diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 22, 2003

Big Brother - the sewage connection

Yes, there really is a direct connection between Big Brother and raw sewage. It's just probably not the connection you're thinking of...

East London's cathedral of sewageYou'll remember that a few weeks ago I wandered down to the site of the old Big Brother house in Bow. Just a few hundred yards away from that site lies a startling Victorian building, shaped like a cross, topped by an ornate dome. Is it just an extravagant folly, or is there a reason that someone appears to have built a cathedral in the middle of an industrial wasteland? For the answer to that question you have to go back to the 1850s. A cholera epidemic swept London in 1853, spread by the appalling sanitary conditions in the capital. Cesspits emptied into streams that fed straight into the Thames and often overflowed into the streets. Diseases from insanitary drinking water killed thousands each year. Then in 1858 came the 'Great Stink', when the combination of an unusually warm summer and an unbelievably polluted Thames made living conditions in the capital almost unbearable. A solution to this foul-smelling solution was required, and urgently.

The Greenway starts hereThe man who cleaned up London was called Joseph Bazalgette. He was the Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and his solution to London's sewage problems was nothing short of revolutionary. He ordered the building of 85 miles of new sewers to intercept the many smaller sewers that ran into the Thames, redirecting the effluent to East London where it was discharged into the Thames and flowed out to sea. (map here) North London's waste was conveyed to Abbey Mills Pumping Station in Stratford, the magnificent building in the photograph above, completed in 1868. From here the Northern Outfall Sewer continued eastwards to a huge treatment works at Beckton. That huge sewer still exists and still carries North London's effluent to the sea. The embankment covering the sewer is now the 'Greenway' - a footpath and cycle route at roof-top height through east London - although perhaps the name 'Brownway' would be more appropriate.

Abbey Mills pumping stationsThere are now two pumping stations at Abbey Mills, pictured here from the site of the old Big Brother House. The old pumping station (just peeking out to the left) raised sewage between two levels of the Northern Outfall Sewer, and originally housed eight coal-fired beam engines. Nowadays its pumps are on stand-by to supplement the newest ones in the building on the right, its modern replacement. However, there's a more direct connection between Big Brother and Abbey Mills than merely location. The gothic Victorian pumping station at Abbey Mills was designed by Joseph Bazalgette, great-grandfather of Peter Bazalgette, the creative director of Endemol productions who produce Big Brother. Peter is the godfather of reality TV in the UK, and also the brains behind such shows as Changing Rooms, Ground Force, and Ready Steady Cook. And his family's history lies in sewage. So remember, next time someone tells you that Big Brother is basically a load of shit, they may just be correct...
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