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A little history of Brighton's magnificent sewers

A bright beginning
Early in the 19th century, the town of Brighton - then known as Brighthelmstone - had a population of around 7,000. By 1849 this figure had risen to 60,000 and many of today's familiar places were being built, including the Royal Pavilion, the Volks Railway, the Aquarium and the Palace Pier.

Just before 1860, the town council decided that all of Brighton's wastewater should be drained into the sea. Until then the sewage and household waste was mostly drained into cesspools at the back of dwellings - a most unpleasant arrangement.

At this time very few sewers had been laid. The few that existed were 22cm (9"  in diameter, constructed of 11cm (4.5") brickwork in lime mortar and called 'gun barrel' drains.

Some rainwater sewers were constructed of hewn chalk with a slate bed and discharged directly on the upper part of the beaches. It was forbidden to connect household drains to them, although many illegal connections were made and the outfall pipes were gradually extended further out to sea.

Following detailed surveys by the town council, work began in 1865 to improve the systems. The old streets were drained into three outfalls, one at the western boundary, one at the town centre (Albion) and one using an existing outfall at Black Rock. Each was provided with an overflow weir which would operate in times of heavy rain.

About 71km (44 miles) of sewers were laid ranging from 30cm (12") diameter salt-glazed ware pipes to  2.4m (8ft) circular brick tunnels.

Public pressure
The inhabitants of Brighton were not content with this outfall arrangement and, in 1869, public pressure grew for an intercepting sewer - a main trunk sewer into which other sewers would drain and which would take the wastewater outside the town altogether.

When the council officials consulted several engineers they received a wide variety of proposals, including extensions to the existing outfalls, an intercepting sewer with an outfall to the west of the town near the present Hove lagoon, and an outfall at Saltdean.

Sir John Hawkshaw suggested the scheme which was subsequently adopted - an intercepting sewer draining into an outfall at Portobello, which was then nearly four miles east of the borough boundary.

This generated much controversy locally and it became a hotly-argued election issue. An Act of Parliament was obtained in 1870 forming a body called the Brighton Intercepting and Outfall Sewers Board.

The board accepted a tender of 80,000 from Mr Matthew Jennings and work began in January 1871. But it stopped in May when the contractors could not cope with the volume of water encountered.

The sewer completed
A new contract was awarded in August to Messrs John Aird and Son and the work was finally completed in June 1874. The cost to the Board was 104,608 but Messrs Aird lost 40,000 because they too had trouble with the amount of water encountered.

Thirteen pumps of  51cm(20") diameter were driven by nine engines to pump an estimated 68 million litres (15 million gallons) every 24 hours. The resulting intercepting sewer is circular, made of brickwork, 1.5m (5ft) in diameter from Hove Street to East Street and 2.1m (7ft) thereafter to Portobello at Telscombe - a total of 11.5km (7.25 miles).

At the Old Steine and Black Rock storm water overflows were built. Catchpits were built to collect road grit and heavy stones, and these need frequent clearing. Today this work is carried out late at night when the sewer flow level is low. The grit is dug out by hand and winched up into a skip lorry above ground and taken away. Sixty ventilating shafts were built along the length of the sewer, and these also provided means of access for workers.

Two storm sewers both 2.4m (8ft) in diameter were constructed at a later date to take any excess flow caused by excessive rainfall in the catchment area.

Subsequent improvements
In 1885 an additional ventilator was added to the system at Rottingdean, incorporating a building which was a replica of the many coastguard cottages at that time. Many years later, this was demolished and a modern bungalow put up in its place.

Another shaft, built in 1876, was topped with a chimney standing 31m (102ft) above the cliff top at Roedean. A coke furnace was kept burning 24 hours a day to draw a continuous flow of air through the sewer. The chimney was demolished in 1933.

At Rottingdean High Street the sewer is 15.2m (50ft) below ground and receives the wastewater of Rottingdean by way of a catch tank. Up to this point the sewer has a gradient of one yard per mile (91cm per 1.6km), but from here to Portobello the gradient is one foot per mile (30cm per 1.6km).

As Brighton and Hove continued to expand, the sewerage system was extended to include new streets.

Following a severe rainstorm in 1892, it became obvious that some of the trunk sewers would have to be enlarged and a scheme costing 25,000 was implemented. Repairs were also carried out to the Kings Road sewer which was described as being old, although the original construction date was not known. Serious flooding also occurred along Lewes Road and this prompted the construction of the relief sewer in 1929.

This, then, is the trunk sewer system still in use today. As the urban area has expanded so has the sewer system - 482km (300 miles) of main sewers now exist beneath Brighton and Hove.

Since the early 1960s, tours of the magnificent Victorian sewers have been held from May to September. For safety reasons children under 11 and people who may find the underground ladders difficult to manage are not permitted.

Responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the sewers passed from the Brighton and Hove Intercepting and Outfall Sewers Board to the Southern Water Authority following the Water Act of 1973, then in 1989 to Southern Water as part of the privatisation of the water industry.

Meeting today's requirements
The Victorian intercepting sewer still forms the backbone of today's sewerage system in Brighton and Hove - a wonderful tribute to the design and workmanship of those early engineers.

But modern requirements - particularly in avoiding pollution through storm overflows and sea water outfalls - mean that extensive work has to be undertaken to keep the system up to date.

For example, Southern Water has built Europe's largest stormwater storage tunnel, 4.8km (3 miles) long, 6m (20ft) in diameter and 30m (100ft) under the seafront at Brighton and Hove, to stop pollution during storm conditions.

This work is bringing significant improvements to the quality of the bathing water along the Sussex coastline and these improvements will continue in the years to come.

So, in Brighton and Hove, a combination of Victorian ingenuity and modern technical knowledge is providing one of Europe's most efficient sewerage systems.