A Short History of the Sewage System in the UK and Melbourne

by Lindsay Wong

The Industrial Revolution made people realise how important public health was as hygiene and sanitation became an essential factor of how cities were run. People paid more attention to public health as it became a more pressing issue due to the problems arising from this urbanisation.

In the UK, while the first phase of the Industrial Revolution featured the use of steam power, the second phase involved urbanisation, which consequently led to the rise of social problems in cities. Not only did this include cities being overcrowded, the spread of cholera and other diseases, some of which were airborne like tuberculosis, but toxic water was also a massive problem. With no proper sewerage system in place, the Thames river in the heart of London became both the city’s main water source and its dumping ground. This toxic mix consisted of unfiltered drinking water contaminated by fecal matter, which caused cholera and could  kill people within 48 hours. Because cities were so overcrowded, cholera spread easily as it was a highly contagious disease. As a result, there were six pandemics between 1817 and 1923. 

These terrible living conditions opened the eyes of London’s citizens to finally realise how significant public health, good hygiene, and sanitation were in order to improve living standards. Things started to turn around in the UK when Joseph Bazalgette redesigned sewers to shift London’s sewage out to the sea. The city changed as well. More parks were built, and more bridges were constructed, and streets were redesigned to fit with the new sewerage system, which in turn affected traffic flow. 

These changes were not only evident in England, but in Australia as well. Melbourne was Australia’s largest city by the late 1880s. Even though the city enjoyed a lot of praise in terms of its layout, infrastructure and architecture, an  underlying problem lay beneath the city. Similar to London, raw sewage, as well as other waste, ran in the street gutters. As a result, the rancid stench from underground made the city smell and there were regular outbreaks of contagious diseases due to toxic water.  These problems culminated in the campaign to establish a  city-wide sewerage scheme. This is reminiscent of ‘The Great Stink’ that occurred in London and thereby prompted Bazalgette to make amends to the city.

Construction began on the Melbourne Sewerage Scheme in the 1890s. This scheme enabled toilets to be connected to the sewerage system, which ensured that the city would be cleaner. By the end of the 19th century, around twenty-one thousand properties in many suburbs were connected to sewers. Around a decade later, this scheme extended to all of Melbourne’s existing suburbs. Consequently, public health as well as living standards of cities improved.  This  large project required more labourers, thus leading to increased employment at a time when Victoria was going through a recession thereby improving the economy.

The Industrial Revolution resulted in the establishment of proper sewerage systems like the one in Melbourne. Public health and cities completely changed as disease was more easily contained, leading to a healthier population with less people dying due to sickness. Simultaneously, cities became cleaner as waste was systematically managed through sewerage systems. 

Image source: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/04/story-cities-14-london-great-stink-river-thames-joseph-bazalgette-sewage-system

Bibliography 

ScienceWorks. “From Concept to First Flush.” N.d. https://museumsvictoria.com.au/website/scienceworks/discoverycentre/pumpingstation/the-buildings/from-concept-to-first-flush/index.html.

ScienceWorks. “Pumping Station: Marvellous Smellbourne.” N.d. https://museumsvictoria.com.au/website/scienceworks/discoverycentre/pumpingstation/marvellous-smellbourne/index.html.

ScienceWorks. “Tunnelling Triumph.” N.d. https://museumsvictoria.com.au/website/scienceworks/discoverycentre/pumpingstation/the-buildings/tunnelling-triumph/index.html.

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