Books: Fat, healthy fish and the black swine of Hampstead

The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Capital by Stephen Halliday Sutton pounds 19.99
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A s readers of Dickens or Gaskell or Mayhew will know, 19th- century writing on urban squalor was a genre from which middle-class Victorians took an uneasy, vicarious pleasure - much as we do today from long, considered broadsheet pieces on, say, crack-dealing or prostitution. Victorian readers loved this pornography of poverty; devoured accounts of their peers' Dantean descents into the turd-smeared underworlds of their cities; thrilled by the possibility that the noxious rookeries and cess-filled cellars of their cities might harbour all kinds of Gothic goings-on.

If only Stephen Halliday's study of London's sewer system could have admitted that the shit was the real star of its show, rather than attempting to produce the Life of a Great Victorian. Unfortunately, it is immediately clear to the reader that although Sir Joseph Bazalgette is certainly worthy of our gratitude (without his efforts Londoners would now be swashing about in a lake of their own diluted excrement), he is too thin and pale a figure to fulfil his biographer's aspirations. When Halliday is forced to admit in the first chapter that "very little is known about the personality of the man who was to have such a decisive influence on the sanitation of Victorian London", you know that Sir Joseph isn't going to stand a chance against the book's most vivid character - the pestilent tide of faecal sludge which the engineer struggled to evacuate from the capital.

Intensely practical readers - those, perhaps, wanting to build a replica of the Victoria Embankment in their back gardens - will be satisfied by Halliday's attention to the history of Portland cement, the progress of the Coal and Wine Duties Acts of 1863 and 1868, and the details of the First Report of the Royal Commission on Metropolitan Sewage Discharge. If you get a thrill of pleasure from announcements like, "This chapter will consider the construction of the intercepting system, the problems that arose during that long process, extending over almost 20 years, the ways in which the numerous contracts were managed, and the changes that were made as construction progressed", then this is the book for you. Never before have such glossy, coffee-table production values been lavished upon such technically specific accounts of Victorian sanitary engineering.

However, I suspect that for most readers, Halliday's book will become immeasurably more lively as he abandons his focus on committee-room bafflegab and gets his nose into the sanitary melodramas being enacted in the broader culture. His account of the cholera epidemics of the 1840s and 50s is rich in the belly-churning details of "choleraic excrements", "swarms of infusorial life" and "rice-water evacuations". His summary of the debates around miasmatic theory (the notion that the atmosphere was the only medium of disease) is similarly memorable - from his quotation of a chemistry professor who declared that "from inhaling the odour of beef the butcher's wife obtains her obesity", to his explanation of why the wrong-headed, eccentric campaigner Edwin Chadwick advocated the use of tubular earthenware sewer pipes: "They delivered faeces to watercourses more quickly than brick sewers which, he believed, would become clogged, giving the faeces time to become putrescent. He argued that fresh faeces would produce fat, healthy fish and be good for agriculture whereas decomposed faeces from brick sewers would be harmful."

However, obliged to return dutifully to the colourless Bazalgette, Halliday must continually tear his attention away from more diverting characters in his story. I wanted to know about the lives of Bazalgette's workers, or the shoremen who made their living scavenging for titbits in the effluent. I wanted to know about middle-class Victorians' protestations that living among steaming piles of crap was good for the working-class constitution. (Henry Mayhew claimed that the shoremen were "strong, robust, and healthy men, generally florid in their complexion, while many of them know illness only by name".)

Such material is filtered out of this story to make room for paeans to its engineer hero. And the effect is to ignore the fact that for the Victorians, the sewer system was not just a network of tunnels that improved their collective health, but also a powerful, creepy, troubling metaphor: "Hampstead sewers," suggested the Daily Telegraph in 1859, "shelter a monstrous breed of black swine, which have propagated and run wild among the slimy feculence, and whose ferocious snouts will one day uproot Highgate archway, while they make Holloway intolerable with their grunting." At the same time, sensational penny dreadfuls with titles like Lost in the London Sewers played upon nervous suspicions about what might lurk in the capital's brick-built bowels. If Sumatra could have its own giant rat, then why not the filthy gullies and culverts of the paved-in River Fleet?

Halliday writes these dark fantasies out of the story. It's as if, to celebrate the triumphs of 19th-century engineering, he can't mention that the Victorian sewers were full of slime and vermin, that hordes of Londoners scrabbled a living from the foul cloacal slurry, and that Bazalgette, perhaps, was one of them.