The Great Stink

London in the 1850s was arguably the capital of the world, situated at the nerve center of the Victorian Empire at its pinnacle. But the municipal authorities of the magnificent city hadn’t quite figured out what to do with the tons and tons of, er, waste that the metropolis produced on a daily basis.

And it wasn’t just (phenomenal) amounts of human refuse. It was also the raw and unfiltered effluvium from the city’s slaughterhouses, along with run-off from the breweries and paper mills, solvents from the Industrial Revolution, and everything else imaginable that escaped composting or reuse. It all wound up in the Thames.

The thought at the time was that the debris that sloshed into the river would be ejected out to sea; thus, as long as the river kept flowing, no one thought there was a problem (unless, of course, you were downstream and depended on the river for potable water). The problem, though, is that the Thames is a tidal river, and the rotting garbage it contained didn’t always flow quickly to Poseidon. And oddly, this fact was noted as early as the mid-17th century, but in classic human form, no one did a thing about it for more than two hundred years.

Cesspits overflowed. Sewage ran in the streets. People dumped directly in creeks, streams, and channels. And it all found its way to the Thames.

In the first half of the 19th century there were several widespread cholera outbreaks in London, the particularly bad one of 1849 resulting in over 2000 deaths per week! Still, nothing was done. This inaction was compounded by the fact that people thought the odor – the miasma – was the cause of the illness, not the contaminants in the water; thus, they’d stay away from the river itself, but nevertheless drink its water when brought from a ‘safe’ distance.

One John Snow MD decided that, as cholera was an illness of the bowels and not the lungs, it made more sense that the disease was cause by ingestion and not inhalation. He wrote an article on this… and was entirely ignored.

[sidebar: the anti-intellectual anti-science crowd existed then too]

Undeterred, the good doctor enlisted the help of a man of the cloth, one Rev Henry Whitehead, and the two crusaders mapped where cases of cholera were discovered. In one neighborhood near Broad Street, they focused on a water pump that had been dug mere yards from a cesspit. Cases were all around it. They petitioned the local authorities to shut down the pump. It was, and within days, cases of cholera plummeted.

Sadly, Dr Snow died in 1858 and did not live to see his theories proven correct. Perhaps fortunately, though, he also did not live to experience The Great Stink of later that same year.

You see, the summer of 1858 was particularly warm and humid, and the water level of the river dropped significantly, exposing all manner of accumulated filth. It was said that people located miles from the nearest bank would be overcome with nausea and vomiting when the winds changed.

In 1858, London’s City Press noted that “It stinks [here], and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it, and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.” Shortly before, The Times had stated that “near the bridges [over the Thames] the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface…. The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water, it was the same as that which now comes up from the gully holes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer.”

When Victoria went outside, she carried a bouquet of flowers, dutifully handed to her by those in her entourage, and she kept it in front of her face the entire time.

Parliament was not so fortunate. After years of ignoring the problem, those lawmakers situated on the banks of the grand old river were forced to endure in stuffy and poorly ventilated chambers right next to the flow. They put pots of chloride of lime in meeting rooms to mask the odor. They debated moving the government to Oxford. And while many had hidden behind the time-honored political excuse of “it’s not my jurisdiction,” the Great Stink finally won their attention like nothing prior.

Following years of inaction, a bill was passed – after only three weeks – authorizing £3M to “refurbish the entirety of the River Thames.” Joseph Bazalgette, a famed civil engineer of the day, was commissioned to propose and execute a sewerage system. Once the twenty-year project was completed, not only did the odor improve, but cholera vanished and the death toll in the surrounding areas markedly decreased.

Bazalgette presciently planned on growth. He made everything more than twice the size estimated for then-current need. His system is still in place and working today.

He was knighted in 1875.

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