The Great Stink

It was the summer of 1858 and the sun was shining in London. That’s not the most surprising part of this story though.

The city was actually in the midst of a freak heatwave, with temperatures averaging 36oC (up to 48oC in the sun). The British do not typically cope well with extreme weather, however this summer was going to be a real stinker.

The industrial revolution had brought not just industry to the city, but people as well. Between 1700 and 1850, London’s population had exploded from 500,000 to over 2.5 million. With this huge increase in factories and people came an unprecedented increase in waste being dumped into London’s rivers, cess pits, and an ageing and inadequate sewer system.

Traditionally emptying cess pits was the unglamorous job of the nightmen, who carted the contents outside of the city, where it would be sold to farmers for fertiliser. The discovery of guano in the Pacific however caused the value to plummet, and an ever-expanding city caused the nightmen to have to travel further afield to dump the waste. The result of this was increasing costs for landowners to have their cess pits emptied, so many just didn’t bother.

As the cess pits overflowed, the contents found its way into the ground water. What followed was one of the worst cholera outbreaks in the city’s history. Utilising the ‘if I can’t see it, then it isn’t my problem’ approach, Parliament’s solution was to order that all waste be dumped directly into the Thames. If they couldn’t see the results of their blunder that summer, they could definitely smell it.

An extended spell of dry weather caused the level of the Thames to drop dramatically, revealing piles of rotting sewage laying on the banks. Did I mention that the temperature was reaching as high as 48oC? I know you may think that a hot portaloo on the third day of the Reading Festival must be pretty hard to beat, but that was nothing compared to this. Michael Faraday described the river’s water as “an opaque pale brown fluid”, though luckily it didn’t distract him too much from his work on electromagnetic induction.

The stench was unbearable. Up until now, Parliament had been mostly happy to ignore the plights of the unwashed masses, however this was a problem they couldn’t ignore. The newly built Houses of Parliament sat on the bank of the Thames, placing the ministers within meters of what had become Europe’s largest open sewer. Something had to be done.

On 15 June, Chancellor of the Exchequor Benjamin Disraeli tabled a bill to clear up the Thames. In just 18 days the bill was passed, and motions were put in place to build an enormous sewer system. The man chosen for the job was Joseph Bazalgette, who was able to produce a sewer system so hugely effective that it is still in use today.

Bazalgette’s contributions to the history of London are often overlooked, but we hope to somewhat correct that in this episode, as we look at the Great Stink of 1858.

So join us as we delve to new depths in historical reporting and schoolboy toilet humour, and find out why John Snow actually knew a thing or two afterall.