Monuments and Dust

Monuments and Dust

London Times: 3 Feb 1851

Sanitary Regulations for London.

If the ways of this world permitted us to trust with unreflecting confidence in spoken words and good intentions, we might invite our metropolitan readers this morning to congratulations and rejoicings of no common kind. The greatest sanitary work of the day has been well begun, and is, therefore, as the saying goes, half accomplished. We are to have a sweet atmosphere, wholesome dwelling-houses, and a pure river. As for our individual selves, we are apparently relieved from an interminable subject of discussion, and if we chose to throw a note of triumph into the chorus we might fairly add that every point for which we have contended is now held by common consent to be established beyond reach of cavil. In plain words, the Metropolitan Sewers Commission has definitely discharged itself of its great duty by promulgating a scientific and comprehensive system of drainage for the whole of London, the Thames included.

Nothing could surpass the mise en scne of their closing performance. All the characters of this protracted drama were assembled before the fall of the curtain, to give impressiveness to the final tableau. There was Sir HENRY DE-LA-BECHE in the chair, with Sir JOHN BURGOYNE on one side and Captain DAWSON on the other. There were Messrs. LAWES and HAWES, Mr. PETO, who forgot his irritability on the occasion, and Lord EBRINGTON, who once more gave his "unpaid attendance" to the concerns of an ungrateful public. The City Commission, too, contributed its representatives to the group. Nor were there wanting certain members of the original corporation to witness the triumph of their successors. Official decorum dictated some little reserve, but it is sufficiently clear that the Commissioners consider their duties to be now virtually accomplished, and the chairman even hinted that, like a BUTE or a PEEL, he should probably, after carrying his arduous measure, commit its execution to the hands of others.

Stripped of its scenic costume, we find the positive result of all these doings to be as follows: -- Whereas a few months ago a scheme of drainage was announced for the southern portion of the metropolis, a similar plan has been now matured for the districts north of the Thames, the responsible engineer being Mr. FRANK FORSTER, the official servant of the Commission. This plan consists in intercepting by means of an entirely new system of sewers the whole of the sewage now discharged into the Thames from the north bank of the river. Instead of polluting the stream as heretofore, the refuse of the metropolis will be thus conveyed to a point called the "pumping station," on the eastern bank of the river Lea, whence it will be again transferred to the second point, four miles distant, on the bank of the river Roding, at the eastern extremity of Galleons-reach. Here there is to be a reservoir, in which the sewage will accumulate during flood tide, and be thence effectually discharged during the first three hours of the ebb, so that, according to computation, no portion of it can ever return to our doors. The main features of the plan, therefore, are the removal of the sewage by trunk drains to a distant receptacle, and its ultimate discharge into the Thames at a selected point. Turning next to the system of sewerage by which this result is to be effected, we find its characteristic to consist in a division of principle suggested by a difference of ground. Half the drainage is to be natural, and half artificial; that is to say, a certain portion of the metropolitan area is to be drained by the effects of gravity, and the remainder by the application of steam power. The former district comprises 25 square miles, the latter 16. With regard to the cost, all that Mr. FRANK FORSTER can say is that he anticipates, in loose reckoning, a demand of some 1,080,000l., exclusive of what may be required for land purchases and compensations.

We observed that the Commissioners are evidently persuaded in their own conceptions of the finality and success of this design. They carefully guard themselves, however, against any official avowal of the fact, and their proceedings were confined to the "reception" of the plan, its "adoption" being left for further consideration. Under these circumstances we may reserve a more particular scrutiny for those detailed estimates which Mr. FORSTER is instructed to prepare, and limit our present comments to those great principles of drainage which are recognized in the scheme. In the first place, the Thames is to be definitely freed from pollution; indeed, it is edifying to observe the zeal evinced by these new converts in testifying to this fundamental article of sanitary faith. "The main point," remarked the Chairman, "was to convey away the whole of the sewage from the Thames and take it down to a point whence it could not return, to annoy the inhabitants of the metropolis." Alderman LAWRENCE chimed in for the City Commissioners: -- "Himself and his colleagues highly approved the plan which should free the river Thames from its present pollutions, and he had great pleasure in seconding the proposition." Ultimately, Sir HENRY DE LA BECHE grew quite poetical upon the vision before him. "He hoped that they might look through their successors to the future, and that they might be enabled to contemplate the time when the metropolis should no longer be as it had been, but when the Thames should be free from its present pollutions, and comfort and happiness be generally restored!" We wonder if Sir JOHN BURGOYNE's "suggestions" ever occurred to him during these zealous professions? In the next place, the arrangements are to be entirely new; so comprehensive as to embrace the whole of the metropolis under the same principles of operation, and so scientific as to call art only when requisite to the aid of nature. On this point we must wait for more particular information before expressing any decided opinion, but it strikes us that Mr. PETO was not altogether justified in claiming such absolute novelty for Mr. FRANK FORSTER's present schemes. Lastly, as regards the disposal of the manure, an opportunity is left for the utilization of this refuse, if such a resource should ever be found available towards defraying the costs of the undertaking. So far, therefore, the chief conditions of drainage advocated in these columns appear at length to be in a fair way of realization.

After this we have no desire to revive past grievances or recall old suspicions, but the Commissioners cannot be reasonably indulged in their conceits for self-glorification. We readily admit that 16 months is no great space to be occupied in a scheme for the drainage of this immense metropolis, nay, if the old commission had continued in being, and had worked honestly up to this end in the same period of time, we should not have been eager to accuse them of inaction or delay. The crying sin of both commissions lay in the dishonesty, incertitude, or confusion of their purposes from one month to another. It is perfectly undeniable that the old commission never contemplated for a moment any such plans as have been now "received," and it is almost equally clear that the present officials entered upon their duties with intentions very far short of such result. They now allege the extreme difficulty of securing preliminary information, but they forget that in half-a-dozen instances their own members were ready to adopt plans and enforce principles as conclusively as if nothing remained to be ascertained. One moment we were met by the plea that the "experiments" were not complete, while, before we could inquire into the assertion, we were called away to encounter some fanatical project, pushed forward without the smallest regard of the assumed necessities. The Commissioners considerately acknowledge their indebtedness to their predecessors. They owe them precisely that obligation conferred on a new Sovereign by the inordinate vices of the Sovereign before him. So abominably corrupt and reprobate was the old commission, that its successor was sure to be taken as some kind of improvement, but past recollections compel us to doubt whether we should have been substantially gainers by the change, but for the salutary control of public opinion. The Commissioners have been driven by force of circumstances into fair words and a right line of operations. They will now be vigilantly watched in the execution of their plans. There are three great points to be observed -- a straightforward and consistent adherence to the principles acknowledged; a wise economy in the works, and a judicious regard to public convenience in the prosecution of the scheme. Sir HENRY DE LA BECHE may speak slightingly of "little nuisances," and it is of course impossible that such operations as these can ever be carried on without more or less discomfort. We are perfectly convinced, however, that a needless license is at present given to those subordinate professionals who evidently glory in the annoyance they are authorized to inflict. True science can be shown as much in execution as design, and, unless we are saved from some of the nuisances hitherto experienced, it is difficult to contemplate the pending operations without feeling that we may pay a heavy price even for a permanent and effective drainage.