have gone were the new Houses of Parliament. Only just rebuilt after a catastrophic fire in 1834, the sanitary fixtures of the Houses of Parliament were designed to dump their contents according to pre-1858 practice, straight into the river.

A cross-section of Shone's sewage ejector station

But perhaps a connection to the new sewers could be fudged? If the members flushed sufficiently often, the foul water level would rise and the flow would be forceful enough to purge the parliamentary sump and void its contents into Bazalgette’s broadband sewage superhighway. It looked as if it might work. But if the members peed too little, or failed to flush, then a foetid and stagnant pool would form beneath the Palace of Westminster. And with a weak current it might even catch some surplus stools cast aside by the torrent in the vast trunk sewer passing by.

Various adjustments were made over the years. The great Westminster clock tower was even turned into the nation’s most exalted stink pipe and in 1882 Dr John Percy, physician, metallurgist and Superintendent of parliamentary ventilation optimistically reported:

No sewer gas can by any possibility escape from the drains connected with the House, as the gas is effectually exhausted from that drain by a furnace at the bottom of the Clock Tower, and ascends to the top of the Tower, where it passes into the atmosphere.

But it was all to little avail. It was not even summer in 1886 when things began to get niffy again and MPs smelt something amiss.

On 6 April 1886 Mr Duncombe (York, East Riding, Howdenshire) asked the honourable Member for North-West Staffordshire, whether he would empower some competent sanitary engineer to investigate the causes of, and, if possible, provide some effectual remedy for, the disagreeable odours that constantly prevail in the House.

Plans for Shone's pneumatic sewage ejector

A Select Committee on the Ventilation of the House was set up under the chairmanship of Beatrix Potter's uncle no less, chemist Sir Henry Roscoe MP. He later wrote:

When Sir Charles Barry had finished the building there was some kind of quarrel between him and the Office of Works and the authorities were never able to get from him a plan of the drains.

Two members personally examined the interior of the main sewer under the Palace and it was noted as being a disagreeable, not to say courageous, work to undertake:

The condition of things was frightful: in many cases there was no fall; there were cess pits in the spaces under the House of Commons from which the air for the Chamber was obtained. These pits were filled with foul matter and in short the state of things inside the building was about as bad as it could be — The Life & Experiences of Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe

The solution was to isolate Parliament from the main sewers, shepherd the shit more effectively, and heave the effluent upwards to a level above the passing flow with a periodic blast of compressed air. This called for a great Victorian machine. The necessary equipment, a battery of hydro –pneumatic sewage ejectors, designed and supplied by Isaac Shone (1836-1918) was installed under the Speaker's Garden and was working by January 1887. Its volcanic eruptions, in what became known since as the Torpedo Room, have continued in the bowels of the Palace of Westminster to this day and, as we all know, our MPs still come up smelling of roses.

Last Updated 17 May 2017