Hello, friends! Did you hear about the “fatberg”? It was a 15-ton conglomeration of solid fat found in a London sewer. (This NPR blog post has a photo. If you’re the queasy type, don’t click; just take my word for it.) This thing was 15 tons of congealed fat mixed with disposable wipes. Sewage workers spent 3 weeks hacking it into chunks which were then taken away in “heavy-duty lorries”. They said, “If we hadn’t discovered it in time, raw sewage could have started spurting out of manholes across the whole of Kingston [in suburban London].” Workers are now busy repairing the damage done by the fatberg to the sewer.
You’ve probably noticed my fascination with sewers and the grotty details of urban life. And naturally, the first thing I thought when I heard this was, “Well. This would never have happened in Victorian London.” And it has nothing to do with population growth or advances in kitchen plumbing. Or the fact that baby wipes hadn’t yet been invented.
The first thing is that solid fat was an important resource in the nineteenth century. It was part of English cuisine (beef dripping or bacon fat spread on bread; lard in pastries; fats from all animals cooked into meals) and, if you were poor, an essential source of calories and nutrients. Fat also had commercial value: you could render it down and use it to make soap. If you had an excess of fat, you could sell it around the neighbourhood, or to the scrapman who came to your door. Indeed, fat was relatively expensive: there’s a traditional treat called lardycake, a sort of brioche made with lard and currants. It’s a festive food, associated with special occasions, and part of that is because of the extravagance of kneading sugar, dried fruit, and lard into a bread dough. But I digress. My point is that because of fat’s many uses and significant value, no one would deliberately pour it down the drain.
Even so, a small amount of fat must have found its way into the sewers (greasy dishwater, spills). We know this because in 1862, a journalist named John Hollingshead explored the sewers and and noticed “icicles” of fat clinging to the sewer roof. But remember! At this time, sewers drain straight back into the Thames. And this is where the mudlarks came in handy: poor Londoners, often children, who scavenged through rubbish on the riverbanks. They collected whatever refuse could possibly be recycled or re-used. Any clots of fat they spotted bobbing on the water would have been harvested and sold, too.
We had to wait until the early twenty-first century, and our prodigality with (and simultaneous terror of consuming) solid fats, and our domestic laziness in flushing everything down the toilet, before we could experience the Fatberg. Not really much of an advance, is it?
P. S. You probably don’t need to be told this now but please don’t pour cooking fat down the sink, especially the stuff from your festive turkey or your weekend bacon. Please don’t flush disposable wipes or maxi pads down the toilet. Don’t put hair in the toilet, either. All these things will only come back to get you in the monstrous form of the Fatberg.
P. P. S. Thanks to my friend Sean Burgess, who first alerted me to the Fatberg.