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What a Stink - 19th Century London
by Sam North

People look at London now, the great developments taking place, such as the New Tate in an old power station, the London Eye, the Dome, the café society springing up alongside the south bank, the new Imax theatre, the beautiful Chelsea riverside homes and the Docklands developments, Canary Wharf high rises and they imagine that London has always been like this.

It is a puzzle for many how this is not so. They think of Paris and Vienna and imagine London of the past to be some wonderful cosmopolitan place. There are paintings by Pre-Raphaelites and Tissot showing the River as a great social gathering place by glamorous over-dressed society ladies, but none of this was true. Turner at least showed the 'smog' in his paintings. Only since the 1970’s has the River begun to be an acceptable place to live and dine, indeed, the opportunity for either were minimal until after 1965. There were a few riverside pubs to be sure and history tells us that in Shakespeare’s time the South Bank was the place for ‘entertainment’ but as London grew, it ceased to be true and for good reason.

In 1858 Parliament closed and adjourned upriver. London stank, the river was literally choked with excrement and in the great growth years of London’s prosperity, it was rapidly becoming the most unpleasant place to live in all of Europe. It was the Year of the Great Stink. Something had to be done.

How had London reached this ‘mess’?

At the start of the 19th Century London had a recorded population of 1 million souls, served by 200,000 cess-pits. The expansion of London following the Industrial Revolution, the great canal diggings and general expansion of industry in all walks of life led to greater and greater concentrations of people in the capital city. Stench was not a new problem and should one have that mythical time-machine and arrive back in London of those times, one would be completely overwhelmed by the malodorous atmosphere of horses, open sewage, unhygienic and unsafe foods, the virtual absences of washing facilities and personal hygiene, diseased people begging, spitting, overcrowding in narrow streets and unpaved roads that turned to mud and worse in the rain. Add the coal fires and the sulphur produced by them, a day in London to a modern lung would make Hell seem like Ibiza in summer.

In the 1660’s Samuel Pepys was always complaining of his neighbours’ ‘office’ overflowing into his wine cellar, but nothing serious was done. Cess-pits were dug, they leaked and if you didn’t have one of those, there was the street.

By the 19th Century people were a little more discreet and their cess-pits were generally connected to rivers and streams that ran through London. When it rained it cleared and stank all the more, but at least it moved. By the 1850s, with the population growing towards 2 million, the railways were bringing work and people into London, along with cheap housing and primitive sewage disposal. London was awash with effluents and generally uninhabitable on hot summer days.

The flush-toilet was already installed in the better homes. The chamber-pot in good society was no longer acceptable. The snag was, although the water closet invented by Thomas Crapper of Goole was a 'miracle of ingenuity and life-improvement’, it helped pump tons of water into the old cess-pits that were not designed to take anything more than rainwater. The overflows consequently overwhelmed sewers, streets, streams and clogged the river with a pungent mess.

London was served then by many active streams. The Fleet, Wandle, West Bourne, Ravensbourne and Holbourne, mostly covered over and built on, converted to sewers that poured into the tidal Thames. It is worth noting that most of London’s water was still extracted from the Thames at this time, not so very far downstream of these sewage outlets. (Only one extractor was situated upstream) It is no wonder then that typhoid fever and cholera were endemic. 14,000 cases in a population of 1.7 million in 1832. Life expectancy of a ‘city working class male' averaged 18 versus a ‘country person’ which was a heady 35. Children if they survived at all, would as adults, still be drinking and eating food and drinks of fantastic impurities. How they survived at all is a mystery.

In 1849, 6000 people alone died of cholera. The then sewage commissioners reported that King’s Mills Sewer had ten years accumulation of sewage in it . Rotherhide was an evil centre of poisons and miasma. Homes in London had to hang sacking soaked in deoderising chemicals to make the air breathable.

In 1858, the stink was so grave, solutions were sought and one man, Joeseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Commission for Sewers had a plan which consisted of the construction of intercepting sewers north and south of the Thames, and immediately, adjacent to the river. These were to receive the sewage from the sewers and drains which up to now had connected directly into the Thames.

The construction of the sewers alone was a major civil engineering project, and between 1856 and 1859, 82 miles of brick intercepting sewers were built below London's streets, all flowing by gravity, eastwards. These were connected to over 450 miles of main sewers, themselves receiving the contents of 13,000 miles of small local sewers, dealing daily with half a million gallons of waste. Construction involved 318 million bricks, 880,000 cubic yards of concrete and mortar, and the excavation of 3.5 million cubic yards of earth. The price of bricks in London rose by fifty per cent while it was being constructed. All was built during the coldest summer and the harshest winter recorded in the nineteenth century.

Victoria Embankment on the north, and the Albert Embankment on the south were created to ‘contain’ the Thames, all part of the Bazalgette clean up. Up until that time the Strand was just what the word implies, a walk along the shore and muddy tidal reaches of the Thames. Only once the sewage systems were up and running, could the Strand be developed as the great social centre it became.

There is a great tendency to romantise London’s past. We read about great social occasions in wonderful houses, ladies having great passions, but generally, with good exceptions such as the film ‘Horseman on the Roof’ (and that is French) the reality of the miserable, fetid, daily stink of life is ignored or minimised.

London was a killer. The slums, the complete lack of ideas about safety in the workplace, health-risks, exposure to dangerous chemicals, substances, crime, child slavery, sexual exploitation and the total lack of common hygiene makes not for a ‘romantic’ story. Even Dickens sanitised his London to make it more palatable to his readers. But London has always been a working river and thanks to the great stink, the riverside has been one of the least pleasant places to live in the city.

When you look now, savour it, this is the best it has been.

author of
Diamonds Diamonds: The Rush of 1872

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