Image: Thames Water

Deep in the bowels of London, a network of Victorian tunnels has carried sewage beneath the city streets for more than 150 years. But in 2017 workers discovered something strange lurking in the dark. Longer than the famous Tower Bridge and approaching the weight of a blue whale, it was a monster of strangely – and disgustingly – human origin. But would the team be able to cast it aside?

Image: Hallwyl Museum

At the beginning of the 19th century, London was home to around three million people. And while this made it one of the most populous cities in the world, it also led to some rather unpleasant conditions. In fact, most of the River Thames, which flows through the city, functioned as an open sewer at the time.

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Unsurprisingly, these conditions were disastrous for the health of London’s population. As bacteria bred in the city’s water supply, diseases like cholera became rife. It’s fortunate, then, that human progress prevailed. Eventually, scientists realized what was causing the outbreaks, and the British government began taking steps to modernize the sewers.

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Assigned the task of bringing the system up to date, civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette drew up plans for an extensive underground network consisting of several interlinking sewers. This network then collected waste from across the city and transported it to the Thames Estuary; and there it was disposed of, far away from the local population.

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Built between the years 1859 and 1865, Bazalgette’s system had an immediate effect on public health, preventing yet another cholera outbreak from devastating the city when 1866 rolled around. Amazingly, too, the system is still in use today. And although the Victorian tunnels have been modernized over the years, they continue to form the spine of London’s sewerage system – some 150 years after they were first constructed.

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In fact, as the population of London continues to grow, residents have again become acquainted with the problems of an inadequate sewer system. The River Thames suffers from pollution, and heavy rains bring waste flowing out of the city’s drains. But beneath the streets of East London, another, more modern horror has recently been discovered, too.

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In September 2017 workers from Thames Water were carrying out a routine inspection of the sewers beneath Whitechapel, a once impoverished area of London’s East End. Suddenly, though, any sense of the routine was broken. You see, the team stumbled across something bizarre blocking a 3.9-foot-high tunnel below the city. And the nature of the discovery left many people taken aback.

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Shockingly, the blockage was caused by a collection of fat, oil and waste products that had congealed into a single mass. Weighing in at around 143 tons, the lump – known as a fatberg – stretched to a staggering 820 feet in length. For reference, that’s longer than the combined length of a pair of football fields.

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Fatbergs in the London sewer system in fact date back to at least 2013, when a 15-ton mass of wet wipes and food waste was discovered beneath the district of Kingston-upon-Thames. And interestingly, it isn’t just London that has borne witness to these disgusting monsters over the years.

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In September 2014 the sewers under Melbourne, Australia, became blocked by a fatberg consisting of grease, waste and fat. Then, the following year, the masses were discovered clogging the drains of Cardiff, Wales. London, Wales and Australia in fact seem to be hubs for this particular phenomenon; however, another example appeared in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2017.

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But according to Thames Water, the Whitechapel fatberg was among the biggest that they had ever seen. Furthermore, it had set into a solid mass – making removal a lengthy and complicated process. And if the expert team didn’t succeed in clearing the fat from the sewers, they risked seeing waste flood out onto London’s streets.

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Soon after the discovery of the fatberg, then, eight employees from Thames Water were assigned the task of trying to break it up. Dressed in protective clothing, the crew used shovels and high-pressure hoses to chip away at the blockage. However, breaking through the mass of congealed waste was no mean feat.

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Matt Rimmer, the head of waste networks for Thames Water, has explained the difficulties. In a 2017 interview with the London Evening Standard, he said, “It’s a total monster, and it’s taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove, as it’s set hard.” Eventually, though, after nine weeks of effort, the fatberg was successfully cleared.

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As well as being made up of fat and wet wipes, the mass was also found to contain household waste such as nappies, condoms and cooking oil. What’s more, the fatberg had damaged the structure of the sewer, which made it even more difficult to remove. And while the workers eventually managed to defeat the beast, it certainly wasn’t a job that anyone relished.

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Alex Saunders, Thames Water’s waste network manager, described the horror. “It was some of the most gut-wrenching work many would have seen,” he told the BBC in 2017. Unfortunately, though, it probably isn’t the last time that he and his colleagues will have to face a fatberg. Indeed, it’s thought that the company spends some £1 million ($1.4 million) every month removing similar blockages from London’s sewers.

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According to Rimmer, the blockages are mostly caused by human ignorance – making the entire process even more exasperating. “It’s frustrating, as these situations are totally avoidable and caused by fat, oil and grease being washed down sinks and wipes flushed down the loo,” he told The Guardian in 2017.

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Water chiefs are therefore reaching out to businesses and individuals alike in an effort to prevent fatbergs from continuing to damage London’s antiquated sewer system. And engineers have been taking time to visit food vendors across the city and explain how to properly dispose of fat and waste.

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Rimmer is also encouraging consumers to be careful about what they throw away. “The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish,” he cautioned. “And our message to everyone is clear: please ‘bin it, don’t block it.’” Thames Water, meanwhile, has been researching potential uses for the fatbergs – including the possibility of turning them into useful biofuels.

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Image: Thames Water/Museum of London via ITV News

One such novel use for this particular fatberg was unveiled just weeks after it was finally removed from Whitechapel’s sewers. It was announced that a portion of it would be going on display in the Museum of London in 2018. According to Thames Water spokesperson Stuart White, the idea is to get visitors to think about what they are putting into the city’s sewers. “This rock-solid chunk in the museum is a vivid reminder to us all that out of sight is not gone forever,” he told ITV in 2017. “So please help keep London flowing.”

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