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John Phillips (1817-1897)

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Civil engineer of 26, Disraeli Road, Putney, Chief Surveyor to the Metropolitan Commissioners of Sewers.

c.1817 Born in Callington, Cornwall[1]

1861 Civil engineer living in Islington[2]

1881 Builder employing 12 men[3]

1891 Civil engineer, living in Putney with Elizabeth Phillips 60, Katharine Phillips 37, Charles Phillips 35, Florence E Phillips 31, Helen Phillips 29[4]

1897 died aged 80 in Putney[5].


1897 Obituary[6][7]

"THE mind so readily assimilates new conditions and makes it difficult to recall the unpleasant past, that it will surprise many to know that the engineer who had some claim to be called "The Father of Sanitary Science in England" has only now passed away in the person of Mr. John Phillips, who, at the advanced age of 80 years, died on July 22.

Trained as a builder, he became early in life associated with the sewage of London, acting for some time as a clerk of works to the Westminster Court of Sewers, being in 1846 appointed chief surveyor. The existence of commissioners in the several districts suggests the fact that there were sewers, but they were in a most deplorable condition, and Mr. Phillips, in his fearless exposure of the ways of the commissioners, and of the dangerous condition of the sewers, was at much physical and financial loss. The Metropolitan Sanitary Commission of 1847 had not then been appointed; his reports had much to do with its initiation, and his eloquent appeals had still more to do with its recommendation in favour of a central authority free from that concentrated self-interest which so largely dominated the local boards. It was not enough that they had on them Lord Chancellors, the Lord Chief Justices, Lords of the Treasury, and the like ; these merely served to give an air of respectability to the findings of others who were ever obstacles to progress when it involved any expenditure.

The Courts of Sewers, as they were called, exercised little or no authority over either the arrangement or construction of any of the old sewers; public feeling had not been roused to the importance of drainage from the health point of view; and thus builders did not follow any systematic arrangement as to plan or level. The form of sewer was nearly flat-bottomed, with upright side walls, built of brick, generally 3 ft. wide, and from 3ft. to 6 ft. in height, with all connections at right angles. The sewers were mostly in a ruinous condition, and had to be repeatedly cleansed at great expense. The materials used in their construction were the worst of their respective kinds; place bricks, and mortar corn posed of chalk, lime, and loamy pit sand.

Mr. Phillips, then a young man, entered upon a vigorous crusade, and he tells in some of these old reports, with a simplicity which is the essence of eloquence, how he explored the sewers to acquaint himself with the evils and to find a remedy. In All Souls, for instance, many were dying from sewage poison; the rate of mortality was 1 in 27 against 1 in 59 in the neighbouring parish of Christ Church. And yet when Mr. Phillips drew up his report; in which he stated that "a vast number of sewers are similar to elongated cesspools," his fellow officers, while agreeing with it, were afraid to sign it because of the self interests involved; that was brought out in evidence at the inquiry of the Sanitary Commission. Again, when Mr. Phillips brought forward his scheme for more effective arrangements, the chairman of the Westminster Commission of Sewers objected to it because it was prepared by a mere clerk of works. One of the members, however, consulted several builders of repute and their unanimous approval proved too effective opposition for the chairman. These regulations were enforced in 1846, and provided for systematic and improved construction. They made imperative, as far as it was possible, many changes since universally approved.

In conjunction with the surveyor then of the Holborn and Finsbury Division, Mr. Phillips first applied in 1843 earthenware glazed tubes. He also perfected and introduced the egg-shaped sewer, which was so well spoken of by the Government Commission in 1847 already referred to. By a long series of experiments he was able to prove its efficiency, and, moreover, established its economy, showing that it cost a little more than a third of the old sewer with flat bottom and perpendicular sides. His rules also called for access manholes at frequent points, and he invented the street gully now used everywhere. In this connection it is scarcely necessary to state that he was a strong advocate of the separate system. He always held that it was practically impossible to provide a perfectly innocuous system of town drainage while combining in one channel the house-washings and night soil with the land and surface drainage; and this advocacy is also to be credited with the change in this direction. Indeed, for many years he was incessant in his work to improve sanitary conditions.

He formulated a scheme in 1847 for the complete drainage of London at a time when complaints were made as to the pollution of the air by sewer gas. He advocated a tunnel intercepting sewer from Twickenham to Plumstead marshes, 19 1/2 miles long, with a fall of 49ft. 3 in., which was to take the place of the Thames. The diameter was to be 8 ft., and in its course it was to cross 11 times under the winding river, the cost being 634,991L. There were to be sewerage purification works at the outfall works, and several other ideas which in the lapse of time have been fully realised. Indeed, in very many respects he was a pioneer - we have only sought to indicate generally the influence rather than the details of his work - and there can be no question of the great value of the labour of his life in the healthier condition of the poorer classes. It is true we have not yet in all parts attained his ideal; there is yet room for his successors in stimulating public authorities."


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1891 census
  2. 1861 census
  3. 1881 census
  4. 1891 census
  5. BMD
  6. Engineering 1897/08/13
  7. Engineering 1897 Jul-Dec: Index: General Index