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.
My guide for the night is Rob Smith. He’s a catchment engineer, a couple of rungs on the wastewater ladder above a flusher, and he doesn’t need to go into the sewers any more. ‘But I can’t be responsible for the safety of my men without knowing the environment.’ So down he goes, regularly enough, sometimes with a journalist or dignitary in tow. ‘We have open days at Abbey Mills Pumping Station. Prince Charles came once, down the sewers. All sorts of posh nobs.’
He enters first, nimble and fast down the ladder. His experienced sense of smell is his first line of defence against danger. My defence is a very big rope hitched to my harness. I’m glad of it, weighed down with turtle and tungsten so that a simple stride takes twice the usual effort. I sit on the pavement, swing my legs over to the ladder, lean forward and clamber down, ungainly and slow, though not slow enough. ‘Take your time!’ the flushers shout. ‘No one gets killed in my sewers,’ Smith says. ‘Either in, under or above them. Besides, it causes a hell of a lot of paperwork.’
The ladder is rusty and damp. With each rung, I expect to smell the smell. It never comes. ‘That’s what people do,’ says Smith. ‘They get down, take a sniff, say: “Is that poo?” I say yes. They say: “It doesn’t smell much does it?” They think that because when they go to the toilet, it smells, that this will too. They think it’ll smell like three million toilets.’ But it doesn’t. An average toilet flush uses seven gallons of water. Down here, the water content of the flow is 98 per cent. After a storm, it’s sometimes 99.9 per cent. Some sewers do stink, of faeces and chemicals and paint resins, but not this one. With no stink to distract me, I take in the sights: the bricks, the drips, the Fleet stretching away in both directions. I would stop in my tracks, if there weren’t three men behind me, and a job to be done.
And I can walk tall, too. Many of the main trunk sewers are more than six feet high. It’s the local sewers, feeding into the trunks, that make you crouch. I shine my torch up one or another as we walk along, into their curving walls. They shrink as they lead away from the Fleet to the houses and buildings above, whose inhabitants think nothing of having a dozen toilets on each floor, and expect them always to be clean, and always to rid them of their waste.
The men have their eyes cast upwards, looking for leaks (water could be being lost from pipes running above or beside the sewers). I look the other way, into the stream, for what it might contain and what I might recognise. Few solids are visible, though there’s a bloated tampon and part of a polystyrene cup. Like the ‘toshers’ of old, who moved in the 19th century from scavenging the banks of the river into the city’s sewers, the modern flushermen also find all sorts. Motorcycles, prams, goldfish. Coins, sometimes, and jewellery. Once, a hand grenade, somewhere in the mid-level sewer on the way to Crossness. ‘Someone just handed it to me,’ Smith says, ‘and I thought, oh shit.’ He had five men down below, another five men behind and several on top. There was another sewer above. The grenade was too crusted with filth for him to see whether it was live, but if it was, ‘I knew it could blast a hole up to the other sewer. We’d either be blown up or drown.’ He called to the men above that he was coming up, and he knew they heard, because when he got up – climbing the ladder one-handed – they’d all disappeared. The next day, a policeman phoned to ask Smith why he’d done that. ‘I said, I didn’t have a choice. I asked him if it had been live, and he said, “You don’t want to know,” so I presume it was.’
Mostly, though, other than sewage or toilet paper the sewers contain condoms, sanitary products and cotton buds. Anything other than sewage or toilet paper is an expense to remove. The flushers don’t approve of condoms and sanitary pads going down the toilets, but they hate cotton buds more. The three multi-million-pound sieving drums at Abbey Mills filter out Tampax and Durex with no difficulty. ‘But if someone had searched for something that could clean your ear,’ Smith says, ‘and also stick perfectly in the six-millimetre holes of the sieve, they couldn’t have done better.’ The buds have to be forced out with high-pressure water jets. ‘We are a throwaway society,’ Smith says. ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ He shines his light on a pipe mouth to one side, encased with something that I can’t make out, but looks like stalactites. ‘Concrete. Unbelievable. Someone’s just poured liquid concrete down a drain.’
The men stop to shine light on the roof bricks, looking for cracks. I just look at the bricks. ‘If you had a garden brick wall, think of the condition it would be in after fifty years,’ Smith says. ‘These are over a hundred years old, and they have sewage flowing through them constantly. Pretty good nick.’ All the flushers know the name of Bazalgette, and all venerate him. ‘He was years in advance of his time,’ says Smith. ‘If he hadn’t built his sewers when he did, we would – literally – be in the shit today.’ There is no statue of Bazalgette in London. All there is to honour the man who saved London from cholera, typhoid and foulness is two small streets in New Malden, a small plaque by Victoria Embankment, and the nickname ‘Drain Brain’, handed down in his family. This wouldn’t surprise the flushers. ‘People don’t see sewers, so they don’t care.’
The next sewer runs under Theobald’s Road. The way into it is down a fine spiral brick staircase, glistening with damp and other things best not inquired into. The two men in front of me on the descent suddenly stop.
The stairs are stuffed with blocks of solid, congealed fat, or Fat, Oil and Grease (FOG) as it’s officially known. There is no way through. Up above, Dave the flusher lets rip. ‘Fat! It costs millions to clean up. Restaurants just pour it down the drains, it solidifies and it blocks the sewers.’ They used to use road drills to remove it, he says, until new health and safety regulations came in. Once, Dave’s gang was hammering away at a wall of FOG and it started shifting downstream, nearly squashing the gang on the other side. The flushers are not disgusted by faeces or toilet paper or condoms. But they hate fat. ‘That’s what smells. Not shit. Fat gets into your pores. You get out and you have a shower at the depot and you smell fine, then you get home and you smell again.’ They grimace. ‘Disgusting stuff.’ Does it make them eat fewer burgers? ‘Ha! No.’
Half of the 100,000 blockages every year in London are caused by fat. It costs at least £6 million to remove with high-pressure water jets. These don’t always clear the blockage properly, so often a tilt-and-pan robotic camera is sent in on a crawler (rather like bomb disposal) to see if any fat remains, and then it’s cleared by a robotic digger. ‘Contractors do it now,’ says a flusher, before muttering: ‘Or they don’t, more like.’ Prevention would be better. There is more muttering: councils could enforce ‘fat traps’, but don’t; Leicester Square gets clogged from Chinatown’s fat habits; it costs money for businesses to get their fat taken away, so they chuck it down the drain. ‘You go to the tanks at Beckton,’ Smith says, ‘and they’re two hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, and you can see them, five or six, with a thick layer of fat. It’s not supposed to end up in the river, but it must do.’ Not much is supposed to end up in the river, but it does. Bazalgette’s system combined the carriage of ‘foul water’ with storm water and excess rainfall. Though Bazalgette overspecified all his measurements, allowing London to grow, he did not overspecify enough. The population of the city is over three times what it was in the 1850s. Most of the 60 per cent spare capacity has already been taken up by everyday waste. When the system overflows – because of a flash storm, or intense rainfall – the storm water, mixed with raw sewage, is discharged into the river.
In August 2004, after summer storms, 30 billion litres of raw sewage were discharged into the Thames. Fish died. Canoeists were hospitalised. Newspapers fulminated. Condoms floated through Richmond and Kew. A lobby group called Rowers against Thames Sewage (RATS) was formed. After it was revealed in Parliament that Thames Water discharges sewage into the river more than fifty times a year, RATS began to issue advice for people who row in pathogen-rich waters (use water bottles with covered nozzles, wash and shower after an outing, cover all open wounds and insect bites). It also became expert in European regulation and the intricate details of the Thames Tideway Strategic Study, set up by the government in 2000 to look into overflows.
Robin Clark was in charge of wastewater operations in 2004. Sitting in the flushers’ van, in cleanish paper overalls, he rolls his eyes at the memory. ‘I was on television for three weeks straight.’ He says it was a choice between river discharge or basements flooded with sewage. The system ‘did what it’s supposed to do’, he says. The population growth, rampant house-building, the paving over of gardens that would normally absorb rainfall, and a changing climate that brings heavier rain and warmer winters, have caused problems. The clean white ceramic of the toilet bowl only reaches so far. We have sewer-cleaning robots, toilets that measure blood pressure, but our shit still ends up where we swim – 95 per cent of the world’s raw sewage goes into the sea. And London’s brick sewers, the Environment Agency said in a 2005 report, are ‘old and dilapidated’ and would be ‘enormously expensive to upgrade’.
Thames Water, currently owned by the German utilities company RWE (the flushers mutter about ‘asset-stripping’ and ‘underinvestment’), wants to build a Thames Tideway Tunnel, a sewer 3.5 metres wide and 35 kilometres long, into which storm flow could be diverted. But water and sewerage companies, over the last five years, have invested less in sewers than OFWAT, the water regulator, says they were expected to. The supersewer will cost at least £1.5 billion, and RWE won’t pay that (it recently put Thames Water up for sale). Neither will the government, terrified of the political cost of raising water rates by £40 a year. For now, the TTT is in limbo.
‘They put money in parks and grounds because people see them,’ one of the flushermen says. ‘People say they like sewers, but they just like the bricks. They don’t want to think about what goes through them.’ The flushers know that they do important work, and that they won’t usually be thanked for it. ‘People say: “But you work in shit,” Keith says. ‘But I say: “It might be shit to you, but to me it’s bread and butter.”’
The next sewer is a local one. The ceiling is lower, and the men have to crouch, though it’s not quite as low as some, which forced Mayhew’s flushers ‘on our bellies like frogs, with a rake between our legs’. I stay put at the entrance below, having no fear of sewers but some fear of crouching, and watch a rat run past my feet, down into the endless barrel of the brick sewer. ‘I’ve seen a rat!’ I say, back up on top. ‘Is that all you wanted?’ someone shouts, but the others happily turn the talk to rodents. There are fewer than you’d think, they say. ‘They don’t like living in water. And there’s not enough food.’ A government survey in the mid-1990s found, by putting down grain and sawdust around manholes (if the grain has gone, a rat has taken it; if the grain and sawdust have gone, they’ve been swept away), that 13 per cent of manholes were visited by rats, down from 23 per cent twenty years earlier. Still, there are enough for a flusher called Jack to be famed for killing them with his hat. Other animal life is rarer. Mayhew’s flushermen reported finding disconsolate cats wandering the tunnels, avoiding the flow and getting eaten by rats. But these men report only goldfish and terrapins. There are no alligators: that’s an urban myth.
Apart from the hand grenade, they’ve never found any explosives either. ‘There are sewers,’ Smith says later, standing in front of a huge sewer map in his office, ‘that run very close to places you couldn’t otherwise get access to.’ He won’t point them out on the map, but he knows where they are, having walked them more than once to search for explosives or malign squatters. He wouldn’t do it now. The hand-grenade episode led Thames Water to require all its flushers to have ordnance training. The ordnance experts told the flushers that half a matchbox of some substances could blow them to kingdom come. Now, they mostly leave it to the special patrol squad of police divers, but sometimes Smith will still find himself in the most sensitive sewers, the ones equipped with sensors, ‘looking up to find six gun-barrels pointing down at me and someone saying: “What do you think you’re doing down there, mate?”’
Smith is 57. He’ll retire soon, along with several others in the gang in Clerkenwell. ‘I’m 40,’ Dave says, ‘and I’m the last fully trained Thames flusher. There’s no one behind me.’ Contractors might do the work, the flushers say, but they don’t have the knowledge. Keith keeps a sewer book. ‘You go down a sewer, and when you come back, you note down everything about it’ – what condition it’s in, whether it’s near any factories pouring resin or dangerous effluent into the flow. Last year, a cowboy company poured a mixture of petrol and diesel into the low-level sewer near the River Lea. It ended up in the northern outfall sewer and on its way to Beckton. A warning was phoned ahead, but five men ended up in hospital because of the fumes. Some sewers haven’t been visited for decades. Previous acquaintance is a precious asset, and knowledge like that doesn’t come with contractors. The flushers say we are losing our sewer wisdom, and no one seems to care.