The building that changed London

There are many iconic buildings in the UK capital - but which is the most important? Thanks to the work of his great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Bazalgette's answer might just surprise you.


4 Apr 2015

What is the most important building in London's history? St Paul's Cathedral? Westminster Abbey? The Tower of London? My vote goes to a grand 19th century building in the marshes on the edge of Zone 3, set between a non-league football club and the muddy banks of the River Thames.

While Crossness Pumping Station may not feature on a postcard, it has perhaps played a bigger part in changing the lives of ordinary Londoners than any other building, saving thousands from death and disease.

Saving a city drowning in waste

I have to admit I'm a bit biased. My great-great-great-grandfather Sir Joseph Bazalgette designed and built Crossness, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this month.

Stepping inside, it looks more like a palace than a sewage treatment works, with imposing red pillars and ornate iron lattice detail in green and gold. But this was a building with a purpose: setting out to save a city drowning in its own waste, at a time when Londoners were quite literally seeing sewage coming up through their floorboards.

Opening the main drainage works at Crossness, 15 April, 1865
Opening the main drainage works at Crossness, April 1865.
Photo: Westminster Archives

Let me take you back to London before 1865. The industrial revolution had swept through Britain, the urban population had swollen and people were living in overcrowded, unsanitary slums. Cholera and dysentery plagued the city.

This was the place Dickens and Mayhew wrote about in their work: the infernal stink of the River Thames and the fetid streets where no clean water flowed. Life expectancy was less than 20 years for people in some towns and cities – and my great-great-great-grandfather lost four of his siblings before they reached their second birthdays.

A world where rampant disease is inescapable

One mother Christine was recorded as having lost her young son Stephen to cholera. “The drains get flooded, the toilets get flooded - everything floods,” said Christine.

“The children get diseases. They get sick. When Stephen got sick he started having diarrhoea and became very dehydrated. I can’t forget my son, I always remember him and I feel the pain of losing him all the time. I fear that my other children will suffer from diarrhoea. We have been advised to boil our water, to give them hot food, but I still worry. Most people here don’t have toilets… so we use bags which we then dump.”

But this is all ancient history, right?

Well actually no. Christine and Stephen didn't live in 19th century London – Christine lives today in 21st century Kampala in Uganda. But the conditions she faces are much the same as Dickens would have recognised: a densely populated slum with no access to clean water, no toilets, a world where rampant disease is inescapable.

But it doesn't have to be like this. Soon after opening, Crossness helped transform London: an innovative system of 1100 miles of flowing water in underground tunnels, taking away 31 billion gallons of sewage per year - flushing cholera and dysentery off the streets of London town.

Punch's fancy portraits: Sir Joseph Bazalgette
Punch magazine profiles Sir Joseph Bazalgette.
Photo: Punch magazine

This may seem common sense now, but at the time it was revolutionary thinking. After placing an advert in The Times, Bazalgette received over 137 different madcap ideas. One contemporary WH Smith, of stationery fame, even suggested running trains out of London carrying human waste!

But it wasn't just plucky Old Fashioned Victorian engineering that changed London's sanitation fortunes: Bazalgette campaigned tirelessly for sanitation reform in the Houses of Parliament: it was political will as much as clever design that brought the issue under control.

It means there can be hope in a place like Uganda today: that through political action and urban planning, we can change the fortunes of people who live in dangerously unsanitary conditions. Over 748 million people around the world still don’t have access to clean water, while a massive 2.5 billion people do not have access to a toilet.

A chance to show change is possible

That's why WaterAid has launched The Big History Project – calling on people to uncover the history of taps and toilets in their own local area, to show how change is possible.

This year is an important year for international development with the setting of the Sustainable Development Goals, new global UN targets to end extreme poverty. Dedicated water and sanitation goals are vital to improve not only health, but education, gender equality and economic growth.

Let's make 2015 the year we decide to resign unsanitary living conditions like Christine’s to the history books, where they belong.

Find out how you can take part in the Big History Project >