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London’s ‘fatberg’ on show

The Whitechapel Monster, a giant block of grease from the sewers, comes to the Museum of London. Is it a monument to the age of waste?

By Tim Adams  /  The Guardian

Tim Henderson, a “flusher,” or trunk sewer technician, holds a “fatberg” as he works in the intersection of the Regent Street and Victoria sewer in London on Dec. 11, 2014.

Photo: AFP

Nobody remembers exactly who coined the word, but it started off as a bit of slang used by the Thames Water “flushers” who work to keep the sewers flowing freely beneath London. Their word first surfaced from those Victorian tunnels and into the newspapers in August 2013, when a bus-sized “fatberg” — a solid mass of oil and grease and undisposable disposables — was removed from a sewer in Kingston upon

Thames. After that the name caught on in the way that its rival “johnnyberg” (used by the flushers of Anglian Water, who had been struck by the preponderance of condoms in the ossified deposits) did not. “Fatberg” reached the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015 — at the same moment as “manspreading” and “Brexit” and “bantz” — and in the same year in which a record-breaking 10-tonne example broke a sewer in Chelsea costing Thames Water £400,000 (US$556,000) to fix. But it wasn’t really until last year that “fatberg” went viral.

The Whitechapel fatberg that made headlines in September was among the UK’s most infectious social media exports of last year. The units in which it was routinely measured gave away its birthplace. This being a London phenomenon it was invariably described in local currency: at 820 feet, the fatberg was “longer than Tower Bridge” or “twice as long as Wembley Stadium” and “the weight of 11 double-decker buses.”

Having once led the world in sewer engineering with Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s cavernous underground network of marvelous tunnels, London was now the undisputed global leader in sewer blockage. TV crews were dispatched from Moscow and Montreal and Madrid to stand above manhole covers along Whitechapel Road and hold their noses while Thames Water flushers in white protective suits used high-powered jet hoses and picks and shovels and vacuum pipes to break the fatberg up and then remove it in tankers at the rate of 20 to 30 tonnes per day. Ninety three per cent of its complex structure was said to consist of the element “wet wipe.” By the time the clean-up was over, and its notoriety had spread, lesser fatbergs were being unearthed in Belfast and Denver and Melbourne.


It was in the first week of the discovery of the Whitechapel Monster (the hyperbole was part of the attraction, no nomenclature for the Subterranean Beast was too extreme) that the Museum of London, halfway through a series of exhibitions about modern city living , decided it must have a slice of it. Sharon Ament, the museum’s director had been thinking about the possibility of displaying a fatberg in the museum — whose collection includes a variety of valuable objects retrieved from drains and cess pits and sewers from Roman times on — since the previous big find in Chinatown in Soho. On that occasion the museum had not acted before the fatberg was destroyed; this time it was ready.

(Apparently there was some talk that the Science Museum wanted a chunk of fatberg too, though when it discovered the Museum of London had first dibs there was, by some accounts, a collective sigh of relief among the curators there.)

At the end of this week, a representative chunk of the Whitechapel Leviathan will be put on display at the Museum of London. It is likely that no lavatorial exhibit will have caused quite as much a splash in the capital since Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal went on display at the Tate, and invented conceptual art, exactly a century ago.

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