History of the Great Stink and how it almost crippled London

The Great Stink of 1858 was an environmental crisis that enveloped central London during the summer of that year. A culmination of several factors, notably the inadequate sewage system of the burgeoning metropolis, the event had profound implications on public health, urban planning, and the development of modern sanitation services.

The Great Stink of 1858 involved overwhelming odors from the Thames, worsened by heat and a poor sewer system, leading to health fears and accelerating efforts to improve London’s sanitation. Image: An 1828 satirical representation of the Thames, titled “Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water”. This work was created by British painter William Heath.

In the article below, WHE delves into the historical context, the key events of the crisis, and the resultant changes that reshaped London.

Historical Background

By the mid-19th century, London was the largest city in the world, a bustling center of commerce, industry, and empire.

However, its infrastructure was ill-prepared for its growing population, which had surpassed two million.

The city’s sanitation facilities were particularly deficient; most homes and businesses disposed of their waste directly into the Thames River or into cesspools that often overflowed or leaked into small tributaries.

The Sanitation Crisis

Before the Great Stink, the Thames was essentially London’s primary sewer. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid growth of the population, the amount of waste dumped into the river increased dramatically.

By 1856, London had constructed over a hundred sewers and housed about 200,000 cesspits, which were often hazardous, leaking flammable gases or causing explosions. The city’s more than 350 aging sewers were deteriorating.

During the early 19th century, London improved its water supply by replacing medieval wooden pipes with iron ones and introducing flushing toilets. As the population surged from nearly one million to three million, more water and waste flushed into the sewers. Industrial discharge from factories and slaughterhouses further overwhelmed the system, leading to frequent overflows and direct pollution of the Thames. Basically, the Thames was an open sewer.

Several cholera outbreaks, which claimed tens of thousands of lives, had already underscored the dire public health implications of the inadequate sewage disposal.

But the link between contaminated water and disease had not yet been universally accepted, with many still adhering to the miasma theory, which posited that diseases were spread by bad smells.

Cholera outbreak in London in the 1800s

Cholera outbreaks in London during the 1800s were both severe and transformative, particularly influencing public health policies and the development of the city’s sanitation infrastructure.

1831-1832: The first major cholera outbreak in London marked the beginning of the disease’s terrifying presence in England. Cholera, previously unknown in the region, claimed thousands of lives. This initial outbreak prompted some of the first public health acts.

1848-1849: The second major outbreak was more deadly, with a death toll estimated at over 14,000 in London alone. This recurrence reinforced the dire need for improved sanitation and stimulated further public health initiatives.

1853-1854: Another significant outbreak occurred, resulting in over 10,000 deaths. This outbreak coincided with important developments in understanding the transmission of cholera, thanks to the work of Dr. John Snow.

A key figure during the 1854 outbreak, Dr. Snow conducted pioneering epidemiological work that led to the identification of contaminated water as a mechanism for cholera transmission. He famously identified a public water pump on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) as a source of the outbreak. By removing the handle of the pump, he effectively stopped the outbreak in that area. This event was a crucial moment in public health history and contributed to the eventual decline of the miasma theory of disease, which held that diseases were caused by “bad air.”

London’s first major cholera epidemic in 1831 claimed over 6,500 lives. Successive outbreaks in 1848-49 and 1853-54 killed more than 14,000 and 10,500 respectively. During the second outbreak, Dr. John Snow theorized cholera’s water-borne transmission, challenging the prevailing miasma theory, but his ideas initially received little attention. Image: John Snow (1813 – 1858).

Michael Faraday’s take on the situation

In July 1855, English scientist Michael Faraday, appalled by the state of the Thames, conducted a visibility test by dropping white paper into the river, revealing intense opacity from the feculent clouds near the bridges.

Faraday noted that the water’s pervasive foul smell resembled that from street gully-holes, essentially turning the river into a sewer. The English scientist’s observations highlighted the critical pollution level of the Thames.

Climatic Aggravation

In June 1858, London experienced extreme heat with temperatures reaching up to 36 °C (97 °F) in the shade and 48 °C (118 °F) in direct sunlight. A prolonged dry spell caused the Thames to recede, leaving raw sewage exposed on its banks. The unbearable stench disrupted a brief pleasure cruise by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, leading to the event being dubbed “The Great Stink.” The severity of the situation was starkly noted in the press, emphasizing the unforgettable and hazardous conditions.

The Great Stink

The “Great Stink” reached its peak in July 1858, when the smell pervaded homes, businesses, and even the Houses of Parliament. Lawmakers, who had been dragging their feet on addressing the sewage problem, were now literally in the thick of the issue. The stench made it impossible to ignore the sanitary conditions of the river, spurring urgent action.

In response to the overwhelming stench, the government attempted to mitigate the smell by treating the river with chalk lime, chloride of lime, and carbolic acid, though these measures were largely ineffective in solving the underlying sanitation issues.

In 1848, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers (MCS) was created, consolidating the oversight of London’s sewers under a single authority for the first time since Henry VIII’s reign. This was spurred by social reformer Edwin Chadwick and a Royal Commission, aiming to improve urban sanitation. The Building Act of 1844 mandated new buildings to connect to sewers instead of cesspools. The MCS connected existing cesspools to the sewer system or eliminated them. Despite intentions to prevent disease, regular flushing of the sewers increased sewage discharge into the Thames, under the misconception that it would stop miasma-induced diseases.

 

Legislative and Engineering Responses

In August 1849, Joseph Bazalgette was appointed assistant surveyor by the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers (MCS), marking his return to work after a health-induced hiatus from the railway industry. Under Chief Engineer Frank Foster, Bazalgette began to develop a systematic plan for London’s sewers. Upon Foster’s death in 1852, Bazalgette was promoted and continued to refine the sewer system plans.

The Metropolis Management Act of 1855 replaced the MCS with the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), transferring control of the sewers to this new body. By June 1856, Bazalgette had completed his definitive plans, which featured a network of small local sewers leading into larger ones, culminating in main outflow pipes. His design included a Northern and Southern Outfall Sewer to handle waste from each side of the Thames. The system was mapped according to London’s topography into high, middle, and low-level areas, with strategically placed pumping stations to facilitate eastward waste removal. Bazalgette’s plans, an expansion of Foster’s earlier designs, accommodated a projected population increase from 3 to 4.5 million.

Sir Benjamin Hall, the First Commissioner of Works, had concerns about the proximity of the sewer outfalls to the capital. Following his feedback, Bazalgette revised his plans, and in December 1856, Hall consulted three engineers for further review. They suggested even more distant outfall locations, increasing the projected cost from Bazalgette’s £2.4 million to over £5.4 million.

Political changes in February 1858 saw a shift in government, with Lord Derby’s Conservative ministry taking over, leading to further administrative changes that influenced the project’s progression. This period marked significant advancements in London’s approach to urban sanitation, setting the stage for the eventual implementation of Bazalgette’s visionary infrastructure.

Then Chancellor of the Exchequer Benjamin Disraeli (later Prime Minister from 1874 to 1880) introduced a bill emphasizing the Thames’ dire condition and assigned cleanup responsibility to the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW). The bill allowed the MBW to borrow £3 million, funded by a tax on London households, aligning with Bazalgette’s sewer plan. The urgency of the situation forced Parliament to act, resulting in the bill’s passage on August 2, driven by the overwhelming stench.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Vision

Bazalgette’s solution was revolutionary. His design consisted of 82 miles (132 km) of underground brick main sewers to intercept sewage outflows, and 1,100 miles of street sewers. These were connected to outflows that would release the sewage far downstream where tides could disperse it into the North Sea, far from the urban center.

Construction and Legacy

The construction of the new sewers was a massive undertaking. It took 18 years to complete, employed thousands, and included the construction of the iconic Embankment along the Thames, which housed some of the main sewers and helped reclaim land. The new sewer system dramatically improved public health and is considered a marvel of civil engineering. It remains the basis of London’s sewage infrastructure today.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s foresight and engineering prowess provided a solution that not only resolved an immediate crisis but also anticipated the needs of future generations, demonstrating the enduring importance of sustainable urban infrastructure. Image: An artwork showing construction wok on London’s sewers in 1859.

Did you know…?

During the Great Stink of 1858, London used 200 to 250 long tons of lime weekly, costing £1,500, to mitigate the smell from sewage on the Thames.

English historian and novelist Peter Ackroyd opined that Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s work in tackling the Great Sink puts him among the greatest heroes of London.

In 1866, London faced its last major cholera outbreak, which claimed over 5,500 lives, predominantly in the East End, an area yet to be connected to Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system. The East London Water Company had been discharging sewage close to their downstream reservoir, leading to contamination of the drinking water during incoming tides.

This tragic incident finally solidified the acceptance of cholera as a water-borne disease, refuting the long-held miasma theory. The outbreak’s investigation, led by Dr. William Farr and reported in The Lancet, underscored the critical role of water supply in disease propagation.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, London’s sewer system underwent significant expansions to accommodate the city’s growth. However, by 2015, Thames Water, the current manager of the sewer network, reported that the Victorian-era system was struggling under the pressures of modern London, serving up to eight million people daily.

Crossness Pumping Station, a key component of Bazalgette’s infrastructure, was operational until the mid-1950s. Although it was later replaced and fell into disrepair, it was designated a Grade I listed building and has been under restoration by the Crossness Engines Trust. Peter Bazalgette, a descendant of Joseph Bazalgette and a notable television producer, was appointed the trust’s president, continuing the family’s legacy of improving London’s sanitation.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Impact on Public Health

There is no doubt whatsoever that Joseph Bazalgette’s contributions extended beyond sanitation; he also replaced several of London’s bridges and was honored with a monument on the Victoria Embankment.

His work not only transformed London’s physical landscape but dramatically improved public health, effectively increasing life expectancy. Historians like John Doxat and Peter Ackroyd have recognized Bazalgette’s monumental impact, with Ackroyd placing him alongside architects like John Nash and Christopher Wren as one of London’s enduring heroes.

London’s transition from a crisis-driven city to a proactive one

The evolution of London’s sewer system, prompted by the devastating cholera outbreaks and highlighted by subsequent water-related disasters, illustrates a journey from crisis-driven responses to proactive public health measures.

The development and expansion of this infrastructure reflect a broader narrative of urban resilience and innovation, underscoring the critical intersection of engineering, public policy, and health sciences. Through these efforts, London transitioned from a city plagued by disease to one showcasing how urban challenges can lead to lasting improvements in public welfare and city planning.

Undoubtedly, Bazalgette’s vision and determination played a pivotal role in this transformation, embodying the spirit of Victorian ingenuity and the enduring impact of comprehensive urban planning.

FAQs

Why did the Great Stink occur?

The Great Stink occurred because London’s sewage system was inadequate for its rapidly growing population. Most of London’s waste was discharged directly into the Thames, which also served as the city’s main water supply. The hot summer weather exacerbated the smell of decomposing waste, making the living conditions intolerable.

How did the Great Stink affect London?

The Great Stink greatly affected London by making the metropolitan area almost uninhabitable due to the foul air. The stench penetrated homes, businesses, and even the Houses of Parliament, prompting lawmakers to finally address the city’s sanitation problems. It also underscored the urgent public health threat posed by poor sanitary conditions.

What were the public health implications of the Great Stink?

The unsanitary conditions that led to the Great Stink were linked to several cholera outbreaks and other diseases. Although the direct connection between contaminated water and cholera was not universally accepted until later, the event indirectly spurred actions that would greatly improve public health through better sanitation.

How did the government respond to the Great Stink?

The government, specifically Parliament, responded to the Great Stink by passing emergency legislation to overhaul the city’s sewage system. They commissioned engineer Joseph Bazalgette to design and build a comprehensive network of sewers that could effectively manage London’s waste.

Joseph Bazalgette was a civil engineer who played a crucial role in resolving the sanitation crisis during the Great Stink. He designed a vast network of sewers that not only addressed the immediate issues but also provided a durable solution that supports modern London. Image: Joseph Bazalgette (1819 – 1891).

What were the main features of Bazalgette’s sewer system?

Bazalgette’s sewer system included over 1,100 miles of street sewers and 82 miles of intercepting sewers that redirected waste downstream away from the city center. His design also included the construction of embankments along the Thames, which helped reclaim land and beautify the riverfront.

How effective was the new sewer system?

The new sewer system was highly effective. It drastically reduced the incidence of water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid in London. The system has been modified and expanded over the years but still forms the backbone of London’s modern sewage infrastructure.

The Great Sink not only transformed London’s physical infrastructure but also marked a shift in how cities approached public health crises, paving the way for modern urban planning and environmental management. Image: London, England.

What is the legacy of the Great Stink?

The legacy of the Great Stink includes significant advancements in urban planning and public health. It demonstrated the vital importance of adequate sanitation systems and influenced similar improvements in cities around the world. It also cemented the importance of engineering solutions in urban management.

Is there any commemoration of the Great Stink?

While there are no specific monuments dedicated to the Great Stink, the legacy of the event is embedded in London’s infrastructure and the city’s history. The engineering works of Joseph Bazalgette, particularly the Thames Embankment, serve as living memorials to the transformative changes initiated by this crisis.

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