King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Imperial designs: technology and empire in the 19th century

Urban sewage disposal

Elevation, transverse section and plan of sewage works.Cheltenham sewage works.Henry Austin (1811/12-60), who married Letitia Mary (1816-93), the sister of Charles Dickens, helped the novelist in his reports on sanitary conditions in Household words in the early 1850s, and remained close to him. Austin had learned his craft from the railway engineer Robert Stephenson. After working with him on important railway projects, Austin became a distinguished sanitary engineer.

When a town had built an effective sewerage system, the problem of what to do with the sewage remained. At first, new sewerage systems dumped their product into rivers (notoriously causing the ‘Great Stink’ in London in 1858, among other episodes). This increased resistance to the very idea of sewerage systems: suspicions had already arisen because of their cost and other supposed health risks.

These two books (Report on the means of deodorizing and utilizing the sewage of towns and Minutes of information collected on the practical application of sewer water and town manures to agricultural production) demonstrate Austin’s far-sighted advocacy of sewage treatment schemes which until the 1880s were rare, thanks to ratepayer resistance.

Wood engraving of farm depicting a man in the middleground laying out short pipes.Mode of distributing liquid manure by short iron pipes at Mr Robert Harvery's farm, Glasgow, 1 acre per day.One of the earliest, at Leyton, was operated along much the same lines as the Cheltenham sewage works (top right). The sewage was mixed with sulphurous powder and stirred, then flowed into precipitation tanks and mingled with milk of lime.

The lime helped to contract the solid particles in suspension and draw them to the bottom of the tank in the form of sludge. After the sludge had settled, the water was drawn off into the river Lea. The sludge was then pressed into ‘cakes’ and spread over nearby fields.

The illustration (left) depicting ‘muckspreading’ details one example of the irrigation of farmland by liquid manure. The process was expensive, the nutrient content low, and large areas of land were required. Many sewage farms had been converted to treatment works by the end of the century.

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