“There is something in a sewer, …. Down below That has a strange allure, … Down below, The magic of the drain, is a thing you can’t explain, But it’s calling me again, … Down below.”
Back in those dim and distant days when public services and utilities were owned and run by the very people who used and paid for them, i.e the public, my Uncle Tom worked for Hornsey Borough Council in the Sewage Department. Officially he was a ‘Sanitary Worker’ but to the rest of us he was ‘a flusher’. When asked what that entailed he said “Sorting the solids from the liquids” which was enough to stop any further questions. Every morning, with a flask of tea and some sandwiches stuck into an old Oxo tin, Uncle Tom would disappear down a hole somewhere in North London, to reappear hours later from another hole miles away. He sometimes smelt a little whiffy when he came home but he said ‘The effluvia clears my chest’. Sometimes the effluvia cleared the house.
With their oddly shaped shovels and scrapers the flushers were a modest freemasonry, with a philosophy of their own. They knew that the health of the city and all its citizens, rich and poor alike, was dependent upon their work ‘down below’. Even the grandest palaces needed sewers. “We know all about the royal ‘we’’”, said Uncle Tom.
Like most staff at the Hornsey treatment works Uncle Tom was very proud of the sewers and job he did in them. “It is as perfect a drainage system as any part of the country”, said Uncle Tom. Thanks to meticulous brickwork, skilled engineering and artful design the system largely ran itself. You did your thing, you pulled the chain, it flushed into the drain, where it mixed up with rain and other surface water and eventually finished up at the sewage works. Many of those drains and channels that Uncle Tom helped clean and maintain 60 years ago are still working perfectly well today.
The word ‘tosh’, as in “a load of old tosh” meaning rubbish comes from the slang “tosher” used for people who scavenged in Victorian sewers. The only real treasure that Uncle Tom found during his years ‘down below’ was a gold wedding ring which was eventually returned to its owner.
One of Uncle Tom’s jobs was to manage the rats which according to him were the sewer man’s best friend - they disposed of many of the less pleasant things flushed down the lavvy - but they were also his worst enemy when their population exploded. To sort out that problem every now and then Uncle Tom would leave out piles of tempting corn-based rat food for a few days. Then, once the local rat population had got a taste for it, on the final day the food was laced with poison. “A fed rat is a dead rat,” said Uncle Tom.
If you look down into a sewer manhole you will see at the bottom ‘benching’ sloping upwards at 20 degrees from the main channel. According to Uncle Tom, this was to prevent rats having parties on them! “You cannot socialise on a slope”, said Uncle Tom.
Like most public utilities at the time Hornsey Borough Council was very proud of its sewage works and the site often welcomed large groups of visitors, from the Boys Brigade to the local Townswomen’s Guild. After a tour round the works, passing the coarse screen filters (a sight to behold), the settling tanks and the tertiary filtration systems the closing highlight was a display of tomatoes growing on a bed of sludge. The guide would explain that of the many things that pass through the human body tomato seeds are one thing that survive unchanged and undiminished. Given a nice bed of fertile muck, of which there was plenty and some warmth and moisture, tomatoes would flourish prolifically. The visitors were invited to try some and even take some home and a few brave souls did. There were fewer volunteers willing to sample the recycled water ready for emptying back into the nearby New River. Although it was pure enough to drink as happily demonstrated by the guide and came from a shiny brass tap under a sign saying “Drinking Water” there were few takers.
Uncle Tom spent a long and happy life ‘flushing’ down the sewers, rarely ill and always cheerful. In those early days of the Welfare State when the nation was struggling against post war shortages and austerity he felt that he was doing something useful to help his fellow man and you really cannot ask much more out of life than that - “Not so much working as going through the motions!” said Uncle Tom.
“Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”
A song about sewers and flushers written by Sydney Carter and performed by Ian Wallace.
– from Martyn Day