Monster Soup - The Waters of the Thames

Over recent months we’ve been hearing more and more about water quality. In particular, the amount of sewage, untreated or partially treated, that is emptied into the River Thames. It’s the water we sail on, and occasionally get tipped into. Sometimes we even swim in it deliberately. River Thames water is close to our hearts, because it’s close to us.

The issue of what’s in the water has hit the headlines a lot lately, and social media even provided a map so we can track where the sewage is flowing into the river. Perhaps the highest media awareness recently was when the crews of the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race were interviewed saying how ill the Thames made them.

Sadly this is just history repeating itself. Further downstream in the mid-nineteenth century, London suffered from the Great Stink. This was a time when all sewage and industrial waste was routinely tipped into the river as there was no alternative. In the Summer of 1858 a couple of weeks of very hot weather cooked up the sewage-filled Thames and generated an appalling smell. Parliament had to be evacuated, and anyone who could leave the city did so. The stinking river was also a major source of drinking water, not to mention regular outbreaks of cholera, and Londoners became increasingly aware of the dangerous things in it.

To solve the problem, the Metropolitan Board of Works under civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette built London’s first proper sewer system. It didn’t really solve the root of the problem, just moved it further downstream to a less populated area. But it solved the immediate issue, and changed the character of the cleaner river as London’s natural river banks were replaced by the built up embankments which contained the main sewer.

Little changed for the next 150 years or so, except that when there was a lot of rain Bazalgette’s sewers would overflow. Does that sound familiar?

In 2016 London began the huge task of replacing the Victorian sewers with a new system better able to cope with heavy rainfall and a bigger modern city. The Thames Tideway Tunnel or “Super-Sewer” opened in March this year.

As a London tour guide I’ve noticed one unexpected benefit of the new sewer scheme – new street-furniture. Large blocks of Scottish granite have been placed in some of the city’s public squares and parks.

They are about the size of park benches and are there for people to sit on. Would people be keen to sit on them if they knew that these stone blocks are bits of the old sewer system that had to be removed to fit the new one in?

Well, I suppose they have been hosed down.

One of our members enquired some time ago, about campaigning for “bathing water” status on our stretch of the river, and received a rather negative answer from DEFRA designed to discourage such a campaign. But this May the RYA has launched a new campaign, along with other national bodies representing all kinds of water-based sports, demanding that the government take action to seriously clean up our waterways. Meanwhile the water companies want to put our bills up by 40% to pay for the work required to bring their sewers up to standard.

Let’s hope the new campaign has some meaningful success. But meanwhile if you fall in the river I strongly suggest you keep your mouth shut!