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Joseph Bazalgette: Obituary

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1891 Obituary [1] [2]

SIR JOSEPH WILLIAM BAZALGETTE, C.B., Past-President, was born at Enfield on the 28th of March, 1819. The family was of French extraction, and the name figures in the fifteenth century among the old noblesse. His father was a Commander in the British Navy, from which, after much active service, he retired in 1815.

Having been educated in private schools, Joseph was articled at the age of seventeen to Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Macneill, and was employed at his recommendation as Resident Engineer on drainage and reclamation works in the North of Ireland. He subsequently directed his attention more particularly to this subject, and visited the principal works of that nature in Holland.

In 1842 he was practising on his own account in Great George Street, Westminster, and in 1845-6 was busily engaged in railway and other works of considerable magnitude, exerting himself to such an extent that his health suffered, and he was obliged to cease work and go into the country, where a year of perfect rest restored his energy.

On resuming business he accepted, in 1849, an appointment under the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, and thus began his connexion with the two great municipal works by which his name has become so widely and so honourably known, namely, the Main Drainage of London and the Embankment of the River Thames. The best record of Sir Joseph’s life and labours will, indeed, be formed by a brief history of these works, with which he was most specially identified from their inception to their successful completion.

Down to 1847 the drainage of the Metropolis was under the charge of no less than eight separate municipal bodies, each exercising an independent sway over its own district. With such division it was impossible that any advantageous principles of drainage could be acted on, and the evils became so apparent that in 1848 an Act was passed to consolidate the whole management under one 'Metropolitan Commission of Sewers.'

The Commissioners, an unpaid body of twelve gentlemen, began zealously to improve some details, but in 1849 they were superseded by a second body, which advertised for competitive designs for a complete systematic drainage of London. This body also resigned before the plans were examined, and their successors, among whom were included several eminent engineers, appointed an engineer of their own selection, Frank Forster, to prepare, partly in conjunction with Mr. Haywood, the Engineer of the City Commission of Sewers, a complete drainage scheme. This was done and the scheme was described in two reports, dated respectively March 1850, and January 1851.

The third Commission had, however, no power to carry out such works, and was superseded by a fourth, and this again gave way to a fifth, appointed late in 1852. Still, however, nothing practical ensued, and the Engineer, Mr. Forster, whose health had given way under the anxieties of his position, resigned his office, and shortly afterwards died.

At this time Mr. Bazalgette came prominently forward in the matter. He had since 1849 held office under the successive Commissions, and on the death of his chief he was selected, out of thirty-six candidates, as the most suitable person to fill the vacant post. He was immediately instructed, in conjunction with Mr. Haywood, to prepare a scheme for the main drainage, and the joint engineers, taking as a basis the proposals of Mr. Forster, presented a modified and improved plan in the early part of 1854.

The progress of this scheme was, however, frustrated by the interference of a public department called the General Board of Health, and after further changes in the Commission the Government resolved to create a new representative body, an Act to effect this object being passed on the 16th August, 1855. This was the origin of the Metropolitan Board of Works, one of whose first acts was to appoint Mr. Bazalgette as their Chief Engineer, and to instruct him to report at the earliest possible period as to the works necessary for the main drainage of the Metropolis.

It might be supposed that under these circumstances the work would henceforth go on smoothly; but this was not to be. It was a proviso in the Act that the designs of the Board were to be submitted for approval to the Government, and in accordance with this Mr. Bazalgette’s plans were sent to Sir Benjamin Hall, the Chief Commissioner of H.M. Works, in June 1856. Questions were then raised about the outfalls and other details, and after the plans had been twice modified, the Government, being still dissatisfied, determined to refer the whole question to a Committee of three engineers, Captain Douglas Galton, R.E., James Simpson, and Thomas E. Blackwell.

The submission was made in December 1856, and, after a long inquiry, the referees, in July 1857, reported on several points unfavourably to the Board’s plan, and recommended a scheme of a much larger character. After some ineffectual negotiations the Board instructed Mr. Bazalgette, in conjunction with two other engineers, G. P. Bidder and Thomas Hawksley, to reconsider the matter. A reply, from these gentlemen jointly, to the Government referees was delivered in April 1858, and led to a discussion between the parties which lasted some time.

Meanwhile the state of, the River Thames was daily becoming worse, and Parliament was in despair at seeing that nothing was being done. But there had been a change of Ministry, and, on the urgent application of the Metropolitan Board, Mr. Disraeli succeeded, in August 1858, in passing an Act which relieved them from the necessity of Government sanction, on the ground that, as the Metropolis paid for the works, they had a right to construct them in any way they pleased, or, as the First Commissioner afterwards expressed it, 'He who pays the fiddler has a right to call the tune.' This settled this matter.

Immediately after the passing of the Act the Metropolitan Board instructed Mr. Bazalgette to complete the detailed designs, and contracts were entered into for the construction of the works. The engineer seconded their wishes most energetically.

In 1865 the great drainage system was formally opened by H.R.H. the Prince of Wales; but the latter portions took considerable time, and it was not finally completed until 1875.

The works of the Metropolitan Main Drainage have been fully described in a Paper given by Mr. Bazalgette to the Institution in 1865, for which he was awarded a Telford Medal and Premium.

It will suffice here to say that they consisted of 83 miles of large intercepting sewers, draining more than 100 square miles of land covered with buildings, and estimated to deal 420,000,000 gallons per diem. The amount expended on the works by the Board was £4,600,000.

As a conclusion to the remarkable history of this remarkable work it is only just to Sir Joseph's memory to insert the following observations by a body especially competent to judge of its merits, namely, the Royal Commission on the Metropolitan Sewage Discharge, of which Lord Bramwell was President. In their First Report of 31 January, 1886, they say :-

'The historical notice we have given will show that the drainage system was decided on under great difficulties, the differences of opinion as to some of the principles of the scheme being very formidable. It became, therefore, an arduous task to settle the plans to be adopted, but the state of the river rendered a prompt decision necessary, and it cannot be questioned that the Metropolitan Board of Works had good grounds for the course they took in the matter. The arguments in favour of a larger scheme, with more distant outfalls, were urged with much force, and by very competent authorities, but the Board had to consider the important conditions of promptness of execution and economy of cost; and as they had reasonable justification for believing in the sufficiency of the scheme they adopted, they cannot be blamed for declining to commit their constituency to what they thought an unnecessary expenditure, especially as an extension of the outfall sewers to a lower point, if necessary, could always be effected at a future time ; and, having once decided on their plans, the energy shown in carrying them out with all expedition is deserving of great credit.

'To their engineer also, who has been fortunate enough to see the great work carried through from its inception to its successful completion, high praise is due.

'It is true that the main features had been proposed before he took charge of the work, but this fact in no wise detracts from Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s professional skill in re-designing the whole scheme, in all its comprehensive details, and in carrying it through all the intricate difficulties of its construction, so making that practical which before was theoretical only. And it must be observed that, whatever differences of opinion may exist as to disputed points in the design of the works, no question has ever been raised as to their excellence of construction.

'Then, further, no one can deny the great benefit that has arisen from the main drainage works. The discharge of the sewage into the river within the heart of London had become intolerable, and its interception has exercised a powerful influence in improving the general health of the metropolis. For the system has not only removed an offensive and deleterious element from the most populous part of London, but has also promoted general salubrity by improving the drainage of the entire metropolitan area.

'And even granting that some evils may be caused, as we think is the case, by the present mode of discharge, yet these are not of a nature to be compared with those that have been removed by the main drainage scheme.'

In the latter years of Sir Joseph‘s engagement under the Board of Works, he designed and carried out extensive works to supplement the original main drainage scheme. These consisted chiefly in the enlargement of the existing sewage reservoirs at the main outlets at Crossness and Barking, and the construction of precipitating tanks, whereby the sewage sludge which had previously been accumulating in the bed of the Thames could be deposited in the tanks and pumped out into suitably constructed steam-vessels for rapid conveyance out to sea, where it would be discharged into deep water. In these large precipitating tanks the effluent sewage was also treated with chemical deodorants before it was permitted to be discharged into the river.

The other great work which has contributed to Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s fame is the Embankment of the River Thames. The idea of this had long been an object of contemplation with persons interested in the improvement and embellishment of the Metropolis. It was first propounded by Sir Christopher Wren after the great fire, and towards the middle of the present century, John Martin, the well-known painter, with remarkable foresight, devised a scheme for combining an embankment with the interception of the sewage from the river.

In 1860 the idea first assumed practical shape ; an embankment was recommended by a committee of the House of Commons, and in the following year a Royal Commission concurred in the recommendation, but suggested that, in view of the magnitude and importance of the work, the undertaking should be entrusted to a body of special commissioners. The Metropolitan Board pointed out to the Government the inexpediency of calling into existence a new body for the purpose, particularly as the low-level sewer was to be formed in the embankment under their responsibility; the Government agreed with this view, and in 1862 passed an Act which empowered the Metropolitan Board to execute the work.

This was followed by other Acts, the designs were prepared by Mr. Bazalgette and the work proceeded. Some delay was caused by the arrangement for constructing a large portion of the Metropolitan District Railway in connection with the embankment; and a portion of the eastern end near Blackfriars had to be modified accordingly, but by energy and good management the work was completed from Westminster to Blackfriars in 1870, and was opened in state by the Prince of Wales on the 13th of July in that year.

In 1866-9 another portion of the embankment was constructed on the Surrey side, between Westminster and Vauxhall, and in 1871-4 a further portion at Chelsea. In 1876 was formed the fine approach to the Embankment from Charing Cross, called Northumberland Avenue.

These admirable works, which cost £2,150,000, have been fully described in a Paper given to the Institution in 1878 by Sir Joseph’s third son, Edward Bazalgette.

On the completion of this work the Queen was graciously pleased to confer the honour of knighthood on the Engineer who had previously (in 1871) been made a Companion of the Bath. The following was the letter conveying to the Board Her Majesty’s command :-

11th May, 1874.
DEAR COLONEL HOGG,- I have much gratification in informing you that, to commemorate the completion of the Thames Embankment, the Queen has been graciously pleased to confer on you the high distinction of a Knight Commander of the Bath (Civil Division), and on the eminent Engineer of the Works, already a C.B., the honour of Knighthood.
I remain, dear Colonel Hogg,
Yours sincerely,
(Signed) B. DISRAELI.
Colonel Hogg, M.P., Chairman of Metropolitan Board.

These monumental structures hare not, however, been the only useful and important works designed and carried out by Sir Joseph in his capacity as Chief Municipal Engineer of the Metropolis.

Under the provision of the Metropolitan Toll Bridges Act 1887, Waterloo, Charing Cross, Lambeth, Vauxhall, Chelsea, Albert, Battersea, Wandsworth, Putney and Hammersmith bridges over the Thames, and the bridge at Deptford over the Creek, were purchased at a cost of nearly a million and a half, and opened to the public free of toll.

Pending the enquiries to determine their value, Sir Joseph gave evidence as to their strength and condition, and, when they had passed into the hands of the Metropolitan Board, made important repairs and improvements in their structure.

He also designed the new bridges at Putney and Battersea, and designed and constructed a steam ferry across the Thames between North and South Woolwich, which has been found of great public utility. He also raised the levels of all wharves along the banks of the Thames within the metropolis and of over 40 miles of river bank, so as to prevent the damage to property in the low-level districts which had been caused by the frequent overflowing at high tides.

Among the works designed by him but not yet carried out may be mentioned a large tunnel under the Thames between Greenwich and Blackwall, and a high-level bridge, consisting of a trussed steel arch of 850 feet span proposed to be erected over the river near the Tower.

He remained with the Metropolitan Board till its dissolution in 1889, and his last (thirty-third) annual report of the 31st of December, 1888, published in the final Official Report of the Board, gives an idea of the work he had to do. It occupies fourteen closely printed folio pages and refers to no less than nine hundred and fifty detailed reports he had made in the course of the year. Sir Joseph was on many occasions consulted by foreign governments with reference to schemes for the drainage and improvement of large continental cities, and in his own country he frequently gave advice and assistance to the authorities of provincial towns.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette was connected with the Institution for more than fifty-three years, and at the time of his death only four members survived of older standing than himself. Entering as a Graduate on the 6th of March, 1838, he was transferred to the class of Member on the 17th of February, 1846. He was elected a Member of Council in December, 1867, a Vice-President in December, 1879, and filled the office of President in 1884. His Presidential Address was mainly devoted to considerations affecting public health and welfare in all the large cities of the world.

Sir Joseph married, in 1845, Maria, fourth daughter of the late Mr. Edward Kough, J.P., of New Cross, County Wexford, by whom he had a family of six sons and four daughters. Although of small stature and of somewhat delicate health, he possessed great energy and strength of will, which enabled him to combat and surmount the difficulties, often considerable, of his responsible public post.

He had in later years often suffered seriously from asthma.

He died, much regretted, at his residence at Wimbledon on the 15th of March, 1891.

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