Local history: Northern Outfall Sewer

Now forming the substructure to Newham’s Greenway, the 150 year old Northern Outfall Sewer is part of London’s network of Victorian sewage systems.

 

The origins of the sewer and its tributaries, channeling east London’s sewage, are bound up with an economically vibrant London in the mid to late 1800s. Designed and built by one of the pioneering engineers of the Victorian era, Joseph Bazalgette, it was designed to cope with the increased sewage due to population increases and the popularity of flushing toilets. The sewer’s history also weaves into the cholera epidemics in London at the time and the acknowledged regulatory and political wrangling that put London’s waterworks and drainage systems at the heart of the 1866 epidemic concentrated in the socially and economically deprived areas of East London (Halliday, 2013).

In 1886, the Abbey Mills pumping station was, originally, a temporary solution to pump low-level sewage into the Northern Outfall, with the express aim of at least partially sanitising the water supply for those in the heavily affected areas of the East (ibid.).

Today, looking East and South from above the Northern Outfall Sewer, you see aging housing stock, densely populated with 1st or 2nd generation immigrant families mostly from South East Asia and a smattering of white communities carried over from a family ancestry in the docks and in itinerant factory and doss house work in the East End (wonderfully recorded by Orwell (1949)). Nested amongst the Victorian terraced houses, Green Street’s market stalls and shops swell with life, people bustle amongst stalls and windows bright with gold jewellery, glittering saris and bridal ware, and colourful sweets, fruits and vegetables.

In contrast, ‘regeneration’ to the North and West, symbolised by towering cranes and skeletal steel frames of buildings being built, is spurred on by heavy public-private investment—a legacy to the 2012 Olympics. Newham Council puts the levels of investment at £9billon so far, but it’s clear—looking from the raised embankment of the Greenway cutting through Newham—that much of this is concentrated to the North East of the borough.

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