Victoria Embankment, which runs for a mile and a quarter along the River Thames, is many people’s idea of quintessential London. Some of the earliest postcards sent in Britain depicted its broad promenades and resplendent gardens. The Metropolitan Board of Works, which oversaw its construction, hailed it as an “appropriate, and appropriately civilised, cityscape for a prosperous commercial society”.
But the embankment, now hardwired into our urban consciousness, is entirely the product of pandemic. Without a series of devastating global cholera outbreaks in the 19th century – including one in London in the early 1850s that claimed more than 10,000 lives – the need for a new, modern sewerage system may never have been identified. Joseph Bazalgette’s remarkable feat of civil engineering, which was designed to carry waste water safely downriver and away from drinking supplies, would never have materialised.