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The Great Stink: That time when London was overwhelmed with sewage stench

Boban Docevski

The summer of 1858 was probably one of the most terrible in the city of London. The city came to a standstill. The government cold barely function while angry and distressed people demanded action. The cause of this problem was not political in nature, in fact, it was sanitary. The people of London were paralyzed by the extreme stench that was coming from the surface of the River Thames.

The Thames, the most famous river in England, played a crucial part in the life of Londoners for centuries. The Thames was both a water source and a waste disposal system for the whole city. Since it was first founded, London was a fast growing settlement. As it got larger, the waste its inhabitants produced grew exponentially. They used to dump literally everything in the river – human, animal, and industrial waste. Pollution of the river became a huge and recognized problem as early as the 1600’s.

In the centuries before 1856, over a hundred sewers were constructed in London, and at that date, the city had around 200,000 cesspits and 360 sewers. Many of these sewers were in a really poor condition. During the early 19th century, improvements had been made in the supply of water to Londoners, and by 1858 many of the city’s medieval wooden water pipes were being replaced with iron ones. This renovation, combined with the introduction of flushing toilets and the rising of the city’s population from just under one million to three million, led to more water being flushed into the sewers, along with the associated outflow.

The outfalls from factories, slaughterhouses, and other activities that came with the industrial growth, put further strain on the already failing system. Much of this outflow either overflowed or was discharged directly into the Thames.

Monster_Soup_commonly_called_Thames_Water._Wellcome_V0011218

“Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water” (1828), by the artist William Heath. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Although they were aware of the problem, they didn’t have a clue on how to deal with it. People just continued to use the Thames as a source of drinking water and as a sewage collector at the same time. This lasted up until the middle 19th century, when the problem couldn’t be tolerated anymore. Back then, the Thames was considered one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the world.

Part of the intellectual elite of that time supported the idea that the Thames needed to be embanked, and a new, modern, sewer system needed to be built across the city. One of the supporters of this idea was the famous English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday. He was one of the main activists in the campaign for a reformation of the highly polluted river.

On one occasion (in July 1855) Faraday took a boat trip on the Thames and sent a letter to the The Times newspaper in wich he described his experience.  This letter, titled “Observations on the Filth of the Thames”, would become an important part of the whole Thames restoration movement. Faraday explained how he had tossed pieces of paper into the water, and they immediately disappeared. This alone was proof enough that the Thames was in a dreadful state, little more than a pale brown mixture of fecal matter and industrial waste. Faraday concluded:

“if we neglect this subject, we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we to be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness.”

The situation was already stinky and bad enough, but this ecological disaster reached its tipping point during July and August in 1858. The hot weather during these summer months spread the terrible smell of human and industrial waste that was building up on the banks of the river for many years.

In June 1858 the temperatures in the shade in London averaged 30 °C (93–97 °F), rising to 48 °C (118 °F) in the sun. The level of the Thames dropped, and raw fecal matter from the sewers remained on the banks of the river. All of that sewage started to boil under the searing heat.

The smell was unimaginably disgusting. There were stories about people getting unconscious because of the awful stench. All hell broke loose on the Thames and brought a series of terrible diseases (including cholera) with it.

Father_Thames_introducing_his_offspring_to_the_fair_city_of_London

Punch magazine’s view on the whole situation: “Father Thames introducing his offspring to the fair city of London”; the children are representative of diphtheria, scrofula, and cholera. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Apparently, even the Queen wasn’t immune to the whole situation. On one sunny (and particularly smelly) afternoon, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attempted to take a pleasure cruise on the Thames but returned to shore within a few minutes because the smell was so terrible.

After a while, the press named the event “The Great Stink”; Newspaper articles during the summer of 1858 were very juicy and explicit. One reporter described the river as a “pestiferous and typhus breeding abomination”, while a second wrote that “the amount of poisonous gasses which is thrown off is proportionate to the increase of the sewage which is passed into the stream.” One article in The Illustrated London News describes the lack of effort from the government to resolve the whole situation:

“We can colonize the remotest ends of the earth; we can conquer India; we can pay the interest on the most enormous debt ever contracted; we can spread our name, and our fame, and our fructifying wealth to every part of the world; but we cannot clean the River Thames.”

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