A Day In The Sewers

By the 1880’s a vast system of sewers had been created beneath the streets of London and were doing sterling work disposing of the waste from the citizens of the huge Victorian metropolis.

People became fascinated by the subterranean labyrinth of huge tunnels that crisscrossed their way beneath the streets, and journalists, always on the look-out for a good story, began venturing down into the vast sewer system in order to report back on their findings.

On Monday, 12th June, 1882, The Pall Mall Gazette published the following article which enabled readers to spend a day, on paper at least, in the sewers under London:-


From Oxford-street to Vauxhall Bridge is no great distance as the crow flies. The intervening space is, however, occupied for the most part by some of the most intricate examples of street architecture in the metropolis.

There is a much more direct road through the sewers.

Leaving out of consideration for a moment its great main arteries, London is a “mighty maze without a plan.” Its streets turn and double and twist, with the result of plunging the unaccustomed wayfarer into confusion.


That not unimportant part of London which is below ground is much simpler and more systematic in its construction. It has more directness, and, as one may say, energy of purpose.

Each one of its infinite number of channels is more or less of a shortcut; yet a map of the London sewers would be a very passable imitation of the map of London, making allowance for a difference of direction in the main lines.

Each street has its own special artery underground, and the whole of the metropolis is almost as much built upon arches as the Adelphi.


Having determined to see what a London sewer was like, the writer prevailed on the Engineering Department of the Metropolitan Board of Works to place a superintendent of flushers and six men at his disposal. This was certainly a liberal allowance of attendants, but not more, perhaps, than might be needed in an emergency.

Our party was split up into two. Four of us, attired in fishermen’s boots, blue jackets, and sou’ – westers, descended through a grating a few yards from Oxford-street. The other four, having carefully battened us down, proceeded to the next entrance to wait for our arrival.


We had let ourselves down hand over hand to the depth of about eighteen feet. We were standing in a square chamber. The light of our lamps was lost in what Millon must have meant by visible darkness, and there came to us, reverberating through a vast arch, the noise of rushing, tumbling waters, as if some subterranean river were emptying itself into a chasm.

Stepping out into the middle of the sewer, we moved in the direction of the sound.


Our way was barred by a low wall, the space beyond which seemed to be filled with thunder. Up against this parapet dashed a great volume of thick, muddy water, which then made a sudden turn, and swept off through a circular opening on its way to the “middle level” sewer.

The place in which we were standing was almost as wide as Holywell-street and proportionately high. In shape, it was like a barrel with flattened sides.

The water which was coming down before us was sufficient to have swept us away but it was then only at its ordinary height.

In seasons of storm it frequently swells to the roof, and, the passage to the middle level being insufficient to accommodate it, goes tumbling along over where we then stood to the Thames.


Most of the prevailing impressions as to the London sewers have no foundation in fact, as, for instance, that thieves hide in, them, that they are swarming with rats, and that they are frequented by aged mudlarks, who scratch among the filth in search of spoil.


The idea that they are exceedingly unpleasant places to explore is more natural, but is commonly exaggerated.

There are some scores of back streets in London which are much more trying to the nostrils than a main sewer.

As one of my companions said:- “They get a good deal more of it up above than we do down here,” an opinion in which one is inclined to concur.

The filth, which must necessarily make its way into the sewers has been in some degree chastised into cleanliness before it reaches the main lines, and the discomfort of an exploration is caused by the water and by the closeness of the atmosphere rather than by any exceedingly disagreeable effluvia.


The King’s Scholars’ Pond sewer follows the line of a natural depression – from beyond the Swiss Cottage to Pimlico. The water is drawn off in the manner already described at a point near the junction of Oxford-street and Davies-street. Thence for some distance the pavement of the sewer is almost dry.

Every few yards of our progress, however, disclosed to us some new inlet. Some of these were mere earthenware pipes with a stench-trap affixed. Others were square brick “gullies,” generally in a bad state of repair. These are all private property.


The more important connections, which are under the control of the Board of Works, are solidly built, and are in shape like a huge egg standing on the thin end.

Here and there, glimpses may be obtained of old and disused sewers, as underneath Davies-street, where a long low tunnel brings us into a space almost as large as a village church, and with a roof so constructed as to suggest the comparison.


A large sewer is very gloomy and mysterious. It has most resemblance to the tunnel of a canal. As we walked along the water gathered about our feet. It seemed to enter in insignificantly small quantities – a bucketful now, and then running down a drain-pipe, a continuous trickle here and there from one of the street connections – yet after about a mile or so we were walking in water up to our knees.

Then, once more, we heard the sound of rushing and. tumbling, this time in front of us, and by-and-by were able to pass over a weir on to dry ground.

Our course lay under Berkeley Mews, down Clarges-street, and across Piccadilly.


Our companions above ground had saluted us at every entrance as we passed, and on reaching Piccadilly we determined to have a breath of fresh air.

We emerged in the Green Park.  It had been raining, and the strong sunlight was sparkling on dripping leaves and moistened grass. Around us, a flock of sheep was feeding, and for a moment it seemed as if we were miles away from town.

To enjoy a London park thoroughly nothing is necessary but to come upon it suddenly from a sewer.


It was a poor ‘exchange for the sheep, when we had once more descended, to encounter the first rat. We saw perhaps a dozen more during the remainder of our journey.

Of the many varieties enumerated by Mr. Browning, only one seems to frequent the sewers.

Sewer rats are grey; and it is a peculiarity of theirs that, though they do not like to be driven into the water, they can swim I admirably. It is also worth noting that they have mastered the secret of a stench-trap, and can get into the drains with ease.


In  “the good old times” sewers used to be cunningly introduced under the flooring of our houses instead of being carried along the front.

A few years ago the King’s Scholars’ Pond route would have taken us under Buckingham Palace. Now, however, it makes a bold curve, sweeps round in front, and passes under the gardens.

It gets broader and higher from this point, and there are more frequent glimpses of the upper world. Through small square gratings, the sunshine penetrates, making tall obelisks of light, which, inverting themselves, are dimly repeated in the black waters.

“Archbishop Manning lives there,” said one of my companions, pointing to a square yard of stonework that was visible through one of these grates.

We fixed our locality in this way as we went along.

Such casual glimpses of the world above served to relieve a journey which, much to the wonder of the passers-by, was again broken in Victoria-street.


From thence we had what the chief of my guides described as a “stiff bit.” The water was broad and deep, and there was a heavy, clinging sediment at the bottom. Besides, we had to pass underneath a great brewery, where all the drains vomited steam. The effect was much the same as if we had been in a Turkish-bath, and matters were scarcely improved when the close and heavily laden air warned us that we were approaching the gasworks at Pimlico. Here, after wading through the deepest piece of water that we had yet encountered, we came upon the last of the openings through which the sewer empties itself into the lower levels.


Thenceforward, instead of having the earth above us; we had merely a wooden roofing, and after passing through what seemed like the hull of a great ship, and was exactly similar in form, we came upon the double floodgates which interpose between the sewer and the Thames.

Only on occasion of a great storm do these require to be opened, and then the whole course over which we had travelled is occupied by an impetuous torrent, which not infrequently rises to the height of six or seven feet.


The lower sewers are on about the same level as the District Railway, over which we passed immediately after descending in Victoria-street. Down below, we could hear the occasional rattle of a train, as, from above, there came to us the thunder of the traffic of the streets.

It is not possible to get more than a glimpse of these low-level sewers. They are, in reality, underground rivers, whose current is more rapid than that of the Thames.


Descending into a square chamber at Vauxhall, we saw one of these rushing by us, and, passing under the sewer from which we had just emerged, faintly reverberating under the arched roof we could hear the sound of the engine which pumps all this sewage up again, and despatches it on its way t0 Barking.

In past years, the long tunnel through which we had walked would have discharged it into the river, to make it the filthiest piece of water in the world.”