‘The sewage of a mighty city lies in a broad stream under our very noses.’
The Times, July 1858.
In London, in the summer of 1858, there was something rotten in the air. Something terrible, corrupting the largest and wealthiest city on Earth – the river! Yes, the mighty and majestic River Thames was causing a stink – a great stink!
Here we take a look at nine of the most foul-smelling facts about the Great Stink of 1858.
1. The Great Stink was a big news story
During the summer of 1858, London’s famous waterway was causing a bit of a problem – it reeked to high heaven. It wasn’t just offensive to the nose but it was actually considered a public health menace. Writers, politicians, newspaper editors, and poets were quick to make a big stink of their own.
This nightmare for the nose came to be called The Great Stink.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Benjamin Disraeli famously referred to the river, in parliament on 15th July 1858, as ‘a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors’.
A leading surgeon of the time described the appearance of the river as ‘black as ink’, and in his 1857 novel, Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens referred to the Thames as a ‘deadly sewer’.
The Illustrated London News of July 1858 published a piece on ‘the great question’ of the pollution of the Thames and demanded something be done about it. The article went on to describe the river as a ‘foul sewer, a river of pollution, a Stream of Death, festering and reeking with all abominable smells, and threatening three million people with pestilence’.
2. 1858 was a ridiculously hot summer
A high of 35°C was reached in London on 16th June 1858. This was the zenith of a prolonged period of dry, hot weather with temperatures frequently over 30°C.
An American visiting London at the same time wrote that it had been ‘hotter than anyone ever believed it possible to be in England’.
Queen Victoria also complained in her diary about the ‘stifling’ heat of June. In the courts of Westminster Hall, lawyers were granted the rare freedom to remove their wigs.
This of course greatly exacerbated the problems of the Thames! The conditions made the Thames sit lower than usual, revealing the solid and semi-solid masses of waste on the shores of the river, where it would sit and stew under the roasting sun.
3. The Great Stink made people faint
During the Great Stink, it was said that some people who’d got too close to the Thames suffered from apoplectic fits, fainting, and vomiting where they stood, such was the power of the noxious stench from the river.
Tough dockworkers were seen chucking up and a woman who threw herself into the river in a suicide attempt survived, but was knocked unconscious by the foul fumes.
4. The Great Stink stunk out the Houses of Parliament
The smell from the river got so bad in the Houses of Parliament that the blinds of the new building (it was mostly done by this point but was not completed until 1860) had to be soaked in chloride of lime to allow people to tolerate working inside.
The library of the lords was described as a ‘stench trap’ and Goldsworthy Gurney, the engineer responsible for the ventilation of the new Palace of Westminster, declared to the Speaker that he ‘could no longer be responsible for the health of the House’.
At one point, Disraeli had to flee a committee room in the middle of a session, pressing a handkerchief to his face, stumbling away bent over, followed by everyone else gagging and retching.
Unsurprisingly, MPs and Lords became keen on doing something about the Great Stink at this point. On 15th July 1858, Disraeli put the appropriate legislation before parliament and by 2nd August it was law.
5. Lime was thrown into the Thames to try to deodorise it
In early July 1858, over 200 tons of lime were dropped into the Thames, near the mouths of the sewers in an effort to take the horrendous smell away. This liming process, a bid to break down and disinfect the offending matter in the water, was carried out regularly during 1858 and into 1859.
The substances deployed in this attempted clean-up included chalk lime, chloride of lime, and carbolic acid. This measure was reported to cost £180 a day, equivalent to about £10,000 in today’s money.
6. The Great Stink was a man-made problem
The Metropolitan Sewers Act of 1848 took sewage from London properties and dumped it in the Thames. Before this, there were around 200,000 cesspools in homes and businesses in the city. The cesspools were meant to be emptied by nightsoil men who took the excrement away in carts and sold it as fertilizer. However, this system was incredibly patchy and most of these cesspools remained stagnant.
The new sewers of 1848 made the Thames into one ‘great cesspool instead of each person having one of his own’, as the architect Thomas Cubitt observed.
The problem was that Londoners were taking this same water from the river back into their homes and businesses – half a billion litres a day – to wash with, use in their newfangled flushing toilets, and even to drink!
7. Parliament was nearly moved out of London
The Great Stink made the Palace of Westminster an unbearable place to work.
MP John Brady told the House of Commons that it was impractical to continue working in the Thames-side building, urging the government to ask the Queen for permission to move the business of Westminster to a temporary location outside the metropolis. Brady wasn’t the only one to suggest this plan. Some of the places floated as interim homes included Oxford, Edinburgh, and Dublin.
8. It wasn’t just human waste in the Thames
Untreated human sewage is bad enough, but this was just a small part of the great toxic mix that was the Thames of 1858.
The river also contained waste from livestock; the refuse from homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, and prisons; and chemical and organic waste from soap works, tanneries, factories, slaughterhouses, and mills.
Refuse from gasworks, breweries, gut-spinners, fish markets, tar works, bone-grinders, and butchers also oozed and festered in the capital’s famous waterway.
Death – among animals and humans – was everywhere in Victorian London, and it was all-too-common to see carcasses of cows, dogs, cats, rats, horses, and people floating in the water or beached on the shores. These bodies would have been from a variety of sources such as knackers’ yards or the clandestine night-time disposal of a murder victim.
9. The sewers built to resolve the Great Stink are still in use today
With the government in the summer of 1858 greenlighting affirmative action, engineering genius Sir Joseph Bazalgette could start work on his ambitious new drainage system for London. It began in earnest in 1859, was finished in 1875, and by 1887, the dumping of sewage into the Thames had stopped completely.
Bazalgette and his team built 85 miles of intercepting sewers that ran alongside the Thames, as well as an additional 1,100 miles of main street sewers.
His great engineering scheme turned the Thames from the dirtiest city waterway in the world to the cleanest, and his sewers still form the basis of London’s sewage system today.
Bazalgette’s plan for London didn’t just involve improving drainage but also saw the construction of the Thames embankments we know and love today - which contain sewers and Tube tunnels, as well as new thoroughfares such as Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road.