Interview with Mathilda Fowler. Part 1.

A few weeks ago I had a very interesting chat with Mathilda Fowler about her residency at Post Projects in New Cross. The work she presented at her exhibition was based on research she carried out concerning Joseph Bazalgette and the London Metropolitan Boards Closed Sewer System.
A really interesting part of the residency was a walk along the Southern Outfall Sewer, which we will cover in part 2 of the interview. For now, you can read her anecdotal history of the sewage system that Bazalgette designed, and see the work that this research inspired.

[for part 2 click here]

Mathilda Fowler: One of the reasons why I chose the sewers as a subject for the residency was because Deptford Pumping Station was just round the corner from the project space. The station is part of this massive metropolitan sewage commission works in the 1860s by Joseph Bazalgette.

[At this point we have a debate on how to say 'Bazalgette', as it transpires that he was Spanish. It involves me doing a bad, pan-European accent which luckily cannot be translated in to text]

Bazalgette was the engineer commissioned to devise a sewage system that would unite the whole of London. Before him, although London had sewage systems, they were very local and were managed by the local boroughs. That is apart from the King's sewers, originally commissioned by Henry VIII. They are some serious, grand sewers, which I think are still working, but they were only designed for surface water from the roads. For domestic waste, most people had some kind of cesspit.
  The sewers that were around had incredibly small pipes that could only be maintained by children. This kind of waste is really dangerous, because it is so explosive. If you take down a gas lamp in to a chamber full of methane producing material then it can be a real problem.

Matthew Giraudeau: Did they find this out the hard way?

MF: Yeah, lots of dead children. Before the industrial revolution, sewage was manageable, in a sense. A lot of the effluent would just seep in to the ground and dissipate. But as population density increased in the city, that seepage began to contaminate drinking water supplies.
  Until the mid 19th century, there was someone called a night soil man. He would be paid to come and empty out your cesspit. He would come along with his horse and cart and take away all your shit. Then he would take all your shit to the countryside, where it could be used as fertilizer, and in some cases, as a kind of fuel. But around the mid 1800's, because of their incessant colonizing of other countries, the English suddenly begun to have access to a lot of Guano - bat poo. This was shipped in as a much more efficient fertilizer, and suddenly dealing in human poo was not such a profitable business.

  The poverty in industrial London meant that if you didn't have any money for your cesspit to be cleaned, then you would just let it fill up until it leaked in to your neighbours house.
There were recurrent outbreaks of Cholera, and in 1858 there was 'The Big Stink'. After a particularly dry summer, London experienced a horrendous outbreak of Cholera with thousands dying. At Westminster, they made plans to escape to Hampton Court to get away from the smell. It was so vile that people were dipping their curtains in chloride of lime (a bleaching powder).
  While this was going on, there was also a change in the way people thought about the transmission of disease. Up until then there had been a common theory of 'miasma', or 'bad air'. Disease was felt to be carried in this bad air. If you could make the air smell nice, then you would get rid of the disease held in the air. Bazalgette's sewers were originally commissioned because everyone believed that they would get rid of the smelly, 'bad' air, and therefore stop the spread of Cholera.
  Germ theory was being pushed as a paradigm for understanding the spread of disease, although it came up against a lot resistance. People just wouldn't believe that Cholera could be spread through water, even though a lot of people in London were still getting their drinking water from the Thames, and it was also where people dumped their waste!

Even now, in heavy rain, the current sewage system means that if there is any kind of overflow, then sewage will still go in to the Thames. A new sewer is currently being built under the Thames called the Thames Tideway. It's being dug out by this big bore-ing machine called, 'Nora the Borer'. It follows the route of the Thames and it's being built specifically to deal with that problem.

Memorial to Joseph Bazalgette on Victoria Embankment

Studies For Monument to Bazalgette, pear's soap, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

The works that I made whilst on the residency were little carved monuments to Joseph Bazalgette. I took the forms for the monuments from this statue of Bazalgette, which is on the Victoria Embankment. The circle in which is bust is contained is meant to represent the sewers. Bazalgette also designed the Victoria Embankment, which constrained the size of the Thames, and eased congestion in the city. So even above ground, he had a strong influence on the flow and movements of the city.

Studies For Monument to Bazalgette, pears soap, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

I carved these monuments out of Pear's soap, as studies. The idea is that I would have them cast in soap so you could have them next to your sink. So every time you wash your hands, you send a little bit of the monument as an offering, down the drain and in to the sewer.

Studies For Monument to Bazalgette, pears soap, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

MG: Why Pears soap?

MF: In the summer I found an interesting article on Pears soap. It still has pretty much the same formula as it did in the 1800s. In the early 19th century soap production was a cottage industry that used animal fat. But then with the industrial revolution, there was a much higher need for soap to get rid of all the grime for people working with engines and in factories.
   Because of the colonies, Britain had access to a large amount of vegetable fat, in the form of palm oil from tropical West Africa. There is this uneasy transition period, as the main export of West Africa changes from slaves to palm oil. On the one hand it was very positive, and was capitalised upon by the soap companies as a marketing strategy, i.e. people being freed because of the soap industry. But at the same time, the advertising for Pears also focused on the fact that their soaps could, 'wash a black boy white'. All the connotations of that are very uncomfortable, it brings to mind the idea of the white man's burden being to educate and civilise.
  It is also that, to me, Pears soap looks like either precious amber, or frozen piss.

Studies For Monument to Bazalgette, pears soap, 2009. Mathilda Fowler