Spotlight On: Works – transcript

Hello. My name is Christopher Day, and I’m a modern domestic records specialist at The National Archives.

So this document today is from the collection of the Office of Works. And the Office of Works begins as a medieval department of government. It’s involved in building castles and other buildings for the King’s household. But as the British state expands in the 18th and 19th century, it begins to have a different role, which is building public works, which have things like public buildings like government departments, but also lots of other things roads, bridges, hospitals sometimes, prisons sometimes, and even sewers, which is what we’re gonna look at today.

So this particular document is from a series called Work 38. So it’s a series which runs from the 17th to the 20th century of what we call miscellaneous records, which is always a word archivists love because it often means there’s lots of interesting and diverse stuff in there.  So the document we’re going to look at has on the folder the reference WORK 38/89 to 108.

Now let’s take a look at this document and find out what it actually is.

So what we’ve got here is… it’s a commercially available map of London. And you can see this is West London here, the west end of London,the area that we now call the Thames Embankment. But this is the proposed Thames Embankment. So this document dates from the 1850s from the middle of the 19th century and this is a period where they’re building an embankment of the Thames. So they’re literally taking where the tidal Thames goes. And you can see here we’ve got the course of the river here. But the river used to go much further inland. So what they did, these Victorian engineers in the mid-19th century sort of walled off the river and then started building over some of the land where the river had been.

It’s an internal working document and we can see it’s been hand coloured to show different things. So we have green representing reclaimed land so that’s where the river’s been taken back and some of that land would become gardens, public gardens, which you can still visit today. And we also see a pinky orange, I suppose, colour, which represents the proposed roadway so if you’ve ever been in a bus or perhaps in a car at the Thames Embankment near the Hungerford Bridge, you’ll know that there’s a road down side the river, and that was part of what the embankment claimed back from the river. We can also see railway lines coloured in pink there and yellow for other roads.

This is all part of a massive scheme of construction in London. And we can see in this second plan here, even more detail with the construction they’re doing and this reclaimed land here. This is a little bit further east and it’s more zoomed in than the first plan we were looking at. Look we’ve got Waterloo Bridge here in the middle, Somerset house here, which is now part of the University and art gallery here. And there we’ve got just here off the map, we see Hungerford Bridge, that footbridge and railway bridge.

And we can see the embankment being built here. This new roadway. Here’s the river. This with the green line is the reclaimed land. You can see there’s no buildings around here. That’s where the Thames went to. So these are all new roads. And we can see here the line of this new road and so forth is coming through buildings.

So this is a massive wave of construction, destruction, changing the very fabric of London.

So these are documents that were made by the people who were who, you know, government departments who were keeping track of this this massive building project. And this document is really useful in helping us understand the period of construction we have in mid-19th century London involved in the construction of a sewer system we’re still using today. And the sewer system is constructed in response to a massive public health crisis in mid-19th century Britain. So throughout the country, not least in London, where they have something called the great stink where the river is so filthy, it’s disgusting to smell and brings a lot of sickness in 1858. As part of this, they throughout the country they start to construct ways trying dispose of sewage and that’s building sewers. And the Victoria Embankment was part of a massive program of works embarked upon being led by a man called Joseph Bazalgette who was an engineer.

So Bazalgette was involved in constructing a huge network of sewers and other work alongside that in London and the Victoria embankment itself was constructed between 1865 and 1870. Bazalgette didn’t design it himself, it was designed by another engineer, but he was superintending all the works across London. And the embankment is not just some gardens, it’s not just a road. It contains a railway tunnel as well, for the district line now you would get, Embankment Station, but also contains lots of sewage outlets. So we have the rain water which dilutes the sewage which sits in these large tunnels, and then the tide comes up from the river, goes through valves, it flushes out into the river, which is probably not a good way or thing to do with sewage, certainly not something we try and do now.But at the time it was a good solution. Now…

One of the reasons why we have this document is because this was a huge project. It was going to cost a lot of money, a lot of public money. So even though it’s being undertaken by the Metropolitan Board of Works, a London based organization, the British government are backing it. So the Office of Works as the sort of superintendents of all sort of public works by the country. They want to know what’s going on. They want to know they’re getting their money’s worth and it’s going to work. So that’s why we have these plans that have been submitted to them so they can understand what they’re spending their money on.

And this was a massive project. So as I’ve said, we’ve got sewers here, but it’s not the only sewer in London. So as part of Bazalgette’s plan, he builds 82 miles of large brick sewers that you can stand up in, they’re still there now. They’re like tiny rivers. Sometimes they did use old rivers in London, which have become polluted with sewage and had basically become sewers, he covered them.

But also he built over a thousand miles of street sewers underneath the streets of London. And before that, a lot of sewage would’ve just flown through the streets in an open sewer or been put in things called cess pits which were effectively holes in the ground just full of sewage. So this was a massive undertaking, it was very expensive as well and very, very complicated.

They started work on the embankment itself as part of the rest of the sewer system in 1865. It was meant to take three years and finish 1868. It didn’t finish until 1870, and that’s for a number of different reasons. For one thing, it was very complex, very grand, grand project. Also they couldn’t find the workers to carry out the work, there was a labour shortage, and also they to have a lot of trouble trying to secure property rights for these buildings that they were going through these new things they were trying to build.

And it also cost a vast amount of money. The whole project at the time was £1,260,000 or thereabouts, which is about £157 million in today’s money. So it’s a vast amount of cash being spent on this.

And the delays and the cost were used by opponents throughout the country, not just in London, of these new ideas for building sewage systems to try and deal with Britain’s public health crisis. They saw Bazalgette’s system as wasteful and not effective, and they used the fact it was being delayed and it was costing a lot to try and attack other people who support sewage systems throughout the country, not just London.

And we can see throughout the country, particularly with the Victoria Embankment, just how much 19th Century sanitary reform has impacted the built environment we live in now.

And if you go down to the Victoria Embankment today, you will see there is a small statue of Bazalgette and it has a Latin inscription ‘Flumini Vincula Posuit’, which is terrible pronunciation, but translates more or less literally to he placed chains upon the river.

From the Office of Works, it’s just one of many, many thousands of plans, drawings, and maps, which helps us understand how in the sort of public part of our country built how government offices went up, how the Thames was embanked and through the Office of Work’s drawings, we could see the development of these projects, what might have been, what wasn’t ever.