An Oral History of the Whitechapel Monster

 

It was like the finger of fate pointed at me, she explains to me in the museum’s cafe, with well-scrubbed hands and a slightly rueful smile.
 

You make it sound like battling a monster.
 

Worst case scenario if it is handled incorrectly is death.
 

Coffin flies, which are known to feed on decaying matter, hatched and flitted across the structure’s porous surface.
 

This is a really potent object.

It’s the only object in our collection
that has a camera trained on it, 24/7.
 

FatCam is sponsored by:

 

Fatcam will remain trained on the fatberg for the foreseeable future.

(but the problems of affluence accumulate)

 
 

***

 
 

A fatberg weighing the same as 11 double decker buses and stretching the length of two football pitches is blocking a section of London’s ageing sewage network.
 

It is not immediately apparent whether it is animal, vegetable or mineral.
 

As a society, we’ve created this unseen growing monster that lives in the sewers, a place that we depend on but never see. / It’s grand, magnificent, fascinating and disgusting.
 

Having once led the world in sewer engineering with Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s cavernous underground network of marvellous tunnels, London was now the undisputed global leader in sewer blockage.
 

Fatbergs form at the rough surfaces of sewers where the fluid flow becomes turbulent. In pipes and tubes with smooth inner linings, fluid near the containing wall flows only slightly slower than fluid in the central channel of the pipe; thus, the whole volume of fluid flows smoothly and freely. When fluid encounters an obstruction, a resulting swirl of water starts trapping debris.
 

This fatberg is up there with the biggest we’ve ever seen. It’s a total monster and taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove as it’s set hard.
 

Fatbergs became a problem in the 2010s in Britain, because of ageing Victorian sewers and the rise in usage of disposable (so-called “flushable”) cloths.
 

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.
 

In many cases the job of flusher in London is a family occupation, the work traditionally passed down from father to son, much like the job of undertaker.
 

The fatberg had formed along the upper part of the tunnel. Below it there was still a good flow and therefore no warning signs.
 

It is browny, yellowy, greeny in colour, a bit slippery to hold but also very heavy and very hard, and when you cut into it you find a stitching of wet wipes holding it together.
 

Ninety three per cent of its complex structure was said to consist of the element “wet wipe”.
 

Fatberg is a compound of the words fat and berg, after iceberg.
 

TV crews were dispatched from Moscow and Montreal and Madrid.
 

There was a condom hanging out one side, a wet wipe the other, big globs of fat holding it together.
 

Even small amounts of fatberg can kill.
 

[Thames Water] employees have begun to feel fatbergs looming over every part of their life, crowding in on them.
 

The Guardian view on the Whitechapel fatberg: the shock of the poo
 

Below it there was still a good flow and therefore no warning signs.
 

You cannot be sticking your head down the same bit of sewer every week.
 

(but the problems of affluence accumulate)
 

Worst case scenario if it is handled incorrectly is death the same bit of sewer every / the same every no
warning signs
 

A special edition manhole cover was installed today to commemorate the removal of the 130-tonne Whitechapel fatberg.
 

The huge clots of waste that clog the sewers of ancient, affluent cities like London are part of the cost of progress. / the same bit of /I can tell you fatbergs absolutely reek.
 

The work traditionally passed down from father to son, much like the job of undertaker.
 

Where is fatberg now? Is the world safe from fatberg?
 

It was like the finger of fatethe same bit of sewer every / with well-scrubbed hands and a slightly rueful smile.

(Where is the fatberg now?)

 
 

***

 
 

Once weighing 130 tonnes and stretching more than 250m, the mass of congealed fat, wet wipes, nappies, oil and condoms has been conserved by the Museum of London and industry experts.
 

It was like the finger of fate pointed at me, she explains to me in the museum’s cafe, with well-scrubbed hands and a slightly rueful smile.
 

At the Museum of London, the curatorial challenge has centred on the question of whether the fatberg was more like a soap or more like a candle.
 

We have now formally acquired the Fatberg, so it will now remain in the Museum of London’s permanent collection.
 

(you cannot be sticking your head down the same bit of sewer every week / The shock of the poo)
 

As well as breeding maggots, the fatberg breeds metaphors. It is hard not to think of it as a tangible symbol of the way we live now, the ultimate product of our disposable, out of sight, out of mind culture.

For me, the fatberg is rather like the portrait of Dorian Gray: it shows our disgusting side.
 

Whilst on display the fatberg hatched flies, sweated and changed colour. Since going off display, fatberg has started to grow an unusual and toxic mould, in the form of visible yellow pustules.
 

The approach we took with fatberg was very simple: we explored pickling it, freezing it, freeze-drying it, but made the decision just to air-dry it.
Coffin flies, which are known to feed on decaying matter, hatched and flitted across the structure’s porous surface.
 

We’re now the most experienced museum in the world for curating fatbergs.
 

You Can Now Watch the Whitechapel Fatberg’s Decay on Livestream
 

The fatberg samples were lighter than they looked, it felt a little bit like pumice stone, but crumbly in texture.
 

Although there are people who might argue that conceptual art all finds its natural home in the fatberg, not everything in the sewers is conceptual art. Some of it is just sewage.
 

Perhaps we’ll take our toxic lump of sewage on an international tour!

 
 

***

 
 

(but the problems of affluence accumulate)

 

 

 

Image credit: Eva Hesse, Repetition Nineteen III, 1968, via Derivas Urbanas_ Intervenciones

This is part of ROT, a section of The Learned Pig exploring multispecies creativity through modest tales of collaboration and coexistence amidst world-ending violence and disorder. ROT is conceived and edited by Julia Cavicchi.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Sam Fulton

Sam Fulton is a Scottish writer and printmaker, currently living in London. He works in publishing.