History Hunters

The 'Great Stink' of London

Diana Briscoe

The 'Great Stink' of London.

London expanded from a population of around 959,000 people in 1801 to nearly 2,807,000 in 1861. During those sixty years, many fields and other green spaces within its boundaries were built over, and round the edges builders constructed new estates so that villages, such as Islington and Chelsea, were gradually engulfed by the sprawl of London.

In the eighteenth century, London depended on cesspits to collect the human pee and poo of its residents. There were over 200,000 in 1810, to be found in the basement of most houses, and they had to be emptied by ‘nightsoilmen’ who shovelled up the waste and took it away in carts. It cost about one shilling (5p) to have your cesspit emptied, which was a lot of money when a skilled workman earned about three shillings a day. Most cesspits were not watertight, so the contents seeped out and into the wells which people used for drinking water.

The sewers were intended to take rain water only. They flowed into London’s “lost” rivers – so-called because they have been buried in underground pipes and so cannot be seen – and thence into the Thames. Two of the “lost” rivers flow into the Thames close to the Museum of London: the Fleet exits just underneath Blackfriars Railway Bridge and the Walbrook exits just under Southwark Bridge. Although sewage undoubtedly got into the Thames, its water was still reasonably pure. Proof of this is that, in 1816, fourteen salmon were caught in the Thames.

From about 1830, one of the most fashionable improvements to people’s houses was a flushing water-closet (toilet). These worked more or less like modern toilets and used much more water, which made the cesspools fill quicker and flood more easily. More and more houses connected their drains to the sewers, which polluted all the rivers. When, in 1848, it was made illegal not to have your drains connected to the sewers, the scene was set for disaster.

Existing sewers could not cope with the extra use, so every time it rained hard, the drains would back up and basements would be flooded with sewage. Things were worse on the south bank, where many basements were below the high water level. Epidemics of cholera (a disease caused by drinking water polluted with sewage) broke out in 1831–2 when over 6,500 people and in 1848–9 when over 14,000 died. There was a third in 1853–4 when over 10,700 died.

By 1855, the Thames was so disgusting that the eminent scientist, Michael Faraday, wrote to The Times, saying that he had taken a trip on the Thames at low tide:

The appearance and the smell of the water forced themselves at once on my attention. The whole of the river was a opaque, pale brown fluid. … 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 gulley holes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer.

This was bad enough, but three years later, in 1858, Britain experienced the hottest summer recorded to date. The Houses of Parliament stand right next to the Thames and on 7 June, an MP complained to the Speaker:

It was a notorious fact that Hon. Gentlemen sitting in the Committee Rooms and in the Library were utterly unable to remain there in consequence of the stench which arose from the river.

On 18 June, The Times recorded that:

A few members, bent on investigating the matter to its very depth, ventured into the Library, but they were instantaneously driven to retreat, each man with a handkerchief to his nose.

Curtains soaked in chlorate of lime were hung at all the windows on the river side of the Houses of Parliament, but nothing made a difference to the appalling stink.

There was a master plan on hold to deal with this health hazard, but it had been stalled for two years by Parliament arguing over who was going to pay for it. On 8 July 1858, Benjamin Disraeli forced a bill through Parliament which gave the Metropolitan Board of Works (the precursor of the London County Council & then the GLC, which was in charge of sewage in London) powers to levy rates and borrow money to build a new sewage system.

Joseph Bazalgette (1819–91), who had designed the scheme for the new sewage system, was a civil engineer who had been involved in building the new railway system in the 1840s. In 1849, he joined one of a series of sewage commissions as Assistant Engineer and was appointed Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855, when it took over. He designed a system of main sewers to catch the sewage before it got into the rivers and take it down to Barking on the north bank and Crossness on the south bank, where treatment works would filter out the sludge. This was then loaded on to barges and dumped in the North Sea. This system only ended in 1998, then the dumping was replaced by burning it in incinerators.

The design included 82 miles of main sewers and more than 1,100 miles of subsidiary sewers. Roads, canals and railway tracks had to be raised or lowered to let the sewage through. Special bricks and cement, which would resist the corrosion from the sewage, were used to build the sewers. It took seventeen years to complete the system: in April 1865, the south bank system was connected, but the north bank system was not completed until 1868 and the final connection was made in 1875 (in Fulham). The last cholera epidemic broke out in Whitechapel in 1866, before it was connected to the new sewage system, and nearly 5.600 people died.

Bazaljette was knighted in 1874 – an well-deserved honour. He was also responsible for having the dreadful slums cleared between Charing Cross Road and Kingsway to the north of the Aldwych, and laid out many of the main roads that keep central London moving today. He constructed the Chelsea and Albert Embankments – St Thomas’s Hospital stands on the latter. In all, he added 52 acres of ground to London by these works. He forced through the removal of tolls from all the bridges from Lambeth Bridge to Albert Bridge and rebuilt three of them. There is a small memorial to him at the bottom of Northumberland Avenue, underneath the Charing Cross Railway bridge.

Most of his work is invisible today, although still in full use and good condition, but one enormous improvement came from Bazalgette’s scheme. The Victoria Embankment, running from Blackfriars Bridge to the Houses of Parliament, was reclaimed from the Thames. We drive or bike or walk along it disregarding, but under our feet run the Circle and District line tube trains and Bazalgette’s main intercepting sewer, keeping Londoners safe from disease and hazardous water.

Brooke, A. 2010. Fleet Street: the story of a street (Stroud)

Halliday, S.  1999. The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis (Stroud)

Halliday, S. 2003. Making the Metropolis: Creators of Victoria’s London (Derby)

Trench, R. & Hillman, E. 1993. London under London: a subterranean guide (London)

Weinreb, B. & Hibbert, C. 1983. The London Encyclopedia (London)

History Hunters’ photos from the ‘Great Stink’: