In transcribing the following material from The Reader, an interesting, unfortunately short-lived intellectual magazine of the 1860s, I have used the Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. The full-text version is generally accurate, and the most common OCR error here takes the form of turning the letter “e” as “o.” I corrected the scanning errors, and for ease of reading I have added a few paragraph breaks. If you come upon any errors I have missed, please do not hesitate to inform the editors of this site. — George P. Landow

Decorated initial T

he public interest which is at length being directed to utilizing the enormous quantity of material possessing agricultural value, and now being discharged from the sewers of London without receiving any useful application, will doubtless afford satisfaction to many who have long recognised the importance of this subject. It is, however, very desirable that, in the organization of some mode of utilizing sewage, the real merits of the question to be considered, should not be lost sight of; and, since the contention which has arisen with regard to the right of dealing with the sewage of London appears to be based upon a high, if not an exaggerated bolief in its value, and upon considerations of prospective profit to be derived from dealing with this material as a marketable commodity, without a due regard to the real aspect of the case, I will, by your permission, offer a few remarks on some points which do not appear to have been sufficiently considered by some of the disputants.

London Nightmen. “t was the task of these men to excavate and cart off the human excreta deposited in cesspools, labor referred to as "nightwork" because by law it could only be performed after twelve o'clock at night.” Image and text from Mayhew. Click on image to enlarge it.

In a chemical point of view the sewage question has long been definitively settled. There is no doubt as to the immenso agricultural value of certain constituent parts of sewage which aro now annually wasted under the existing system of disposing of it in the case of London. Containing the excretal refuse of the whole population, it represents the entire quantity of corn and meat, &c, consumed as food by that population, independently of other materials, useful as manure, which pass into the sewage from other sources. In a sanitary point of view the main object is simply to get rid of this refuse; and that object is generally considered as being effectually and satisfactorily accomplished.

But this material, which is refuse in a sanitary point of view, is not so in an agricultural sense. Representing the food consumed by the population, it bears the same relation to that food, and to the means by which that food was produced, as the manure of the farm-yard — the staple fertilizing material of the farmer — bears to the food and litter of the cattle fed upon the farm, with a portion of its produce.

In both cases the excreta contain ingredients of the food consumed, which were essential for its production, and which are capable of again serving for the growth of an equal quantity of food when used as manure. Without venturing to express in figures the annual value of the manurial ingredients contained in the sewage of London, the above statement of their relation to the food consumed, may serve to give an approximative idea of the immense aggregate value as manure. There is, however, another point to be considered. Manure, to be of use, must be put upon the land it is intended to fertilize; and the cost of carrying it to the land, compared with the effect it is capable of producing, must determine whether its use can be attended with profit. Now, in regard to town-refuse, the system of water-carriage adopted for getting rid of it in the case of London, is attended with the effect of distributing the materials, whose intrinsic value as manure is so immense, through a mass of water so much more immense that, even according to the most favourable, but disputed, estimate of the value of those materials, it amounts to only 2d. per ton of the sewage; so that, according to this estimate, it would be necessary to put some 2000 tons of sewage upon land in order to produce the effect which one ton of guano would produce.

Faraday Giving His Card to Father Thames. Punch (21 July 1855): 26. Click on image to enlarge it.

This, then, is the great difficulty to be dealt with in the utilization of sewage. This is the fact to which attention must be directed in the endeavour to make sewage useful as manure. And, if this fact be fully considered, it will be found that, in the case of London, the very immensity of tho value to be realized involves considerable disadvantages. The concentration of so vast a quantity of material at one point, the large area of land for which it is capable of serving as a fertilizer, the relation of London to the surrounding country as regards level, and a number of similar circumstances, combine to enhance the difficulty of using this material as manure in such a manner as might be accomplished with ease in the case of a material whose bulk bore a less proportion to its value.

Tho case is precisely analogous to that of the gold-bearing rocks of Wales. The gold is there, no doubt, in immense aggregate quantity; but it is disseminated throughout such a largely preponderating mass of worthless material that it is highly problematical whether it be practically accessible. It is all very well to say, "There is an ingot of gold, weighing so many ounces, which has been got out of the rocks," and to appeal to that as conclusive evidence that it can be got out of them. This kind of evidence and argument will have great weight with many; but it is not conclusive; nor is it to the point.

This is very much the case, at the present time, with regard to the utilization of London sewage as a source of profit, which appears to be the motive mainly influencing those who are contending for the privilege of dealing with it.

It should be remembered also, in regard to the idea of commercial profit to be derived from the use of sewage as manure, that the majority, if not all, of those who have considered this Bubject and who aro competent to judge of it, have declared their opinion that the undertaking, if entered upon with the view to profit, would result in great pecuniary loss and signal failure. Even Baron Liebig, who has been a most enthusiastic advocate of the use of sewage as manure, finds himself "oppressed with an anxiety which is greator than he can describe" now that this important question is progressing towards solution (see letter to Lord Robert Montagu, Times, 14th Nov.) The consideration of the subject, in an engineering point of view, has been scarcely attempted, or, at any rate, the public are not in possession of any such statement with regard to it as would justify their confidence in the prospect of profit to be derived fnom the use of Loudon sewage as manure.

But there is yet another aspect of this subject, one which is perhaps more worthy of attention than any other, though it may present less immediate attractions than the prospect of profit which has roused the energies of the Common Council. It is the mere agricultural value of sewage which, as in the case of the Welsh gold, is the same whether it can be a source of profit or not. That has long since been proved, both by considerations such, as those already referred to, and by the experience of years, where it has been used, as at Edinburgh, Croydon, Rugby, &c. It is now admitted by every one. Why then should the sewage of London be allowed to run to waste? Does the getting rid of it for sanitary purposes require that it should be utterly wasted? Are there no means of getting rid of it so as to admit of its being used as manure, and thus increasing the produce of land, independently of making it a source of profit to thoso whose business it is to get rid of it?

There was, some years ago, a prospect of such a utilization of London sewage being to some extent possible. The inhabitants of London, having determined upon incurring a vast expenditure for the purpose of getting rid of their refuse, might have applied that expenditure in such a manner as to render the sewage available to farmers round London, instead of devoting it solely to a means of throwing it into the sea. This was a prospect which was certainly worth more consideration than it received at that time; there was a golden opportunity for the Common Council or any other body to earn for itself an enviable distinction by insisting upon the investigation of a question of so much national importance.

So far as the expenditure then incurred in sewage disposition is concerned, that opportunity is past; and the question as to the utilization of sewage remains, otherwise, in much the same position as it did then. It may safely be said that, even in regard to the possibility then existing, there are no known data which would justify the opinion that such a mode of disposing of London sewage would have been profitable at the outset, even though it might have been practicable and advantageous. All that is now known as to the value of sewago as manure was almost equally well known then; very little of what was then wanting to determine the practicability of the undertaking has since been supplied.

There are, indeed, many who consider that the system of water-carriage adopted for disposing of the refuse of London has been altogether a mistake; that, though it has secured a satisfactory sanitary state of dwellings, it has been, on the whole, a retrogression instead of an improvement, inasmuch as it has been attended with the results of destroying the purity of rivers and wasting an enormous quantity of material which ought to be used for fertilizing land, or of rendering the use of that material more difficult than it need be. In the case of London, however, this step may be regarded as irrevocable, and attention should be confined to the means by which the immense value of the manurial ingredients of the sewage may bo rendered available. For that object the consideration of the subject should be so free from the distortion duo to erroneous anticipations that its real aspect — the difficulties as well as the advantages — may be fully appreciated.

Notwithstanding all that has been said and written on this subject, such a consideration of it is still a desideratum, and would doubtless lead to the formation of correct views; so that, if the attempt to utilize London sewage should be undertaken, it would be entered upon, not as a speculation, in the belief that it would prove a direct source of fabulous wealth, but from the rational conThe Victorian Environmentviction that it is an undertaking which would eventually be of great national advantage, and that it is a disgrace to the intelligence and resources of the ago that materials so valuable for the most important art of civilized life, should be needlessly wasted while the ends and corners of the earth are being ransacked to find substitutes for them. Benj. H. Paul.

Related Material


Paul, Benjamin. “Use of Metropolitan Sewage in Agriculture.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (December 1864): 742-43. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street.” Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 25 July 2016.

Allen, Michelle. Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographers in Victorian London. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Wohl, Anthony. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, .

Last modified 26 July 2016