The Serpentine, in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, is an artificial lake constructed on the orders of Queen Caroline c1730 by damming the Westbourne or Ranelagh Brook, and thus flooding some previously marshy areas and old sand workings. Unfortunately, the flow of the Ranelagh was inadequate for a body of water this size, and it was largely stagnant except in times of high rainfall. The Westbourne, which flowed from Hampstead Heath to the Thames at Chelsea was also known as the Ranelagh Sewer – although it must be pointed out that a sewer meant nothing more than an open drainage ditch. It was, in fact, illegal to discharge human excrement into the public sewers of London, although no doubt the many horses and dogs etc were not as fastidious! Houses had earth closets and cess-pits, which were emptied from time to time by night-soil men.
In the early nineteenth century the London water companies campaigned for this restriction to be lifted, since they were keen to encourage the use of water closets that increased their sales, and obviously water closets could not be used with cess-pits. They succeeded in getting the London by-law changed in 1815, after which the sewers began to assume the character that we now understand by the term. By an Act of 1844, it became illegal to construct a house in London that was not connected to the public sewers, provided that there was one within 100 feet, and the Thames, into which they all ultimately discharged, became progressively more polluted. A series of covered main sewers, intercepting the surface drains, was constructed on an ad hoc basis as the century wore on, and it was this random network that was finally rationalised by Joseph Bazalgette in the later 1860s and 70s.
One of these sewers ran along the Bayswater Road, effectively severing the Serpentine from its supply, although a weir was built, allowing the Bayswater Sewer to overflow into The Serpentine in storm conditions. Although this meant the Serpentine was nominally being topped up with rainwater, it was the sewer