‘Drownings and suicides were commonplace in Victorian London, and dead bodies would sometimes remain bobbing and rotting away in the Thames for weeks, even months.’
Many people think of the Victorian era as a time of laced corsets and formal teas. But it was also the time of the Great Stink, a two-month stretch of 1858 in which London’s major water source, the River Thames, was so full of untreated sewage that the entire city took on a revolting stink.
In the middle of the 19th century, London was arguably the greatest city in the world. It was the heart of an Empire that spanned the globe. It was a city of enormous wealth and affluence, and every year, thousands of people arrived hoping to find their fortunes. The city was also one of great learning and culture, home to scientists such as Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin, and writers like Charles Dickens.
With years’ worth of waste built up in the Thames, Michael Faraday predicted, it was only a matter of time before the situation would demand attention. It came in June 1858, when a heat wave in London made it impossible to ignore the sewage any longer. A long dry spell made the Thames slow nearly to a stop, and the summer heat cooked the fetid waters.
It wasn’t just scientists who commented on the state of the Thames. Famously, Charles Dickens noted in his bestselling book Little Dorrit (published between 1855 and 1857, right before the Great Stink) that the Thames was a deadly sewer.
While poets and writers praised the majesty of the Thames, in reality, it was a rancid river of filth. In 1858, a perfect storm of factors combined to cause the Great Stink. An evil odour rose up out of the Thames and spread through the city.
Basically, the sewers serving London were not up to the job. Mostly, they were small, narrow brick tunnels over the old Fleet and Walbrook rivers.
At the time Londoners could throw their filth into the River in the morning and then draw bathing and drinking water from the same river in the evening.
By July 1858, the height of the Thames had dropped significantly. While there was less dirty water flowing under London’s famous bridges, it meant raw effluent from the sewers amassed on the banks of the river. In some places in the city’s heart, these mounds of waste stood 6 feet high.
The installation of flushable toilets in the city further increased the amount of waste that the river received. In 1855, scientist Michael Faraday reported that the waste from the sewers had turned the river’s water into an opaque pale brown fluid with an unpleasant smell. The smell was so bad that they blamed it for illnesses and caused citizens many miles away to throw up whenever the wind changed. Accidental drownings and suicides were commonplace in Victorian London, and dead bodies would sometimes remain bobbing and rotting away in the Thames for weeks, even months.
The Times reported it, ‘The intense heat had driven our legislators from those portions of their buildings which overlook the river. A few members bent upon investigating the matter to its very depth, ventured into the library, but they were instantaneously driven to retreat, each man with a handkerchief to his nose.’
Such was the overpowering smell from the Thames, that the curtains of the House of Commons were soaked in chloride of lime to protect the sensitivities of MPs. It is no surprise that a bill was rushed through Parliament and became law in 18 days, to provide more money to construct a massive new sewer scheme for London, and to build the Embankment along the Thames in order to improve the flow of water and of traffic.
While Parliament tried to avoid the problem, the people of London had to resort to scented handkerchiefs and other ineffective measures to get around the city. Not even Queen Victoria was protected. On a failed cruise along the Thames, the Queen spent the entire time with a bouquet of fresh flowers pressed against her nose to mask the stench. She only lasted minutes before asking that the boat be re-docked so she could get as far away from the river as possible.
The Great Stink would eventually lead to the development of the London sewage system, and world-changing developments in science and engineering.
Championed by fellow engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, they appointed Sir Joseph William Bazalgette. Parliament passed an enabling act, despite the colossal expense of the project, and Bazalgette’s proposals to revolutionise London’s sewerage system began to be implemented. The expectation was that enclosed sewers would eliminate the stink and that this would then reduce the incidence of cholera.
Bazalgette’s new sewerage system was a marvel of Victorian engineering. Some 1,100 miles of additional sewers were constructed under the streets of London. These would collect both rainwater and waste and then channel both into a further 82 miles of main, interconnecting sewers. Bazalgette not only used the latest ideas, above all, he made full use of extra-strong Portland cement. But he also used common sense for his system. For instance, his tunnels were designed in such a way that simple gravity would do most of the work, taking waste out far out of the city.
His scheme involved a network of main sewers, running parallel to the river which would intercept both surface water and waste, conducting them to outfalls on the northern and southern sides of the Thames, from where it would flow more easily out to sea. They built pumping stations to raise up sewage from low-lying areas and discharge it onwards to the outfalls.
Edward, Prince of Wales, opened the system in 1865, although the entire project was not actually completed for another ten years.
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