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Joseph Bazalgette in the 1870s

Sir Joseph William Bazalgette CB (/ˈbæzəlɛt/; 28 March 1819 – 15 March 1891) was a 19th-century English civil engineer. As chief engineer of London's Metropolitan Board of Works, his major achievement was the creation (in response to the Great Stink of 1858) of a sewerage system for central London which was instrumental in relieving the city of cholera epidemics, while beginning to clean the River Thames.[1] He was also the designer of Hammersmith Bridge.

Early life

Bazalgette was born in Hill Lodge, Clay Hill, Enfield, London, the son of Joseph William Bazalgette (1783–1849), a retired Royal Navy captain, and Theresa Philo, born Pilton (1796–1850), and was the grandson of a French Protestant immigrant who had become wealthy.[2]

In 1827, when Joseph was eight years old, the family moved into a newly built house in Hamilton Terrace, St. John's Wood, London. He spent his early career articled to the noted engineer Sir John Macneill, working on railway projects and amassed sufficient experience (partly in China and Ireland) in land drainage and reclamation to enable him to set up his own London consulting practice in 1842.

In 1845, the house in Hamilton Terrace was sold and Joseph married Maria Kough, from County Kilkenny, in Ireland. At the time he was working so hard on the expansion of the railway network that two years later, in 1847, he suffered a nervous breakdown.

In 1847, while he was recovering, London's Metropolitan Commission of Sewers ordered that all cesspits should be closed and that house drains should connect to sewers and empty into the Thames. As a result, a cholera epidemic ensued, killing 14,137 Londoners in 1849.[3][4]

Bazalgette was appointed assistant surveyor to the Commission in 1849, taking over as Engineer in 1852, after his predecessor died of "harassing fatigues and anxieties." Soon after, another cholera epidemic struck, in 1853, killing 10,738. Medical opinion at the time held that cholera was caused by foul air: a so-called miasma. Physician Dr John Snow had earlier advanced a different explanation, which is now known to be correct: cholera was spread by contaminated water, but his view was not then generally accepted.

Championed by fellow engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Bazalgette was appointed chief engineer of the commission's successor, the Metropolitan Board of Works, in 1856 (a post which he retained until the MBW was abolished and replaced by the London County Council in 1889). In 1858, the year of the Great Stink, Parliament passed an enabling act, in spite of the colossal expense of the project, and Bazalgette's proposals to revolutionise London's sewerage system began to be implemented. The expectation was that enclosed sewers would eliminate the stink ('miasma') that was thought to be the cause of cholera, and as a result eliminate cholera epidemics.

Sewer works

The old Abbey Mills Pumping Station
Interior of the Octagon at Crossness Pumping Station showing its elaborate decorative ironwork
Drainage reports by Bazalgette in the Institution of Civil Engineers' archives

At that time, the River Thames was little more than an open sewer, empty of any fish or other wildlife, and an obvious public health hazard to Londoners.

Bazalgette's solution (similar to a proposal made by painter John Martin 25 years earlier) was to construct a network of 82 miles (132 km) of enclosed underground brick main sewers to intercept sewage outflows, and 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of street sewers, to divert the raw sewage which flowed freely through the streets and thoroughfares of London to the river.

The plan included major pumping stations at Deptford (1864) and at Crossness (1865) on the Erith marshes, both on the south side of the Thames, and at Abbey Mills (in the River Lea valley, 1868) and on the Chelsea Embankment (close to Grosvenor Bridge; 1875), north of the river. The outflows were diverted downstream where they were collected in two large sewage outfall systems on the north and south sides of the Thames, called the Northern and Southern Outfall Sewers. The sewage from the Outfall Sewers was originally collected in balancing tanks in Beckton and Crossness, then dumped, untreated, into the Thames at high tide.[5]

The system was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales in 1865,[6] although the whole project was not actually completed for another 10 years.

Partly as a result of the Princess Alice disaster, extensive sewage treatment facilities were built to replace the balancing tanks in Beckton and Crossness in 1900.

The basic premise of this expensive project, that miasma spread cholera infection, was wrong. However, the unintended consequence of the new sewer system was the removal of the causal bacterium from the water supply, thereby eliminating cholera in areas served by the sewers.[7] Instead of the incorrect premise causing the project to fail, the new sewers mostly eliminated cholera, and also decreased the incidence of typhus and typhoid epidemics.[8]

Bazalgette's capacity for hard work was remarkable: every connection to the sewerage system by the various Vestry Councils had to be checked and Bazalgette did this himself and the records contain thousands of linen plans with handwritten comments in Indian ink on them "Approved JWB", "I do not like 6" used here and 9" should be used. JWB", and so on. It is perhaps not surprising that his health suffered as a result.[citation needed] The records are held by Thames Water in large blue binders gold-blocked reading "Metropolitan Board of Works" and then dated, usually two per year.

Private life

Mausoleum of Joseph Bazalgette in the churchyard of St Mary's Church, Wimbledon

Bazalgette lived at 17 Hamilton Terrace, St John's Wood, north London, for some years. Before 1851, he moved to Morden, then in 1873 to Arthur Road, Wimbledon, where he died in 1891. He was buried in the nearby churchyard at St Mary's Church.

In 1845 at Westminster, he married Maria Kough (1819–1902). Lady Bazalgette died at her residence in Wimbledon on 3 March 1902.[9] They had eleven children including:

  1. Joseph William, born 20 February 1846
  2. Charles Norman born 3 March 1847
  3. Edward, born 28 June 1848
  4. Theresa Philo, born 1850
  5. Caroline, born 17 July 1852
  6. Maria, born 1854
  7. Henry, born 14 September 1855
  8. Willoughby, born 1857
  9. Maria Louise, born 1859
  10. Anna Constance, born 3 December 1859
  11. Evelyn, born 1 April 1861

Awards and memorials

Memorial to Sir Joseph Bazalgette on Victoria Embankment
Detail of Hammersmith Bridge, designed by Bazalgette

Bazalgette was knighted in 1875, and elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1883.

A Greater London Council blue plaque commemorates Bazalgette at 17 Hamilton Terrace in St John's Wood in North London,[10] and he is also commemorated by a formal monument on the Victoria Embankment by the River Thames in central London. In July 2020, it was announced that a new public space west of Blackfriars Bridge, formed following construction of the Thames Tideway Scheme, would be named the Bazalgette Embankment.[11]

Dulwich College has a scholarship in his name either for design and technology[12] or for mathematics and science.[13]

Other works

Notable descendants


  1. ^ Halliday, Stephen (2013). The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. The History Press. ISBN 978-0752493787.
  2. ^ Tailor Louis Bazalgette's account for the Prince Regent since the 1770s was guaranteed by Parliament and when paid after he succeeded as king George IV of the United Kingdom was worth in modern terms (2014) about two million pounds: BBC Radio 4, at
  3. ^ Ackroyd, Peter (2000). London the biography. London: Chatto & Windus. p. 344. ISBN 9781856197168.
  4. ^ Farr, William (1868). Report on the Cholera Epidemic of 1866 in England. London: HMSO. p. 146.
  5. ^ "How the system worked". Crossness Engines. Archived from the original on 2 October 2012.
  6. ^ CharlotteDunn (30 October 2018). "The Princess Royal visits the Bazalgette Sewer Network". The Royal Family. Retrieved 24 February 2021.
  7. ^ Mann, Emily (4 April 2016). "Story of cities #14: London's Great Stink heralds a wonder of the industrial world". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 February 2021.
  8. ^ "'Dirty Old London': A History of the Victorians' Infamous Filth". NPR. 12 March 2015. Archived from the original on 23 June 2017. Retrieved 13 March 2015. [the famous great sewer network of the mid-19th century] basically took away the possibility of wholesale cholera epidemics in the city, typhus and typhoid – they all were reduced.
  9. ^ "Obituary – Lady Bazalgette". The Times. No. 36706. London. 4 March 1902. p. 8.
  10. ^ "Bazalgette, Sir Joseph William (1819–1891)". English Heritage. Archived from the original on 1 August 2011. Retrieved 20 October 2012.
  11. ^ "Tideway honours Victorian pioneer". The Construction Index. 28 July 2020. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  12. ^ The Master's Report to the Governors for the School Year 2004–2005 (PDF) (Report). Dulwich College. p. 7. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 December 2007.
  13. ^ The Master's Report to the Governors for the School Year 2006–2007 (PDF) (Report). Dulwich College.[dead link]

Further reading

Professional and academic associations Preceded byJames Brunlees President of the Institution of Civil Engineers December 1883 – December 1884 Succeeded byFrederick Bramwell