For the anniversary of the so-called ‘Great Stink’ of July 1858, Max Feldman holds his nose and plunges into the fetid history of London’s sewers.
Whilst the BBC’s near constant drip feed of period drama make it easy to romanticise the Victorian era, it’s worth considering the deeply unpleasant state of London in the 1850s. London fog (city smog caused by coal-burning factories’ smoke and other pollution) was far from romantic, choking the air and causing significant respiratory problems for city residents. Whilst the more cinema-friendly aspects of Victorian life (gangs of singing urchins, magical nannies, aggressive colonialism etc) are constantly reinterpreted for the screen, they rarely focus on the fact that the Thames had become a literal sewer.
Alarming amount of industrial runoff was dumped into the Thames, along with more human waste than the city’s aging sewer system could handle, leading to regular outbreaks of cholera. Conditions worsened until, in the summer of 1858, temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit made the already foul smell of the Thames unbearable. Charles Dickens no stranger to London’s fetid underbelly, shudderingly decried it as smell “of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature.” The newspapers, knowing a good headline when they heard one, announced the crisis as “The Great Stink.”
At this time, large swathes of London’s original plumbing system was made of wood. Whilst sewers themselves were made of brick, as 17th-century London had simply bricked over the Fleet and Walbrook rivers in order to create its sewer system in the laziest way possible, Medieval water pipes were essentially hollow logs, sealed together with animal fat. These ancient log pipes were only just being replaced with iron at the time of the Great Stink (they continued to be used in the United States well into the 20th century.) and many were rotted with years of continuous use. This crude system worked when the city’s population was under a million, but it was three times that by 1858, and the adoption of flush toilets, alongside the great number of factories and slaughterhouses in London, all combined to put an unbearable strain on the system.
Predictably, Parliament’s first reaction was to attempt to deny any responsibility in fixing London’s failed sewers. However considering that the stink was pervading every inch of Parliament it was rather more difficult for politicians to ignore. Civil servant soaked the building’s curtains in lime chloride to block out the smell (which didn’t work) and even considered moving the seat of government to Oxford or St Albans. Despite the fact that minsters were in danger of passing out from the stench, the first commissioner of works, Lord John Manners, insisted that “Her Majesty’s government has nothing whatever to do with the state of the Thames.” However, that same government was spending £1,500 a week dumping lime into the river in a futile attempt to cover up the smell.
Finally, then-Chancellor Of The Exchequer Benjamin Disraeli took action, floridly denouncing the river as“a stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horror,” and passed a bill charging the Metropolitan Board Of Works (MBW) with creating a new sewer system, preferably one that deposited waste outside city limits. The Times announced that Parliament had been driven to action, “by the force of sheer stench.” On top of the incredible unpleasantness of the smell London’s antiquated sewers also included 200,000 cesspits, essentially a hole dug in the ground and filled with raw sewage, some of which leaked methane gas, caused fires and even spontaneously exploded. In 1855, scientist Michael Faraday attempted to discern the opacity of the water in the Thames, and discovered that, “the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface… the whole river was for the time a real sewer.”
Luckily, the Metropolitan Board Of Works had a solution ready to go. MBW surveyor Joseph Bazalgate had been working on plans for a comprehensive sewer system for London since the beginning of the decade. Parliament’s bill ended up using a plan Bazalgette had proposed two years earlier, which added 1,100 miles of sewers to London, with smaller pipes draining into larger ones. Bazalgette personally oversaw construction, even sending batches of cement back to the manufacturer if they didn’t meet his standards. The Observer called the project “the most expensive and wonderful work of modern times.”
The sewer system ended up costing more than twice as much as was anticipated; the MBW spent nearly half a million pounds simply buying up riverfront property so it could build embankments along the shore, and there were unanticipated engineering problems in every corner of the city.
Bazalgette’s foresight may be seen in the diameter of the sewers. When planning the network he took the densest population, gave every person the most generous allowance of sewage production and came up with the diameter of pipe needed. He then reportedly threw up his hands and cried ‘Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen’ and doubled the diameter to be used. His foresight allowed for the population explosion that would come with the introduction of the tower block; with the original, smaller pipe diameter, the sewers would have overflowed in the 1960s, rather than coping until the present day as it has.
It also had the entirely unintended side effect of effectively eliminating cholera as a serious concern for London. An outbreak hit London in 1866, but it was limited to a part of the city Bazalgette’s system had not yet reached. Not only did this reassure Londoners the project was effective, it convinced the medical community that cholera was conveyed by contaminated water, not through the air. As a result, Peter Ackroyd considered that Bazalgette “did more good, and saved more lives, than any single Victorian official.”
Whilst very few are so enamoured with Bazalgette’s system as to demand guided tours, it is one of the most successful and long lasting public works project in British history, and one that stands out in the otherwise rather parsimonious public spending that characterised the Victorian era. It goes to show that if you really want to enact social change you have to be prepared to kick up a pretty big stink