Stinking Stories From London's Sewers

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 29 months ago
Stinking Stories From London's Sewers

Warning: the following stories and trivia stink.

Photo: Jon Doe.

Same old shit, different day

We start with a story like Shawshank but without the redemption. On 6 June 1736 Daniel Malden, a robber, made his second escape from the 'condemned hole' at Newgate Prison where he had been clapped in irons and stapled to the floor. Sawing through the staple he managed to wriggle through the latrine system into a common sewer, but not before losing some flesh to the narrow apertures through which he squeezed, and being liberally dowsed in filth by those relieving themselves above. "I was then in a sad nasty pickle," he said, describing the escape to a scribbler as he later awaited the hangman.

The guards were let into the sewer to hunt for him but he managed to conceal himself in a hollow until they had passed twice. There he waited for two days. "I finally emerged through the seat of a 'Necessary-House, which is against the Pump in Town-Ditch by Christ's-Hospital". He had to wrap his waistcoats around his prison irons to hide them. We assume that people covered in shit were a common sight in those days, as he continued on the run for some months. You can read the rest of the story on the Old Bailey's website. Spoiler: he dies.

Meat markets like Smithfield formed 'sewers of blood'. Photo: Matt Brown.

Gutter Journalism

Visits to the London sewers by members of the public are not now encouraged; our city is not set up for visits like Paris is. But when journalist John Hollingshead wanted to visit one in 1862, not only did the metropolitan authorities say yes, they even gave him a menu to choose from:

"They could put me through about sixteen hundred miles of underground tunnels. They had blood-sewers, a delicate article running underneath meat markets, where you could wade in the vital fluid of sheep and oxen; they had boiling sewers, fed by sugar-bakeries, where the steam forced its way through the gratings in the roadway like the vapour from the hot springs in Iceland, and where the sewer-cleansers get Turkish baths at the expense of the rate-payers. They had sewers of various orders of construction egg-shaped, barrel-shaped, arched, and almost square; and they had sewers of different degrees of repulsiveness, such as those where manufacturing chemists and soap and candle-makers most do congregate. They had open rural sewers that were fruitful in watercresses; and closed town sewers whose roofs are thickly clustered with what our scientific friends call 'edible fungi.' The choice was so varied that it was a long time before I could make up my mind.”

Thomas Crapper has been accused of being full of, er, rubbish. Photo: Laurence Scales.


The Enon Chapel once stood in the area now occupied by the London School of Economics. 12,000 corpses were laid to rest for a knockdown price under the chapel floor in the years 1823 to 1842. The space was several times too small for them all. The minister, Mr Howse, died too early for his scam to be exposed. It is assumed that he cast rotted bodies into the sewer, which flowed beneath, to make room for new arrivals, and he sold the coffin fragments for firewood.

The Perisher

Something that unites humanity is surely the embarrassment of a buoyant bowel movement and the cistern that then takes about three hours to fill. Thomas Crapper claimed to have patents for his toilets but this was pure bluster, not to mention bullshit. Nevertheless his brand has been revived, a brand which used to stand for one thing at least — a severe test.

Submarine officers in the Royal Navy dread the examination of their abilities known as 'the Perisher', not knowing at the end whether they will surface and never be allowed to submerge again. Thomas Crapper devised a Perisher for his water closets. Twisting paper like a Christmas cracker to trap a bubble of air he then saw if the force of his flush was enough to see it round the bend, never to surface again.

The shit from Parliament is torpedoed into London's sewers. Photo: Jamie Koster.

The 'torpedo room'

It was the impact of the Great Stink on the Houses of Parliament in 1858, rendering work impossible, that sparked the grand project to build sewers to intercept the flow of filth into the river. But Parliament had then not long been rebuilt after a great fire, and the plumbing system installed collected sewage at a level which was fine for emptying into the river but too low for debouching into the intercepting sewers under its own steam, as it were. The solution is the 'torpedo room', so called for an array of missile-shaped compressed air tanks at the Palace of Westminster which, with healthy regularity, gives the necessary heft to the all the parliamentary motions.

Like John Hollingshead, we've ventured into London's sewer system. Here's the video.

Last Updated 04 October 2016