Beside a manhole in a street in Clerkenwell, I am presented with the things that will protect me in the hours to come: a white paper overall suit; crotch-high waders with tungsten-studded soles that will grip but won’t spark; a hard hat with a miner’s light; heavy rubber gloves, oversized; a ‘turtle’, a curved metal box that holds emergency breathing apparatus, to strap around my waist, along with a back-up battery; a harness to loop through my legs in case I need to be dragged out. The hazards include diseases like hepatitis A, B and C, leptospirosis (‘sewer workers’ disease’) and rabies. Then there are the gases: methane, hydrogen sulphide, and fumes from whichever effluents London businesses have poured down their drains and toilets today.
A form is handed to me, as I stand in the robing section of the Thames Water van, struggling with my waders. The van is well equipped, with a table and microwave, a small TV and a basin and soap. Dirty overalls and cigarettes are banned from the dining area. ‘Sign it there,’ says a man dressed identically to me, except that his paper hood is drawn over his head under his hard hat, because he knows what’s down there and I don’t. He doesn’t allow me time to read the form, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll be harnessed. I’ll be roped. I have breathing apparatus, and I’m with experts.
There are a half a dozen men standing around the manhole. They include a consultant, a catchment engineer and several wastewater operatives, as sewer workers are now officially known. But tonight, they are all flushermen. The name is old-fashioned, given to those who once waded into the silt of a sewer and dislodged blockages with brooms and rakes, and opened inlets to flush river water into the sewerage flow, nudging it down to the Thames. Now, as then, they’re all men, and all white. Their equipment is better, of course, than the heavy blue overcoats and wick lamps of a century ago, but the job is probably harder, because there are far fewer of them. When the London Metropolitan Board of Works marked its centenary in 1955, there were 900 flushers. In 1993, there were more than 200. Now there are fewer than forty; and most of them are in their fifties. Henry Mayhew’s description of their predecessors in 1851 still applies: ‘Well-conducted men generally, and for the most part, fine stalwart good-looking specimens of the English labourer.’ They all seem to have very white teeth.
It’s 10 p.m. Night is the safest time to enter sewers, when businesses – who contribute the most waste – have closed. This first sewer is safer still, because the flow has been diverted to allow us access. Even if it hadn’t been, it would be only a metre or so deep, because the Fleet sewer, formed by enclosing the Fleet River in brick, isn’t one of the bigger ones. Some are several metres in diameter, wide enough to drive a small car through. Some are barrel-shaped, some shaped like wagons. The newer ones are concrete. The Fleet is egg-shaped, an oval widening towards the bottom, since a shallow flow is safer than a narrow torrent.
In the Fleet, we are to hunt for evidence of water pipes leaking into the sewers. The water company knows leaks exist because the water volume is decreasing. Water is being lost in alarming quantities. This could be because rogue connections have been added to the sewer system – a pipe punched through here, a drain added there – which Thames Water can’t do much about, because it’s so hard to trace the culprits. It could be because of an officially installed cable tunnel that has been driven through the ground nearby. It could be because a third of London’s sewers are 150 years old.
In the first half of the 19th century, the practice of discharging raw sewage into the Thames turned the river brown and the air into stench. During the Great Stink of 1858, caused by the combination of a hot summer and the failure to dispose of the waste of London’s fast growing population, the drapes of the new Houses of Parliament were doused in chlorine to mask the smell, and MPs debated with handkerchiefs over their noses. Cholera and typhoid were rampant. The engineer tasked with reform by a metropolitan commission of sewers was Joseph Bazalgette. It took 318 million bricks and 16 years to finish the work. Two interceptor sewers, flowing gently downhill, carried the waste away to the east, where it was still discharged into the Thames, if now further from where people lived. Not far enough, though: in 1878, a paddle-steamer collided with a coal barge near Barking, and six hundred passengers drowned in the thick sludge. Treatment plants – precursors of the two massive sites now at Beckton and Crossness – were swiftly built.