Today (January 25) in London History – London’s greatest civil engineering project

Something critically important for London – something awfully good for London – happened on January 25, 1856. In six words: right man for the right job. This podcast tells the tale.

Here’s the image I refer to.


A little Latin to get us started. “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice,” It’s a famous London quote. It’s the inscription over Sir Christopher Wren’s burial place in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.” Translation: Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you.

In other words, St. Paul’s is Christopher Wren’s monument. 

Monuments don’t get any better than that. Or do they?

I’m thinking you could use that same Latin phrase to commemorate Sir Joseph Bazelgette. Question is, where would you put the inscription? Well, here’s where I’d put it. And look, this is a little bit tongue in cheek. But only a little bit. Where I’d put it would really put the fox among the hens. Purists wouldn’t like it a bit. They’d call it an outrage, see it as sacrilege – but they’d just have to suck it up. 

First of all, I’d marry the inscription to the Spanish symbol for civil engineering. The inscription would be a kind of caption to that symbol. So what’s the symbol look like? I’ll paint you a word picture – though you can see it on the Transcription page that accompanies this podcast.  The symbol shows the arch of a stone bridge. The arch has been hooked by a huge anchor. There’s a river under the bridge. And brown earth under and on the banks of the river. And the whole thing has a wreath around it – like a laurel wreath of victory. The left-hand side of the wreath is a green plant, the right-hand side, a harvest-gold plant. The two of them tied together with a purple ribbon at the bottom. So that’s the image, that’s the symbol. The Latin inscription would be just beneath it, like a caption. And where would I put it? I’d put it halfway up Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. Provide a break to that endless stretch of fluted column. And since there’s an anchor – and I think the green leaves are oak leaves – well, the dim-witted purists needn’t be any the wiser. Anchor…oak. Let ‘em think it’s just another tribute to Nelson. What else? Well, Cape Trafalgar is in Spain. And Joseph Bazelgette had French ancestry. So it all sort of comes together there.

But the main thing, is what you can see from a position halfway or two thirds up Nelson’s column. You can see the Thames. You can see the Embankment. You can see Parliament. You can see Northumberland Avenue. You can see Charing Cross Road. Keep those in mind. 

Main thing is, though, you can see London. And remember, the inscription reads, Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you. What I’m suggesting here is that London is Joseph Bazelgette’s monument. And as impressive as Wren’s monument – St Paul’s – is, Bazelgette’s monument – London – is a whole lot more impressive. 

So, let’s get to our date: January 25th. January 25th, 1856 was the day Joseph Bazelgette received his formal appointment as Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works. The MBW was London’s local government, the 19th-century equivalent of the Greater London Assembly. Joseph Bazelgette held that post for 33 years. Here’s a partial list of what Joseph Bazelgette accomplished in the third of a century that he was London’s main man, its Head Engineer.

  1. Completing the design and implementing the sewage commission’s plans for the main drainage of London
  2. We’re talking 1300 miles of sewers, 82 miles of the main west–east intercepting sewers, and four magnificent pumping stations, Deptford, Crossness, Abbey Mills, and Western.
  3. Embanking the Thames in central London. We’re talking three major undertakings —the Albert, Victoria, and Chelsea embankments. That’s a total length of 3 1/2 miles of embankment. It’s 52 acres of riverside land reclaimed. The West-East intercepting sewer ran along the riverside wall of the embankment. It was London’s greatest ever civil engineering project.
  4. Bazelgette had to implement the requirements of The Thames River, Prevention of Floods Act of 1879. He described that task as “one of the most difficult and intricate things the Board ever had to do. 40 miles of river frontage had to be inspected. They had to take stock of every business along the riverfront, get the measure of every wharf, every structure, every bit of shore. 
  5. Bazalgette had to survey and value twelve bridges. He had to repair and maintain them. He replaced three of the bridges with new structures to his own design. 
  6. There was a call for new river crossings below London Bridge. Bazalgette was involved in three major design schemes for those new downstream crossings. 
  7. Bazelgette was called on to do something about the horse-drawn traffic congestion in London. He masterminded a programme of design and construction of new London traffic arteries, among them some of the most famous streets in London today. Including Shaftesbury Avenue, Northumberland Avenue, Charing Cross Road, Queen Victoria Street and Southwark Street. 
  8. Bazelgette was a watchdog. He was put in charge of monitoring private bills passing through parliament that were likely to impact London’s public amenities. Private companies seeking every advantage for their railways, tramways, docks, water supply and energy utilities – hydraulic power, gas and electricity – all of their legislative proposals and manoeuvrings came under his watchful eye. 
  9. Joseph Bazelgette called a spade a spade. He said, “private individuals are apt to look after their own interests first, and to forget the general effect upon the public. And it is necessary that there should be somebody to watch out for the public interests.”

You thinking what I’m thinking? Boy, do we need a Joseph Bazelgette today. 

10. In his spare time he advised on the drainage and street paving of Odessa and produced a major report on the drainage of the city of Pest in Hungary.

Municipal engineering when it’s done well – when it’s done the way it should be done – anywhere in the world – we have Joseph Bazelgette to thank for that.

In his acceptance speech, when he was elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineering, Joseph Bazelgette singled out “those engineering works which promote the health and comfort of the inhabitants of large cities, and by which human life may be preserved and prolonged.” 

Joseph Bazelgette – Sir Joseph Bazelgette, he was knighted at Windsor Castle in 1874 – Sir Joseph Bazelgette was one special Londoner, one special citizen. 

You want to see his monument, just go anywhere in London and look around you. 

From London, From his city – Joseph Bazelgette’s much-loved city – he loved it and cared for it as much as anyone ever did – from his city, fare thee well. Fare thee the way Joseph Bazelgette did: stay classy.

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