A day at the seaside 
Nick Catford

On Saturday 9th June 20 members of Subterranea Britannica headed down to Brighton for a gentle stroll round the town sewers. During the summer months, Southern Water, who own the network of Victorian sewers running under the town, take visitors a short distance into the Brighton underworld. The entrance to the sewers is through pier arch 260 beneath the Palace Pier. As soon as the door opened the smell of raw sewage hit us and stayed with us through out the trip. "Your nose soon get anaesthetised to it" our guide told us; my nose certainly didn't.

Having donned hard hats a tally and gloves to protect our hands from rats which have been known to scurry along the hand rails, we were also warned about open cuts coming into contact with rats urine which can lead to Weil's disease. We didn't see any rats although I noticed a couple of trays of rat poison lying on the ground. We moved forward into a small room where we saw a video about the sewers and the recently constructed storm water storage tank running 100 feet deep along the beach. Our guide also explained that the tours started later than usual this year. Normally the underground summer trips would begin again at the Brighton Festival in May when they are always a sell-out attraction. However, visitor facilities, lighting and other safety devices installed in the sewers specifically to allow the public to visit were badly damaged in the winter storms. He explained "At times the sewers were dealing with huge volumes of water which has damaged lighting and alarm systems installed to enable the public to tour the sewers. Our visitor area in the sewers was also damaged during the storms, with pictures, displays, leaflets and videos ruined. This all needed to be replaced for us to re-start the tours." The room we were sitting in was half full of water and it burst out onto the promenade. Now a new water tight door has been fitted between this room and the sewers.

Having seen the video we split into two parties as the first section involves some narrow passages and small rooms. "It's at this point we find out if anyone is claustrophobic" explained our guide, being seasoned underground explorers none of us were. We entered a winding 'safety passage' that links a number of sewers at a lower level. At the end of this passage below the front of Harry Ramsden's chip shop on Marine Parade, we were able to look down into the fast flowing east - west intercepting sewer running between Hove and Portobello. The murky water is about two feet deep and our guide explained that because of the fast flow all the solid material, much of it fat from local restaurants, is broken up. This and other intercepting sewers carry storm water, domestic and industrial waste water and foul water all mixed in together. There is a large trap door in the floor at this point which gives access to the 'Catch tanks' These tanks or pits were built to collect road grit and heavy stones and need frequent clearing. Today this work is carried out late at night when the sewer flow level is low. The grit is either dug out by hand and winched up into a skip lorry above or it is sucked up by a lorry on the surface. The catch tank used to be part of the public tour but this involved climbing down a 10 foot vertical ladders and health and safety regulations now forbid this. It is considered safe to climb up a vertical ladder but not down!

We retraced our steps and then along a short passage that brought us out level with the main east - west sewer we had seen earlier. At this point there is an overflow weir (under the Albion Hotel) taking the water into the large diameter brick lined overflow sewers. These consist of two parallel tunnels about 9' in diameter running from Old Steine Gardens, by the Royal Pavilion to an outfall beside 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. These tanks have only filled up on two occasions. From the weir we descended a fight of stairs into the overflow sewer itself which no the north was circular and to the south was barrel shaped.

We retraced our steps and descended another flight of stairs into the parallel overflow sewer. High on the wall here is a high water mark which indicated the height of the high tide. Before the overflow tank was constructed the sewers used to be open to the sea and at high tide the water would flow back into the sewer and up to this mark. This has now been stopped by gates that are only opened in emergencies.

We made our way down the 9' diameter storm water overflow sewer, there was a little water on the floor but this is from natural springs and we passed one of them jetting a stream of clear water into the sewer. This wide tunnel is about 200 yards long running north - south. We passed a smaller overflow sewer to our right that joined our tunnel, then another one that had been bricked up. Eventually we emerged in a vast brick lined underground chamber where we joined the second parallel overflow sewer. On our right, behind a wall was an active intercepting sewer running in its own channel and at the end of the chamber, which must have been 100 feet long, this sewer diverged, one arm running along London Road as far as the railway viaduct and the other running along Lewes Road.

We had reached the end of our tour. A short ladder, a flight of steps and another short ladder and we emerged in the sun on the edge of Steine Gardens. We walked back to where we had entered the system to collect our belongings and leave hard hats and tallies.


Early in the 19th century the town of Brighton, then known as Brighthelmstone, had a population of around 7000. 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 called 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. 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 wastewater 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 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.

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.

At Rottingdean High Street the sewer is 50' below ground and receives the wastewater of Rottingdean by way of a catchtank. 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 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.

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.

Taken from :-
'Brighton's Magnificent Sewers - A Victorian Underground Masterpiece'
: published by Southern Water


Tours are arranged by Southern Water from May to September, weather permitting.

Updated 09 March, 2010
e&oe Martin B Snow 2002-10. All rights reserved. See here
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