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California holds the key to Bazalgette’s legacy

Nearly 20 years ago, when ­organising an exhibition to ­commemorate the centenary of the death of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, pictured right, I visited the then offices of Thames Water at New River Head to locate archival material and photographs relating to ­Bazalgette’s main drainage scheme in London. Mike Chrimes reports.

At that time Thames Water were employing a records management consultant to advise on the organisation of their archives in preparation for the relocation of most of their engineering staff to Reading. What I saw was a well organised archive with staff familiar with the drawings of Bazalgette and his successors.

Today, if one wants to see the former Metropolitan Board of Works Library, formerly housed at New River Head, one has to visit Stanford University in California where, as their website proudly claims, Bazalgette’s working library is now housed.

Comprehensive record

While most of the material they hold is also held at ICE, often presented by Bazalgette, it is remarkable that such a comprehensive record of London’s infrastructure is now housed several thousand miles away from the engineers who have to maintain it.

The problems with tracing sewer records were highlighted in the ICE’s recent State of the ­Nation: Infrastructure 2010 report. This does seem remarkable given that the former National Water Council issued guidelines more than 30 years ago.

One can imagine a number of reasons why it is so hard to trace records - changes in local government, and corporate ownership, changes in technology - from paper-based to microfilm and now digital records, and successive software changes.

There are also the problems in older urban areas of changes in street patterns, and the inter-relationship of natural water courses and an imposed sewerage network.

While reasons for difficulties in tracing records and locating sources are easy to imagine, the extent of the problem, and potential solutions are not as clear.

Archive training

I suspect a number of means of addressing the issue are required - one may be training engineers in the use of archive sources. A good records management system is only as good as the access it enables for the end user, and if engineers do not use archives it is unlikely archivists will prioritise digitisation of engineering records above the demands of family historians.

Training is relatively easy to deal with; the loss of drawings and plans less so.

The ICE Archives Panel are intending to contact utility companies and others involved in sewer maintenance to try and bottom out the problem. Is it an occasional irritation for those involved in sewer maintenance to be unable to trace sewer records, or a daily occurrence?

The value of ICE’s archives was revealed again last week when on the recommendation of Mott MacDonald, a group from the Government of Southern Sudan came to see what records we hold on irrigation and related projects in that area.

The Institution has several metres of public works department records and consultants reports on the region.
Hopefully, they will be of help in restoring and developing an area that has been ravaged by warfare in recent times.

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