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The construction of the great sewage tunnels, near old Ford, Bow

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Wellcome Collection

The construction of the great sewage tunnels, near old Ford, Bow. Wood engraving. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

On August 2, 1858, Parliament passed a law that provided funds to create a government agency, the Metropolitan Board of Works, to solve the problems of sewage and the polluted Thames River and to prevent the spread of cholera. To accomplish this, the British government was extending its authority into an area — public health — that before it had left to local authorities. Under the influence of the stinky river, members of Parliament authorized a very large amount of money to pay for this project. The board hired Joseph Bazalgette, an expert engineer, to manage the project, which became the biggest civil engineering enterprise of the nineteenth century. Bazalgette designed a system of sewers to capture and divert London’s sewage before it reached the river and built embankments, massive wharves, and breakwaters to cover the mud banks of the Thames. Governments, scientists, and middle-class people in Europe and the Americas praised the project as a wonder of technology and progress. Who is working on this project? What are their different roles? What message does this image convey to the viewer?

This engraving offers evidence of the largest civil engineering project of the nineteenth century: the Thames embankment and the London sewer system. Here is concrete evidence to show the extension of the reach of the state, the reliance on scientists and experts (such as the engineer Joseph Bazalgette), and the production of a wonder of technology and progress. Britons afterward pointed with pride to this project as evidence of Britain’s superiority; its “natural” leadership in science, technology, and world affairs; and its status as the center of civilization. It shows their faith in science, continual progress, and industrial solutions to problems, along with a willingness to impose those solutions on others who didn’t “know better.” The workers on the project are all white men, but there are two groups that are dressed differently. The ones in shirts, pants, and hats are doing manual labor, while the men in top hats and suits are supervising or inspecting the project.

Main drainage of the metropolis. - Sectional view of the tunnels from Wick Lane, near Old Ford, Bow, looking westward.