Map showing extent of sewage released into Thames shocks many Londoners

London Letter: The city has come a long way since the Great Stink of 1858, but the river may be going back to its future

Strolling along the River Thames in central London, it is tempting to look up. Up at the London Eye, the giant ferris wheel across the river from Westminster Pier. Up at Big Ben, the city’s most recognisable sight. Up at glass and steel towers such as the Shard, reaching for the sky.

On Sunday, as I summoned my inner Moses to part a sea of tourists flowing at me down South Bank, I focused for once on looking down. Beneath me, I found poetry chiselled into the pavement. Slabs at random intervals are inscribed with verses exalting the Thames. A road of odes.

“Glide gently, thus for ever glide, O Thames!” wrote William Wordsworth in Remembrance of Collins. I know this only because I practically tripped on it and thought to Google the thing that had almost killed me. “As lovely visions by thy side. As now, fair river! come to me.”

A few hundred metres further on, TS Eliot gets more down and dirty on a slab with a verse from his epic, The Waste Land. “The river sweats oil and tar,” he wrote.


The Thames is London’s coronary artery flowing through the heart of the city. Its shape is seared forever into the memories of many Irish people. Not by tales from the diaspora. But by EastEnders. Most people over a certain age can close their eyes and hear the drumbeat opening of the soap’s credits over a birds eye view of the Thames, settling on the U-shaped meander of the Isle of Dogs.

It looks brown and dirty, but reports claim it is one of the cleanest city rivers in the world. London has come a long way since the Great Stink of 1858, when a build-up of excrement in the river caused three cholera outbreaks and a city exodus. But the Thames may be going back to its future.

Campaigners have long pressured Thames Water, the privatised utility for much of southeast England, to be open about the sewage pumped into rivers. Water companies are permitted to let effluent into water courses via “storm overflows” after heavy rain, to prevent sewage backing up in kitchens and bathrooms. But they don’t shout about the details.

Last month Thames Water caved in and published an interactive map on its website, updated in real time, showing where raw sewage is released. The results shocked many Londoners. The Thames and its tributaries are being used as toilets daily.

As I type, I can see on the interactive map that the Weybridge station, which feeds into the river Wey, a mainline Thames tributary to the south, has been pumping raw sewage for 13 hours straight, yet it hasn’t rained a drop for days.

The Northumberland Road facility is beside Westminster and its administrative hub of Whitehall. We all know what politicians are full of, and it isn’t wit. The map shows Northumberland briefly discharged raw sewage directly into the Thames on Sunday evening. The timing invites the question of whether this effluent was a direct result of Treasury officials digesting the 4,000-word Sunday Telegraph broadside fired by former prime minister Liz Truss.

East of the city, the Long Reach station beside Amazon’s huge Dartford Crossing warehouse pumped sewage into the river for 16 hours on January 17th. Historical data shows it discharged for 418 hours over 2021. At least Amazon staff are getting their toilet breaks.

Sewers at well-known locations such as Greenwich (below the EastEnders U-bend), Fleet Street (insert journalism joke here), and Regent Street all sometimes dump effluent into the river. Sandra Laville, environment correspondent for the Guardian, has written extensively about the issue. She showed last month that an outlet in the Cotswolds, where the Thames is born, was pumping sewage into the River Coln for 745 hours.

The worst discharges happen west of the city, so bring your penicillin if you have a river swim there. Thames Water, which is accused by campaigners of under-investing in infrastructure, says it will spend £250 million a year improving its operational sites.

As for Wordsworth, he composed Remembrance of Collins on the banks of the Thames at picturesque Richmond in the city’s southwest. Mogden is the main wastewater plant in that area. BBC reported last year that after a bout of heavy rain in October 2020, Mogden pumped two billion litres of raw sewage into the river in just two days. That could fill 400 Olympic swimming pools.

“That in thy waters may be seen the image of a poet’s heart. How bright, how solemn, how serene!” wrote Wordsworth. He might have been less effusive if he’d had a Thames Water interactive map.