I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The summer of 1858 was a scorcher in England and with the heat came an unimaginable stench rising from the River Thames as it wound its way through London. For centuries, the city had dumped its waste into the river; dead animals, sewage, and factory effluent all went into the once-clean water. The toxic stew baked under the sun as the tides sloshed it back and forth. The smell of rotting animals and excrement was overpowering.
From Privies to Cesspools
Medieval London had a group of people called “gong farmers” who had the job of cleaning out privies. Because their occupation was thought to be unseemly, they operated at night and were very well paid for their services. These privileged folk would cart their collections out of the city to fertilize farmer’s fields.
As the city grew, the gong farmers had to travel farther to get rid of the product of their nightly labours, so they raised their prices. Landlords and home owners unwilling to pay the higher tariff, simply let the excrement build up in cesspools.
There would also be human waste running in gutters beside streets, washed inevitably into the Thames by rain. But, this was deemed offensive to the human senses so city planners decided to hide the sight.
In the 17th century, two rivers, the Tidewell and the Fleet, were covered over and the street slops directed into them. The rivers, of course, discharged into the Thames.
Waste was also sent off to cesspools that had the unnerving habit of exploding from time to time when the level of methane reached a high enough concentration.
By the 18th century, the city was experiencing a phenomenal population growth that completely overwhelmed the primitive sanitary infrastructure of the age.
The Cholera Outbreaks
Surprisingly, given all the poisonous goop that was going into the Thames, it was still a source of drinking water. Even the middle and upper classes who had access to piped water had to sip the awful liquid. The private companies that supplied the water, of course, swore every which way that their product was perfectly healthy.
Sydney Smith was a wit and Anglican clergyman. In 1834, he observed that “He who drinks a tumbler of London water has literally in his stomach more animated beings than there are men, women, and children on the face of the globe.”
Of course, many of those “animated beings” caused disease, in particular cholera. The first outbreak of cholera in 1831 and 1832 killed in excess of 6,000 people in London. Fifteen years later, more than 14,000 died of cholera, and in 1853-54 the death toll was at least 10,000.
“We live in muck and filth. We aint got no privez, no dust bins, no water splies and no drain or suer in the whole place. If the Colera comes, Lord help us.”
Letter to The Times newspaper during the 1848 cholera epidemic
The prevailing belief was that cholera and other diseases were caused by foul vapours in the air – the so-called miasma theory. So, the strategy for reducing cholera epidemics revolved around closing the cesspools and flushing crud into the River Thames.
As the filth in the river stewed and fermented under the scorching sun of 1858, it finally dawned on lawmakers that a clean up was needed. No matter that they embarked on such a program for the wrong reason; it wasn’t the miasmic stink that was killing people, it was the polluted water. Some people did notice that if the putrid reek was the cause of cholera there should have been an epidemic in 1858, but there wasn’t.
Sewer Building Begins
The nation’s politicians had not long occupied the newly rebuilt Palace of Westminster that stood on the north bank of the Thames. Attempts were made to suppress the malodorous pong by hanging curtains drenched in chloride of lime. Believing their lives to be in danger from the miasma some fled the city.
Others got down to the work of planning and building. Joseph Bazalgette was London’s chief engineer. He had spent several frustrating years lobbying for the construction of a sewage network. When the politicians in Westminster started to gag on the Great Stink they finally voted the funds that Bazalgette needed.
The Science Museum notes that “Bazalgette’s engineered solution was a system that channelled the waste through miles of street sewers into a series of main intercepting sewers which slowly transported it far enough eastwards so that it could be pumped into the tidal Thames - from where it would be swept out to sea.” This, of course, created an ecological catastrophe for marine life in the Thames Estuary, but that’s another story.
The sewage system was probably one of the greatest investments in public health up to that date. The first section was completed in 1865, and the following year, London was spared a cholera epidemic that happened in the East End, an area that had not yet been connected to the system.
The network was so well designed and constructed that it remains at the heart of London’s sanitary sewer system to this day.
Warning: This Is not for the Faint of Heart
- A definite asset for anyone contemplating a career in sewer work is to have a condition called anosmia, which is the inability to smell odours.
- John Snow was a physician who treated people during the 1848-49 cholera outbreak in London. He suspected the illness was caused by polluted water coming from a pump in the SoHo district. He removed the handle from the pump so residents had to get their water from elsewhere. As a result, there were no more cholera cases and Dr. Snow had discovered the cause of the disease. When he expressed his belief that cholera was caused by feces in drinking water and not by the mysterious miasmic cloud his theory was pooh-poohed, if such an expression might be permitted in this context.
- Dumping London’s sewage into the Thames Estuary created an unforeseen disaster. In September 1878, the paddle pleasure boat the SS Princess Alice collided with a cargo ship right at the place where London’s poop was being discharged into the river. The Princess Alice sank quickly and took with her the lives of about 640 people. Many of the passengers drowned but others died from disease after swallowing the disgusting water. As a result of the disaster, sewage treatment plants were built so that raw waste was no longer pumped into the river.
- “London’s Great Stink.” Miriam Bibby, Historic.uk.com, undated.
- “Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91).” Science Museum, undated.
- “Story of Cities #14: London’s Great Stink Heralds a Wonder of the Industrial World.” Emily Mann, The Guardian, April 4, 2016.
- “The Great Sink.” Johanna Lemon, Cholera and the Thames, undated.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Susan Edwards on November 15, 2019:
Thanks Rupert for this. Reminded me of the research I was immersed in while working on a thesis about the many cholera epidemics in 19th century London.
Steve Dowell from East Central Indiana on November 07, 2019:
Recently read - The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson, which details some of the subject matter of this article. Dr. John Snow is the "hero" of the story!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 06, 2019:
Louise - What sheltered lives we lead today.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on November 06, 2019:
That was really interesting to read. I had no idea about the privy's, so it was interesting seeing a picture of it. I love reading things like this!
Hari Prasad S from Bangalore on November 06, 2019:
Truly exceptional hub.
So much can be extracted from the historical aspects and made an interesting and relevant article. Kudos.