Site Records

Site Name: Brighton Sewers

Outfall at Albion Groyne
OS Grid Ref: TQ313038

Sub Brit site visit 16th August 2008

[Source: Nick Catford]

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 Brighton Pier. Just before 1860, the town decided that all of Brighton's waste water should be drained into the sea. Until then the sewage and household wastewater was mostly drained into cesspools at the back of dwellings. At this time very few sewers had been laid. The few that existed were 9'' diameter, constructed of 4.5'' brickwork in lime mortar and known as gun barrel drains. Some rain water sewers were constructed of hewn chalk with a slate bed and discharged directly on to the upper parts 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.

Photo:Brighton & Hove intercepting sewer in 1939. It shows the meeting point of the London Road and Lewes Road Valley sewers. Two workmen can be seen standing in the tunnel entrances at the rear of the sewer. Water is running down through these tunnels while another workman attends to the overflow area on the left of the photograph. The tunnels visible at the rear of the photograph are approximately 2.5 metres high. If the water was too high, it would fill into the 27 metre overflow channel.
Photo from Brighton & Hove Museums collection

Following detailed surveys by the town council, work began in 1865 to improve the systems. The old streets were drained into 3 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 44 miles of sewers were laid ranging from 12'' diameter salt-glazed ware pipes to 8' circular brick tunnels. The inhabitants of Brighton were not content with this outfall arrangement and, in 1869, public pressure grew for an intercepting sewer; a main trunk which other sewers would drain into and which would take the waste water out of 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

Brighton & Hove intercepting sewer in 1939
Photo from brighton & Hove Museums collection
was subsequently adopted, an intercepting sewer draining into an outfall near Portobello, which was then nearly 4 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 Sewer 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 contractors could not cope with the volume of water encountered.

Cleaning a sewer
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 20'' diameter were driven by 9 engines to pump an estimated 15 million gallons every 24 hours. The resulting intercepting sewer is circular, made of brickwork, 5' diameter from Hove Street to East Street and 7' diameter thereafter to Portobello, a total of 7.25 miles. At the Old Steine and Black Rock storm
water overflows were built.

In 1865 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 was built in its place. Another shaft, erected in 1876, was topped with a chimney standing 102' 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.

Photo:Storm overflow sewer leading to to an outfall by the Albion Groyne alongside the Palace Pier. These days, water would only enter the sea in extreme and prolonged storm conditions. A short distance along the overflow sewer is a vertical shaft, 100 foot down into the overflow tanks beneath the beach.
Photo by Nick Catford
At Rottingdean High Street the sewer is 50' below ground and receives the wastewater of Rottingdean by way of a catch tank. Up to this point the sewer has a gradient of 1 yard per mile, but from here to Portobello the gradient is 1 foot per mile. As Brighton continued to expand, the sewerage system was extended to include the new streets. Following a severe rainstorm in 1892, it became obvious that some of the trunk sewers would have to be enlarged and a system costing £25,000 was implemented. Repairs were also carried out to the King's Road sewer which was described as

Sewer outfall on Albion Groyne
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.

Photo:Overflow chamber under Old Steine Gardens for Brighton & Hove intercepting sewer. Beyond the overflow weir seen at the end of the chamber this sewer diverged, one arm running along London Road as far as the railway viaduct and the other running along Lewes Road.
Photo by Nick Catford

Marine Parade sewer in 1950
Photo from Brighton & Hove
Museums collection
As the urban area has expanded, so has the sewer system; 300 miles of main sewers now exist beneath Brighton and Hove. 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.

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. Southern Water has now built Europe's largest storm water storage tunnel, 4.8km (3 miles) long, 6m (20ft) in diameter and 30m (100ft)
under the seafront at Brighton, to stop pollution during storm conditions. Where once the overflow outfall discharged directly into the sea alongside Palace Pier water now drops down 100 foot shaft into the new storage tunnel.

Click here for Brighton Sewer Tour - August 2008

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