Friday, September 25, 2015

Cholera to Clean Water: a brief reflection on narrative and history

Often times when you get close to a subject you get to a point where you can predict (if not recite along to) most documentaries, talks and lectures. You still go because a) there will inevitably be a new tidbit or two, b) it’s good to test your memory and 3) you’ll meet likeminded people with whom you can enthuse about said subject. It’s a bit like dusting off and re-reading A Christmas Carol every year.

But sometimes you get something that completely surprises you.

Howard Benge’s presentation “From Cholera to Clean Water” at the Guildhall Library was refreshingly new, obscure and in-depth. With a title like that I had expected the usual much loved story: John Snow discovers source of cholera at pump in Soho, Bazalgette builds the sewers and Britain reigns supreme in its superior systems of sanitation. But Bazelgette (often referred to as ‘unsung hero’) had only a cameo role in a much broader history of London’s quest for clean water and made way for other even lesser known men.

Sir Francis Burdette, MP, 1770-1844, who was campaigning for better water quality as early as 1827, when water piped from the Thames into people’s homes was full of all London’s refuse.

James Simpson, Engineer, 1799-1869, who researched water filtration around the country and developed systems for Lambeth Water Company which were widely copied.

John Snow… but not the old story we already know. The pump in soho was mentioned in passing, but only as prefface to the crowning achievement: his Grand Experiment of 1855. Snow compared the supplies of the two main water companies in South London: Lambeth Water Company, which drew its water from a relatively clean area upstream, and Southwark & Vauxhall Water Company which drew its water from downstream near Battersea. Comparing Cholera Deaths in the households, Snow estimated an average of 315 deaths/10,000 in Southwark, and a mere 37/10,000 amongst those supplied by Lambeth.

Why don’t we normally hear all these details? Why do some stories get chosen and not others? I suppose it all comes down to luck and narrative. The Pump in Soho is a nice detective story… one man on a mission. A small location. Colourful native characters. Evidence neatly pointing to the obvious conclusion, and a resolution (the handle is taken of the pump.) Elementary my dear Watson. Meanwhile, the Grand Experiment, though historically significant is more clinical and less personal.

Similarly with Bazalgette: we have a sudden and dramatic problem (The Great Stink) with a sudden dramatic solution (a sewer that is a marvel of modern engineering). There is, for some reason more romance in sewage than in water filtration. It's easier to be a hero by fixing a problem than by pre-empting it.

Near the beginning of the talk Benge made the observation that 19th century London was still operating on Medieval systems. In another 200 years when progress we can't envision has been made perhaps some researcher standing in a similar room will say "21st Century London was still operating on its Victorian Systems." I wonder which of our stories and heros they will remember.


  1. Did Sir Francis Burdette campaign as a ghost?

  2. Well spotted... the little known Zombie Water Purity Movement of 1927.