The Great Stink of 1858 in London

NOTE: I suggest you not read this article just before dinner. However, it describes a major problem that many of our ancestors faced, in London and elsewhere.

Modern developed cities of millions produce a lot of waste, not the least of which is that produced directly by the population. Over time, people have developed infrastructure to remove this waste quickly to avoid infection and contamination of ground water. For much of the world and for much of human history, however, the process of waste disposal has been much less sterile and impersonal.

About 150 years ago, London saw the formal opening of a great sewage system constructed by the Metropolitan Board of Works and its engineer, Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891). Prior to this, an increasing proportion of London’s sewage was routed into the Thames (via drains set up originally for surface water), leading to dreadful pollution and the Great Stink of 1858.

The Great Stink, sometimes called the Big Stink, was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated human waste and effluent from other activities was very strong in central London. The stench prompted London authorities to accept a sewerage scheme proposed by Joseph Bazalgette, implemented during the 1860s.

Night-men collecting sewage from cesspits, from Henry Mayhew’s ‘London Labour and the London Poor’.

According to Wikipedia.org, prior to the Great Stink there were over 200,000 cesspits in London. Emptying one cesspit cost a shilling—a cost the average London citizen could ill afford at that time. As a result, most cesspits added to the airborne stench. The summer of 1858 was unusually hot. The Thames and many of its urban tributaries were overflowing with sewage; the warm weather encouraged bacteria to thrive. The resulting smell was so overwhelming that it affected the work of the House of Commons (countermeasures included draping curtains soaked in chloride of lime while members considered relocating upstream to Hampton Court) and the law courts made plans to evacuate to Oxford and St Albans).

Heavy rain finally ended the heat and humidity of summer, and the immediate crisis ended. However, a House of Commons committee was appointed to report on the Stink and recommend how to end the problem. A bill was rushed through Parliament and became law only 18 days after its intoduction. The law provided 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 traffic.

You can read more about the Great Stink and the solutions to the problem in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Stink.

The moral of this story: if you want prompt action from a legislative body, raise a Great Stink.

3 Comments

Love the moral of the story!

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Yeah, there are a lot of things that I hate about the modern world, but I do appreciate cleanliness and sanitation and not, like, risking cholera…

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I’ve read that being a cess-man had its occupational hazards too. The cess-pits created toxic gases. The cess-men worked in pairs, partly so one could pull the other out with a rope if need be. Sometimes the fumes overcame them both, and they died, not just of the stench, but of the toxicity of the fumes. Sounds positively Dickensian.

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