A Punch Magazine cartoon of Death rowing on the Thames, "claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up."
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: The Great Stink

What it’s about: Anyone who romanticizes the Victorian era needs to pause and consider the state of London in the 1850s. The London fog—city smog caused by coal-burning factories’ smoke and other pollution—choked the air, causing respiratory problems for city residents. An alarming amount of industrial runoff was dumped into the Thames, along with more human waste than the city’s aging sewer system could handle. There were regular outbreaks of cholera as a result. Conditions worsened until, in the summer of 1858, temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit made the already foul smell of the Thames unbearable. Charles Dickens called it a smell “of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature.” The newspapers called it the Great Stink. To this day it’s a quintessential public health crisis, and its solution was a classic example of good government in action.


Strangest fact: Part of London’s original water system was made of wood. Medieval water pipes were essentially hollow logs, sealed together with animal fat. These pipes were only just being replaced with iron at the time of the Great Stink, and were used in the United States well into the 20th century. The sewers themselves were made of brick, as 17th-century London simply bricked over the Fleet and Walbrook rivers to create its sewer system. 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, and the great number of factories and slaughterhouses in London, all combined to put an unbearable strain on the system.

Biggest controversy: Predictably, Parliament’s first reaction was to pass the buck. Or the pound, as it were. As Parliament is housed on the shores of the Thames, its members were affected directly, and the legislators soaked the building’s curtains in lime chloride to block out the smell (which didn’t work). They considered moving the seat of government to Oxford or St Albans. And yet the first commissioner of works, Lord John Manners, insisted that “Her Majesty’s government have 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 to cover up the smell.

A Punch Magazine illustration showing workmen dumping lime into the Thames to cover the smell


Finally, then-Chancellor Of The Exchequer Benjamin Disraeli took action, calling the river, “a stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horror,” and passing 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.”

A Punch Magazine cartoon in which Faraday meets the spirit of the river

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Just how bad things were. London’s antiquated sewers included 200,000 cesspits, essentially a hole dug in the ground and filled with raw sewage. While many of them leaked sewage, some actually leaked methane gas, causing fires and even explosions. 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.”


Thing we were happiest to learn: As luck would have it, the Metropolitan Board Of Works had a solution ready to go. MBW surveyor Joseph Bazalgette 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 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. But it was worth every penny. Another cholera 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, one historian considered that Bazalgette “did more good, and saved more lives, than any single Victorian official.”

While most of Bazalgette’s system stressed function over form, it was built with craft and care, like this ornate pumping station. (Photo: Christine Matthews, courtesy Wikipedia)


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: London’s previous public health hero was John Snow. Far from knowing nothing, he had the insight to trace the source of London’s 1854 cholera outbreak to one particular well that was pumping contaminated water. Given germ theory was still decades in the future, and contemporary science believed cholera, plague, and even chlamydia were transmitted through foul air, Snow’s detective work had a far greater impact than the lives he saved by effectively ending the cholera outbreak, as it deepened the 19th century’s understanding of where disease comes from. Snow was also a pioneer of anesthetic, personally administering chloroform to Queen Victoria when she gave birth to her two youngest children.

Further down the Wormhole: While cesspits were a blight on London, they weren’t without their benefits. When the pits were full, solid waste could be collected and used as fertilizer, or in the manufacture of ammonia. Ammonia is not only poisonous, but when mixed with bleach it can produce a poison gas. Nonetheless, we need it to live, as it helps living things take in nitrogen, necessary for creating proteins. Because it’s very effective at killing bacteria, we also put trace amounts of ammonia in food, mostly beef. It will come as no surprise that Wikipedia has a list of foods, which itself contains more specific lists of foods. We’ll take a bite out of a list of sandwiches next week.