A new book is exploring sewers, from fatalities to fatbergs

Stephen Halliday has penned a book tracing the grotesquely fascinating history of waste management, with an introduction by the descendant of the creator of London’s sewer system

They’re used around the world, have helped to keep away diseases, and have even been the focus of dramatic movie scenes. Now, author, historian and presenter Stephen Halliday is delving into the murky history of sewage systems in a new book published by Thames & Hudson.

An Underground Guide to Sewers or: Down, Through and Out in Paris, London, New York, &c. takes readers through the evolution of waste management, from ancient eras to the major turning point in the 18th century. It was at this time that engineer Joseph Bazalgette helped to create the London sewer network – keeping waterborne diseases like cholera at bay – and whose great-grandson, Sir Peter Bazalgette, has contributed the book’s introduction.

The book comprises rare archival plans, blueprints, maps and photographs relating to the systems in 20 cities, including London, Paris, New York, Toyko, Prague, Sydney and San Francisco. The photographs give a glimpse into the construction of these systems, including the many disasters involved in their creation, and places a spotlight on the workers who made them a reality.

While the book might seem best suited to historians, there are fascinating details for everyone, in particular regarding fatbergs – with the infamous Whitechapel Fatberg, discovered in 2017 and weighing in at an almighty 130 tonnes and 250 metres in length, getting a special mention.

Gangs of sewer workers in 1920s in Paris. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
A main sewer in Paris, 1872-87. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
Main sewer at Nunhead, London, 1889. Image courtesy Thames Water Utilities Limited
Men examining sewer stone work, Boston, 1880-89. Image: Boston Public Library, Edgar Sutton Dorr Photograph Collection
An example of the ‘cut and cover’ method used in Boston, 1880-89. Image: Boston Public Library, Edgar Sutton Dorr Photograph Collection

An Underground Guide to Sewers or: Down, Through and Out in Paris, London, New York, &c. by Stephen Halliday is published by Thames & Hudson for £19.95; thamesandhudson.com

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