Sermon preached at Evensong on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (13 October 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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8:45am Morning Prayer
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3:00pm Choral Evensong
5:30pm Eucharist
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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (13 October 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

The second in the Cathedral's 'Fantastic Feats' sermon series exploring amazing feats of human endeavour, the Dean discusses the 'Great Stink and Fantastic Sewers' and the lessons we can learn from this. 


In April 1865 an extraordinary dinner took place on the edge of the Thames marshes, in a building which has been described by the architectural historian Nicolaus Pevsner as ‘a masterpiece of engineering – a Victorian cathedral of ironwork’. Inside the brick building, seated amongst beautiful Romanesque-style cast iron ornamentation, the Prince of Wales and other royals sat alongside Members of Parliament, the Lord Mayor of London and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. What was the occasion that brought such an illustrious group together? It was the opening ceremony for the Crossness Pumping Station, and the diners were sitting above four enormous steam engines which had begun to pump thousands of tons of sewage each day from south London into the Thames Estuary. And why had sewage become such a prominent political and social topic that it required royalty and churchmen to attend to it? That was because of the Great Stink.

Greater London in 1800 had about a million inhabitants, relying on inadequate water supplies, with cesspits and rudimentary sewers discharging into the Thames and its tributaries. By 1850 the population had grown to some 3 million, water supplies were much improved, and modern toilets were introduced, meaning more water was flushed into the sewers, along with its associated human waste. The outfalls from factories, slaughter-houses and other industries put further strain on the already failing system, at the same time as cesspits were being closed because of awareness of disease, creating more sewage which discharged into the Thames, swishing up and down with the tide. 

The great river flowing through London had increasingly become an open sewer. Not enough had been done to solve the problem. And it came to a head during a heatwave in June 1858, when for several weeks there was no rain, the temperature out in the sun rose as high as 48º centigrade (118º Fahrenheit), the Thames water level dropped, and the deposits of sewage up to six feet thick on either side of the river rotted and stank. 

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attempted to take a pleasure cruise on the Thames, but returned to shore within a few minutes because the smell was so terrible. The Houses of Parliament, on the bank of the Thames, were badly affected, and the curtains over the windows were disinfected to no avail: committee rooms and the library were unusable, and Parliament considered moving its business elsewhere. The government was attacked for allowing the Thames to become a cesspool, and replied that it was none of the government’s business – politics as usual then. There was widespread panic about airborne disease and cholera. Newspapers were creating havoc about the Great Stink. What was to be done?

200 years ago this year the man who would enable all this to change was born in Enfield, north London. His name was Joseph Bazalgette; he was a quiet, unremarkable but gifted and very hard-working engineer and family man, lived in suburban London, and his fantastic feats of visionary engineering made modern London possible. He probably saved more lives from waterborne disease than anyone else in the city’s history. He was the chief engineer of the London Metropolitan Board of Works, with experience of working in sewage disposal: it was his proposals that were eventually put into action, as the Great Stink prompted Parliament to authorise the expenditure of over a billion pounds in today’s money – to engineer a new sewage system.

What did Bazalgette do? He used 318 million bricks to build a system of large underground sewers 82 miles long, at different heights, running eastwards, both north and south of the River Thames, and an 1100 mile long network of street sewers which collected all the sewage and took it to beyond the eastern edge of the city and discharged it into the Thames when the tide was going out, to take it away from the population. At first it was still raw sewage that was dumped, but in the following decades the sewage began to be treated and disposed of with greater care. Because the sewage was travelling for many miles, and much of London is low-lying, Bazalgette installed large pumping stations to push the sewage up, along and out. And Bazalgette also had vision for creating the landscape. In order to catch sewage discharging directly into the river, he created the embankments to north and south – the Victoria, Westminster and Albert embankments – narrowing the river and providing space for a new underground railway, now the District Line, as well as gardens and a major road. And Bazalgette personally checked all the thousands of connections to be made into the new sewer system, to ensure that it would work well and corners were not cut.

Part of his genius was that he also thought about the future. The population of London in 1860 was over 3 million; so Bazalgette calculated the greatest existing population density, gave every person the most generous allowance of sewage production, and came up with the diameter of pipe needed. He then said 'Well, we're only going to do this once and there's always the unforeseen' and doubled the diameter to be used. His foresight allowed for the increase in population density with the introduction of tower blocks; with the original smaller pipe diameter the sewers would have overflowed in the 1960s, rather than nearly coping until the present day as they have.

You can see other fantastic feats of engineering by Bazalgette, including several the bridges over the Thames, and he has a memorial on the Victoria embankment: but under our feet, at the outflow of the sewage we all produce, lie the fantastic sewers that make life in London possible.
But that’s not the end of the story. The population of London has more than doubled since Bazalgette’s day, and water usage as well as the intensity of rainfall has increased, while more buildings and less green space has meant less ground to absorb rainwater. The result is that the sewers can’t cope when there’s a lot of rain, and when that happens, raw sewage overflows back into the Thames. Bazalgette expected that to happen only a couple of times a year in extreme conditions, but today it’s happening on average once a week, with tens of millions of tonnes of untreated sewage spilling into the River Thames each year. 

Thankfully, something’s being done about it before it becomes another Great Stink. If you walk to the bottom of Ludgate Hill, turn left and go along to the end of Blackfriars Bridge, you can see just to the right of the bridge a coffer dam in the river which will become a new piece of embankment, one of 24 construction sites across London underneath which is the ten-year Thames Tideway Project, building a tunnel 16 miles long and 7 metres in diameter underneath the riverbed through the heart of London, using six giant hole-cutting machines, costing over 4½ billion pounds – four times the cost of Bazalgette’s scheme, but a much more difficult engineering project. Fantastic feats in the field of sewage disposal thankfully continue!

No doubt as you’ve listened to this story, you’ve had your own reflections on what we can learn from it. The two bible readings in this afternoon’s service do have some relation to these fantastic feats. From the history of Israel we heard about King Hezekiah who around 700BC re-engineered the water supplies of Jerusalem as part of trusting in God to help defend his people from Assyrian invaders. We have the saying, cleanliness is next to godliness, and good civil engineering makes for healthy civic and spiritual life as well as personal hygiene. As an urgent threat of invasion made Hezekiah undertake major works, so the Great Stink provoked decisive action after years of disease and poor sanitation in London.

The parallel with where we are now in relation to climate change is fairly obvious. The current protests in London, while not as disruptive as the Great Stink, highlight the urgency of the need to respond now by changing how we live and investing substantially in a different future. In 1858 the government was refusing to accept responsibility to make change happen, but nonetheless had in the end to support it. So we now should be active in supporting and living out the huge policy and lifestyle changes needed to live sustainably in the world which God has given us to look after. 
In the only New Testament reading that mentions sewers, Jesus points out that physical food doesn’t make us wicked, but that the problems of human sin come out of our own hearts – greed and selfishness, laziness and complacency, pride and violence. There’s a great spiritual stink in our world, where exploitation, conflict, corruption, slavery and abuse of people and the environment are all too common, and short-term profit seems more important than long-term sustainability. The Christian faith is that Jesus came to tackle the spiritual and practical problems that lie rotting along the banks of our shared and individual lives, and that the fantastic and challenging love of God is the basis on which we can all engineer a shared and hopeful future.

In 1865 there was that formal royal dinner in a sewage pumping station to celebrate a new age of fantastic sewers. And whenever today in London we pull the plug out of a sink or flush a toilet behind us, let’s give thanks for the fantastic feats of Joseph Bazalgette and his successors that keep us physically clean and fresh. And let’s also commit ourselves, spiritually and prayerfully as well as practically, to work within the love of God, individually and together, that each of us and all of our world might be transformed for the better. Joseph Bazalgette was a quiet visionary; and if he could change his world, why can’t we change ours? And that will be something really worth sitting down at dinner to celebrate.