In the middle of the 18th century the rapid increase in size of London was overflowing the old Tudor sewers and the whole city stunk of sewage. The poor sanitation and poor living conditions brought Dysentery, Typhoid and worst of all Cholera. In 1848 Cholera struck, it was the worst disease since the Black Death and the doctors of the time struggled to find a cure. The graveyards were overflowing, the death toll continued to rise and by the time the epidemic ended 14,000 Londoners had died, most within 48 hours of becoming infected.
What were the different ideas that were put forward to explain why people were getting sick?
The majority of people thought that the reason people were getting Cholera from the smog (the smoke from factories mixed with fog) which enveloped London, this was called Miasma. Leading doctors such as Florence Nightingale agreed.
What did Dr Jon Snow think caused the problem, what evidence did he have?
Dr Jon Snow thought that the Cholera was a waterborne disease which was spreading through the water supply. He believed this theory due to that when he plotted the deaths they were very uneven, for example on one street one side of it had over 2 dozen people dead whereas the opposite side only had one. If the Miasma spread the disease then surely the spread of the disease would be much more similar and even. Also when he took the pump handle off a certain pump in Soho Square suddenly the infections there stopped. More evidence to support his theory was that when Edwin Chadwick flushed the sewers into the Thames to get rid of the smell but this just made the death toll rise higher.
Who was Joseph Bazalgette and what did he do to solve the problem? What problems did he face? Why is Bazalgette considered to have been the main factor that led to the end of Cholera outbreaks in London?
In August 1849 Joseph Bazalgette was appointed assistant surveyors to access the sewers, he was commissioned to solve London’s sewage problems when the sewage backed up the sewers and created a terrible smell. Bazalgette planned to use gravity to transport the excrement into the sea. He would intercept the current sewers to stop them flowing into the Thames and build new sewers which followed the course of the river and then building a pumping station at Crossness which would lift the sewage up 21ft to be kept in reservoirs until Thames high tide. Joseph Bazalgette built 100 miles of sewers with egg-shaped tunnels 11ft high.
Bazalgette faced many problems whilst building the sewers. But even before they started building Bazalgette had to redraw his designs 5 times and they were rejected 5 times and he tried for 7 years before the parliament accepted his plans. Whilst building the system in 1862 the first disaster occurred - The Shoreditch Explosion happened when the tunnel fractured a gas main which exploded killing a passer-by. Then on 25th June the Clerkenwell railway flooded. Finally in 1863 a sewer collapsed burying the workers inside. However overall Bazalgette only suffered 10 fatalities throughout the whole 7 year building of the sewers. The newspaper journalists also gave Bazalgette a hard time as well but Bazalgette took a risk and invited them to see the joining of another tunnel to the Woolwich tunnel. His calculations were exactly right and tunnels joined perfectly, the astonished journalists now gave a much more favourable view on the new sewage system.
Bazalgette is considered to be the main factor which led to the end of the cholera outbreaks because his sewage system meant that the sewage no longer found its way into the Thames or the water pump system. This meant that the Cholera from the excrement was no longer drunk and so no more people got infected by the disease.
What showed in the end that Dr Jon Snow had been right after all?
Once the new sewage system was in place there were no more outbreaks of Cholera except in an area if London which was known for its clean air. William Farr was given the task of cataloguing the deaths but he couldn’t put the deaths down to the miasma because Bazalgette’s sewers had removed the stink. When they opened up the water pump however, after being ensured by the authorities that the water was filtered, they found a dead eel in a putrefied state right inside the pump. This meant that the water couldn’t be filtered properly so the water wasn’t actually clean. William Farr a firm believer in the theory of miasma now realised his terrible mistake and accepted Dr Jon Snow’s theory.