London is full of seemingly forgotten stories that can come alive if you have an enquiring mind and if you look beyond the obvious. Whilst I was hunting for a lost Victorian velodrome in east London I came across a rather nice mural painted close to where the velodromes northern banking would have been. Looking at scenes of east London parks depicted in the mural I began to wonder; what is the structure these images are painted upon?
It soon becomes a little more obvious what the purpose of this walled embankment is as it can be a bit ‘whiffy’ in places. In the mid-19th century London was an extremely smelly place and raw sewage was allowed to flow into rivers freely including the Thames. After an outbreak of Cholera (1853) and the infamous ‘great stink’ (1858) got up the noses of parliamentarians. Joseph Bazalgette was set the task of fixing the problem and in an amazing engineering project across London he built the sewage system which remains the mainstay of the city.
The structure in question is the ‘Northern Outfall Sewer’ section of Bazalgette’s London Sewerage system and it runs for over four and half miles from Wick Lane, Bow to Beckton and whilst the ‘poo’ flows below – atop the man made embankment there is now the London Greenway cycle and footpath trail.
Although Bazalgette’s system changed the very nature of London for the good there was a flaw and that was that the sewage was pumped into the Thames away from the city but still into the river in the hope that the tide would wash it out to sea. In 1878 the crowded passenger paddle steamer the ‘SS Princess Alice’ was struck on the Thames by the collier ‘Bywell Castle’ and sank with the loss of 650 lives, many were trapped below or drowned in raw sewage (women at this time because of the fashion for heavy skirts etc. were particularly vulnerable to drowning). Twice daily gallons of the stuff were pumped into the Thames. From thereon not only was a London maritime safety board set up for the first time to police river traffic, but also sewage was recognised as being a contributing factor in the high death toll of the ‘SS Princess Alice’ ‘day-trippers’. The smell might have been taken away from central London but in the Thames estuary it was still a danger to life.
History has a way of gelling together if you follow your nose; the adjacent East London Cemetery contains a memorial to the victims of the ‘SS Princess Alice’ disaster and Elizabeth Strider the third victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’, who had claimed that she had survived the disaster; she is buried in the same cemetery. Another connection is that the owner of the lost velodrome also owned the shipyard where the launch of HMS Albion caused the deaths of many – they are buried here as well.
In a smallish corner of East London we have a mammoth engineering feat, a stadium where once West Ham FC played and the site of a lost velodrome and also a cemetery, all built in the Victorian period as part of the huge growth in London and highlighting the ambition of the Victorians.
Being a working cemetery there are many new (and gaudy) memorials but in amongst them there are separate mass graves containing civilians, teachers, auxiliary firemen, and fire watchers killed by WW2 bombing. There are a number of WW1 and WW2 Commonwealth War Grave memorials with one dedicated to the sea. In addition to Elizabeth Strider there is also the resting place of Carl Hans Lody who was executed at the Tower of London for spying in 1914, and a little away from his plot is a mass grave of other executed spies. Worthy of note are: Maurice Wagg of the USA Navy, who was awarded a Medal of Honour for his part in the rescue of the crew of the ‘SS Monitor’ (first ‘iron clad’) during the ‘American Civil War’. Also of note are Jack Warner (‘Dixon of Dock Green’) and Doris Waters who with her sister Elsie performed as ‘Gert and Daisy’ (The ‘Mel and Sue’ of the 30’s and 40’s).
I sadly missed both the memorial to the SS Princess Alice or one dedicated to the children and staff of Upper North Street School killed in June 1917 by the first use of fixed wing aircraft in an air raid.
I went looking for a lost velodrome, which I found (but didn’t find) and discovered more about the rich history of this part of London which has not exactly been forgotten, but put to the back of our minds.
Sewer – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Outfall_Sewer
Sewer – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_sewerage_system
Cemetery – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_London_Cemetery
Princess Alics – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Princess_Alice_(1865)
Jack the Ripper – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_the_Ripper
Silvertown – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silvertown_explosion
Maurice Wagg – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_Wagg
Carl Hans Lody – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Hans_Lody
Commonwealth War Graves – http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/38312/EAST%20LONDON%20CEMETERY,%20PLAISTOW
Blitz in Newham – http://www.newhamrecorder.co.uk/news/heritage/ve-day-anniversary-newham-destroyed-during-blitz-1-4066214
Cholera in London – http://www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/
Thames – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_Thames
London Greenway – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenway,_London
Gert and Daisy – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gert_and_Daisy
Jack Warner – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Warner_(actor)
SS Great Eastern – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Great_Eastern