Monday, 4 April 2011


 I have an interest in sewerage and water pipes. I think it might have started when I used to work for a water company dealing with general enquiries from the public, and was amazed at the things people would put down their toilets............ and would want back if they could be found....such as their false teeth.

Part of my training was to visit sewerage works and pumping stations.  There's a whole army of people out there you know, keeping us clean and preventing us dying from dread diseases such as cholera. Thank goodness they're there. We pay high rates for clean water and sewage disposal and probably never think much about it, but it's a grotty job done by and large, by uncomplaining people, such as the man who goes down several times daily in big boots to scrape the 10ft grilles of the inlet pipes clean.

The Welcome Foundation has an exhibtion at the moment, images of which can be seen here:

 On the left is a piece of wooden water pipe dug up from Clerkenwell in 1895. It's in Chirk Castle.

 It's a relic of London's 1st clean water supply; 61 kms of pipeline from the Chadwell and Amwell springs in Hertfordshire, built between 1608 and 1613 by the New River Company.

In an earlier posting about Waddestone Manor (link on sidebar) I mentioned how hard life was during Victorian times if you were poor. Bad water and no sewerage were just part of the problem......

.......Sanitation was by cesspit where it existed, and it was common for urine to leak out and into the surrounding soil, into the cellars where people lived, and even into the wells where people drew their drinking water from.

Here's another 19th century report describing cholera victims, who were "one minute warm, palpitating, human organisms - the next a sort of galvanized corpse, with icy breath, stopped pulse and blood congealed - blue, shrivelled up, convulsed". Cholera causes profuse vomiting and diarrhoea, dehydrating the body so rapidly and severely that the blood thickens and the skin becomes deathlike and blue.

Early Roman lead piping bringing clean (albeit poisoned by lead!) water from springs into the walled city of Chester.

These building blocks were also Roman, and were often used to bring in fresh water.

Cholera arrived from Asia over 1,000 years ago, but was only seen in Europe after 1817. It caused 7 widespread  pandemics, killing thousands. For example in the summer of 1849, 33,000 people died in 3 months; 13,000 of whom lived in London.

If you caught it, you had a 50/50 chance of survival. Here's a newspaper extract, describing conditions in London.

1) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (24th September 1849)

We then journeyed on to London Street, down which the tidal ditch continues its course. In No. 1 of this street the cholera first appeared seventeen years ago, and spread up it with fearful virulence; but this year it appeared at the opposite end, and ran down it with like severity. As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow - indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink.

As we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women, built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it, and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it seemed by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble.

In this wretched place we were taken to a house where an infant lay dead of the cholera. We asked if they really did drink the water? The answer was, "They were obliged to drink the ditch, without they could beg or thieve a pailful of water." But have you spoken to your landlord about having it laid on for you? "Yes, sir and he says he will do it, and do it, but we know him better than to believe him."

Sadly, it is not a disease of the past for many peoples of the world.

It is, as we know today, an acute infection of the small intestine by the bacterium Vibrio Cholerae, which causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea leading to dehydration. The disease is contracted from food or drinking water contaminated by faeces from a sufferer. Cholera often occurs in epidemics; outbreaks are rare ingood sanitary conditions.

After an incubation period of 1-5 days, symptoms commence suddenly, and the resulting dehydration and imbalance in the concentration of body fluids can cause death within 24 hours. Treatment involves intravenous infusion of salt solution; tetracycline eradicates the bacterium and hastens recovery. The mortality rate in untreated cases is now over 50%. Vaccination against cholera is effective for only 6-9months.

However, in the summer of 2000, a team of scientists in the US led by Claire Fraser deciphered the entire genetic makeup of the cholera microbe. It is hoped that this will enable drugs or vaccines to control the disease in the undeveloped world.


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