The workers who keep Dagenham’s drains flowing

Thames Water drainage engineer David Mimms saves the day – and the drain – by clearing the blockageThames Water drainage engineer David Mimms saves the day – and the drain – by clearing the blockage.A sewer is a bit like an appendix – you only really notice it’s there when something goes wrong.

But every time you flush the toilet, the only reason the contents don’t spray right back in your face is because of the hard work of a dedicated team of blockage-clearing professionals.As I approach the Barking and Dagenham team base at Beckton Sewage Treatment Works in Newham, the largest facility of its kind in Europe, I’m impressed by its scale.

“It’s like Colditz in here,” I’m told after I make my way through the labyrinthine security system.

After a brief safety chat, I’m introduced to 22-year-old drainage engineer David Mimms, the man Thames Water has assigned to be my guide to grime.“A customer calls to report a problem with their toilet or sink,” he says, while looking at the little red dots on a digital map of the borough. “And then it’s logged on this system and given to our team to go and investigate.”

Very soon a Dagenham dot is found and we set off in David’s van.“You find all sorts blocking the drains,” he explains. “Condoms, every kind of wipe you can imagine, children’s play pit balls.

The drain was blocked by a mixture of fat, wipes and other goodiesThe drain was blocked by a mixture of fat, wipes and other goodies“A lot of people don’t know – they don’t even know you can’t flush wet wipes. But some people abuse the drains and they then block the system for their neighbours.”

We arrive to find the blockage has been reported in a street of businesses and, like a detective on a case, David begins his enquiries.

He soon isolates the suspected manhole, and the three of us – Post photographer Ellie, a representative from Thames Water and myself – form a gormless semicircle, awaiting its opening like perverse treasure hunters around a fabled chest.The reaction is immediate – retches and revulsion all round.

Inside the drain, which is so full it is nearly spilling onto the concrete, a thick layer of off-cream fat tops around six feet of murky green liquid bubbling with toilet paper, wipes, unidentifiable sludge and human waste.A bit like the worst cappuccino ever conceived, I think to myself.“You get used to the smell,” David says, as he assesses the drain’s contents with the imperturbable confidence of a surgeon with a scalpel. “Raw sewage is daunting, but you find ways to deal with it.”

His calmness reminds me of an earlier comment made by a worker back at base: “I’ve been here so long I can eat a sandwich and unblock a drain at the same time.”As a miasma of sulphurous, faintly dairy gas annexes my respiratory system, David begins the unblocking procedure.He prods deep inside the drain five or six times and, within a minute, the gunk is subsiding.

As an assistant from the business retreats in appalled horror following a tentative glance and sniff, David diagnoses the cause.“Fat and wipes,” he says. “The usual. People just don’t care if it doesn’t affect their life and their house. But this is what happens.”

David, who is from Custom House but lives in Dagenham, says he enjoys the job.“I enjoy being out in the van,” he says. “It’s great to help people and go out to talk to the customers. It ticks all the right boxes.“But it’s funny because, to be completely honest, I absolutely hate getting dirty.”

Thanks to Barking and Dagenham Post for the post:

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