Brighton Sewers

Year:1874

Duration:3 years

Cost:£105,000 (£11m today)

Country: Brighton, UK

Build an effective sewer system for Victorian Brighton

What is now the city of Brighton and Hove used to be a small fishing village on the south coast called Brighthelmstone. The village grew into a small town called Brighton by around 1700.

The town expanded rapidly from 1750, when local physician Dr Richard Russell suggested that the sea off Brighton’s coast could cure all sorts of illnesses. Londoners started visiting the town ‘to take the waters’.

By 1850, Brighton was a thriving seaside resort with around 60,000 residents – and no proper sewer system. Most of the town’s sewage was still draining into cesspools at the back of people’s houses or being pumped directly into the sea a few feet out from the beach.

Bad sanitation led to outbreaks of cholera, and Brighton council started looking for ways to improve the existing system.

The first real long-term attempt to deal with the town’s sewage came in 1871 when the council employed engineer Sir John Hawkshaw to design an effective system.

Hawkshaw came up with a seven-mile-long intercepting sewer transporting Brighton’s waste east along the coast to Telscombe Cliffs, where it was pumped into the sea.

Hawkshaw’s brick-lined sewer still serves the city, although a treatment plant was later added along the coast at Telscombe.

Difference the project has made

Hawkshaw’s sewer system – along with later additions by other engineers – reduced the incidence of cholera and other water-borne diseases in Brighton.

Diverting sewage away from Brighton improved the quality of the sea off the town’s beaches. This meant people kept visiting, which helped the local economy.

How the work was done

Engineers working on Hawkshaw’s intercepting sewer used the ‘cut and cover’ method to dig the structure.

This meant digging a D-shaped trench that was open to the air. Workers used timber supports to support the trench walls and then lined them with bricks. They then covered the trench over with a roof of earth and lined the upper part of the tunnel with bricks.

Some sections of the sewer were built in the shape of an egg to help water flow faster.

Workers used steam-driven cranes to lift some of the heavier building materials, but most of the work was done by manual labourers. Rubble from the works was removed by men with wheelbarrows or horse-drawn carts.

At the time, bricklayers were paid between 10 and 15 shillings (50p to 75p) per 12ft (3.6m) of sewer tunnel. The best bricklayers could make £4 and 10 shillings (£4.50) a week.

General labourers earned about half what bricklayers got – around £2 and 5 shillings (£2.25) a week.

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In the following treatise, I offer to the reader’s consideration a few cases relating to such maladies as have yielded to the efficacy of sea water...

Dr Richard Russell, from his ‘Dissertation on the use of sea water in the diseases of the glands’.

Fascinating facts

Engineers added a ventilator to Hawkshaw’s sewer in 1865 at the village of Rottingdean, five miles east of Brighton. The ventilator building was disguised to look like a coastguard’s cottage.

There are still five raw sewage outfalls along the coast at Brighton and Hove. They’re used when heavy rainfalls flood the city’s sewage network.

Brighton’s sewage system currently processes around 20m gallons of sewage a day.

People who made it happen

  • Designer: Sir John Hawkshaw, ICE president
  • Contractor: Sir John Aird

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