Thursday, August 06, 2009

"Dung moche goeth into Thamise"

You will forgive me if I'm a bit tetchy this morning. It seems we have a blockage in the main drain from the house to the septic tank. This in itself doesn't come as a tremendous surprise. When our cottage was built thirty years ago the building arts in this part of the world were in their infanthood. Fortunately, we are saved from disaster by the toilet and shower in my writing studio, and the kitchen sink drains into a soak-away. But still we are reminded hourly of the blessings of modern sanitation.

As it turns out, I am reading Peter Ackroyd's massive history of London. Anyone who longs for "the good old days" would do well to read what the good old days were like in the capital city of Merry Olde England for most of its history. Household waste was discharged into the gutters, along with the excrement of animals in the streets. Piss pots were emptied into public thoroughfares from upper story windows. Houses with cess pools under them often had effluent seeping up through the floorboards. The rivers and streams of the city -- the Ranelagh, the Fleet, the Shoreditch and the rest -- were open sewers, and the dumping places of butchers, fishmongers, and the like. Everything went into the Thames, including the droppings from public lavatories on the bridges.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the filth and stench, people had to obtain water for washing, cooking and drinking, which generally involved a recycling of ordure and germs.

None of this essentially changed from the Middle Ages till the mid-nineteenth century (Roman London was perhaps a cleaner, safer place than the city of the early 19th century). In 1855 a Metropolitan Board of Works was established to remedy an unbearable situation. Hundreds of miles of sewers were constructed, carrying the refuse of the city to outfalls far down the river (and eventually to treatment plants). Clean water was piped into the city from pristine sources. While all this was happening in London, it was also unfolding in other great cities of the western world. The second half of the 19th century was the heroic age of urban infrastructure engineering. It is hard to imagine a more felicitous development in the history of humankind than the scientific and technological separation of water and waste.

We take it for granted today -- until something goes wrong.