Some Thanet beaches were out of bounds for swimming due, yet again, to a release of sewage. That news took me back to my days with the drainage department of Thanet District Council (TDC).
At that point I had completed some civil engineering courses at Canterbury Technical College and was about to begin my civil engineering degree at Greenwich University. I was a well-established wife and mother and was more than ready to burst out of my home-centred chrysalis and fly into the world of work.
To be a woman civil engineer
Even though I knew there weren’t many women in engineering I wasn’t deterred. To be a civil engineer I needed to be good at maths, and I was – very good. However, I had little knowledge of what an engineer did on a day-to-day basis. So I decided it might be a good idea to gain some hands-on experience before I began what I knew to be an intellectually rigorous course.
I approached TDC (at that time my local council) and, as luck would have it, someone was on long term sick leave and they could do with a hand. Hurrah!
When the sewer backs up
Reading safety manuals was as illuminating as it got initially, while they worked out what to do with the first woman in their department. However, my first call to go out with the drainage team soon followed. TDC manages all the public sewers, collecting not only sewage but also rainwater. So during a storm when the system is inundated, the outfalls come into play.
The team was called out to a blockage. A typical call: a member of the public had raised the alarm that sewage was backing up in their property. After speaking to the property owners, we went to find the nearest inspection chamber. As was often the case, it was in the road and for safety’s sake the road had to be closed. It was the first of many road closures that I was to experience, facing the ire of the public.
Getting used to the smell
Taking the cover off the inspection chamber a thick and cloyingly sweet smell greeted me. I tried not to breathe; I would get used to it, I told myself sternly.
I was being watched for my reaction. “Well”, I said, “when you’ve changed as many nappies as I have, then you become inured to this smell”. I lied; I wasn’t inured at all. I felt sick. The inspection chamber was large, at least large enough for two men (before me it had always been men) and the sewer was two metres deep.
The depth varied depending on the topography: in Ramsgate, for example, they were ten metres deep. A discussion followed, and rodding was decided as a first course of action. To rod the sewer, access had to be gained by climbing down a rusty ladder built into the side of the chamber. We wore safety clothing and equipment: an orange boiler suit (far too long in the leg), rubber gauntlets and wading boots were the basics.
A week before joining TDC I had to go to a vaccination clinic (it doesn’t sound onerous now that we are all used to Covid vaccine clinics, but then it was). The vaccines were for hepatitis, tetanus, e-coli, and leptospirosis, a dangerous disease carried by rats and their urine. Rats lived in the sewers – this fact was the worst news. Spiders yes, disgusting smells yes, bobbing fæces, just about, yes. But rats? No way. My medical records were annotated on the front cover with all this information.
Up for the challenge
I was being tested; my choice of career was looking less inviting as time went on. I became aware of my reactions being watched. It was my role, I soon realised, to show that women could be every bit as capable as men working as an engineer. I couldn’t let them down. So, I smiled and got on with sloshing about in urine and fæces.
My mother-in-law, who was no fan of mine, made great play at dinner parties of her daughter-in-law working for a living in sewers. I suppose it was reverse snobbery.
Old sewers no longer up to the job
So, back to leaks; invariably major leaks caused mayhem and distress to the public: their homes, their workplaces, their leisure time. Just like any town where the drainage system is old – made from ageing materials, designed for a smaller population, fewer buildings, fewer roofs, fewer impermeable surfaces; drainage systems designed for a time when we were more sparing with our water usage.
There was a time when drainage systems coped mostly; a time before climate change, where changing weather patterns create soaring temperatures, drying out the ground, breaking pipework, and deluges of rain create floods that overwhelm drainage systems built for different conditions.
Taking health and safety seriously
Before I could do any work below ground on TDC’s major sewer networks carrying waste, I had to attend a health and safety course. Alarm bells rang when I was informed it was at the fire service training centre. The course was over three days and we were to be tested, myself and three others from TDC, in ways that can only be said to be challenging. But that was the point – in an emergency you have to know how to cope. This course was preparation for that. To rod a drain? To do calculus? I could do those. But to face an emergency, you have to be trained.
If you can imagine a smoke-filled room with no visibility whatsoever then that’s how the course started. But first there was new kit to be worn. Much the same as before: rubber thigh boots, rubber gauntlets, overalls (legs still had to be turned up for my diminutive 5ft 3in) and a hard hat. But added to that, as if that wasn’t enough, on the final day was breathing apparatus. I could barely move. This was my first experience of breathing apparatus; it wasn’t a good one. I weigh 55kg and the breathing apparatus weighed 23kg.
Women aren’t strong enough
We had been warned about this final day and I had been told by my team leader that it wasn’t possible for me – being a woman that is. Red rag!
I filled a child carrier with bricks to the weight of the tanks and then I set off and walked round the local roads. It was heavy, like carrying an inert body on your back. I could see their point; it was incredibly heavy.
The first two days of the course were spent dragging bodies (a straw effigy of body weight and shape) through small diameter pipes that were not wide enough to fit your shoulders through, so you had to do a sort of sideways crab pulling yourself on your knuckles and knees. Did I mention the pipe was very long and dark? On day two you had to find the body first, again of the straw effigy type, in the pitch black of a smoke-filled room and carry the body to fresh air. The bruises took weeks to disappear.
Last day of training – would it be the final straw?
The final day of the course, so that I could go underground to find the leaks, was to don breathing apparatus and go down into the caves of Ramsgate that were used during the war as air raid accommodation. Challenging … and if you are at all claustrophobic, as one of the team turned out to be, then this is definitely not for you.
That day’s challenge was to carry a body on a stretcher with three others. I just knew it was going to be the big man hovering in the corner of the training room, with the largest beer belly I had ever encountered, and of course, so it turned out to be. The man (of the beer belly) was waiting for us already tucked up on the stretcher at the cave opening. It seemed to me a task fit for Hercules. Was I destined to live forever on Mount Olympus?
It turned out I was.
Back to the leaks. I was now qualified to deal with leaks below ground, and as well as clay and concrete sewers there were also chalk headings. These are rectangular shaped passages through the chalk beds; chalk is a self-supporting geology of Thanet along which sewage is piped. I spent many a call out slushing my way down these person-height headings looking for ingress of rainwater through the walls and ceilings.
Checking the outfalls
The main project put on my desk in my year with TDC was that of checking the outfalls around the coast of Thanet. Were they blocked? Were they flowing? Were they discharging sewage? Was the grill in place? Were they working properly?
I would set off in my banana-coloured midget with my waders, hi-viz jacket, hard hat, and of course the orange boiler suit. I encountered sewage discharges, blocked grills, outfalls dry as they had probably been for years. I set in place testing of water discharges, were they contaminated? I proposed a plan of the actions required. I wonder if it has been done since.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
So, from the news this week of the beaches of Thanet and Eastbourne nothing much has changed from my time at the coal face.