‘The foulest nuisance that ever disgraced the annals of a nation,’ the condition of the Thames in the summer of 1858 had reached a crisis point. Bloated with sewage and other effluence from the world’s second largest city, the Thames had become a ‘pestilential stream,’ emitting a putrid odour that was dubbed the ‘Great Stink.’
In this special blog, we shall uncover the true state of the Thames, as it was in the June and July of 1858. Using contemporary newspapers, we shall discover what effect the ‘stink’ had on the inhabitants of London, what was supposed to have caused it, and in the end, how the problem was resolved.
Tip: Although we refer to this event as ‘The Great Stink,’ be mindful that such a term might not have been used at the time. Instead, using such terms like ‘the Thames’ or ‘the river Thames’ will bring you articles relating to this particular episode of history.
The State of the River
It is the receptacle of the excreta of near three millions of persons; dwellings, factories, laundries, streets, pour their liquid and solid refuse into its current; a navy of active steamboats employ their paddle-wheels in stirring the mixture, and the sun – great agent of fermentation – sets the mass into a work, so that from Teddington to the Nore, the Thames breeds pestilence for all who traverse its surface, pass over it, or live within reach of the air that has wafted over its stream of putrefaction.
Indeed, all were agreed, says the London City Press. From the Lord Mayor to the House of Commons, from the Board of Works to the City Sewer’s Commission, from the press to the public; all were unanimous in saying ‘IT STINKS.’ Furthermore, ‘whoso once inhales the stink, can never forget it, and may count himself lucky if he live to remember it.’
The Morning Post, 12 July 1858, was of the opinion that the state of the Thames left the river ‘too nasty to be handled,’ whilst the Wrexham Advertiser described how, at the beginning of July, ‘The Thames is now as filthy a pool as exists in the yard of a substantial farmer.’ The House of Lords was outraged; the Earl of Malmesbury proclaiming the condition of the river to be ‘a perfect disgrace to the nation,’ as reported in the Evening Mail, 28 June 1858.
Handkerchiefs at the Ready
So what impact did the revolting state of the ‘fermented’ river have upon London and its population?
The Duke of Buccleuch, in a speech to the House of Lords, related how:
…owing to the pestilential nature of the water, the number of passengers on board the river steamers had very much decreased of late. One gentleman, he believed, when going down the river on one of those steamers was so much affected by the stench that he was seized with vomiting, and he had heard that other persons had been carried on shore in a fainting state.
People were, understandably, staying away from the river, unable to stand the smell. The Wrexham Advertiser, 3 July 1858, told of how:
The stench has been so great during the last fortnight that many persons have refrained from going upon the river, others have been seen crossing the bridges with handkerchief to their noses and their mouths to exclude the pestiferous exhalation which awaited them.
Additionally, there was a belief that the stench could cause disease, and eventual death. The Duke of Buccleuch relates the case of a Thames waterman, who ‘was said to have died from the Asiatic cholera, brought on by his exposure to the stench of the river while plying his vocation below London-bridge.’
On the 7 July 1858 the Derby Mercury told the tragic tale of the Reverend Mr. Blackwell, of Gloucester Terrace, Belgravia, and his family. His wife and four of their children had passed away ‘from the effects of fever and dysentery, the result of (in the opinion of the Rev. gentleman’s family physician) the noxious effluvia from the Thames.’ Importantly, the newspaper notes how ‘The residence of Mr. Blackwell is contiguous to the river.’
This tragedy was not confined to the Blackwell family. According to the Aberdeen Press and Journal ‘Sickness prevails almost universally in the vicinity of the river, and it is stated that 10,000 persons are in a state of chronic cholera.’
The Marquis of Salisbury was worried about alarming the public that ‘a pestilence was imminent,’ as reports the Evening Mail. Such cases of dysentery, cholera and the like were, however, caused by the drinking of contaminated water, as physician John Snow had set out to prove some years earlier through his experiment at Broad Street, Soho.
But what about those who actually had the misfortune to find themselves in the river? The Duke of Buccleuch described to the House of Lords a sad case relating to ‘a young woman who had very recently attempted suicide by throwing herself over one of the bridges.’ According to him:
…[her] life had been more endangered by the poisonous nature of the water she imbibed than from being immersed in it for the few seconds which elapsed before she was rescued.
Panic In A Committee Room
However, perhaps most famously affected by the ‘Great Stink’ were the Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster itself. The Wrexham Advertiser, 3 July 1858, reports how:
…the new Palace of Westminster is built on the shore of this pestilential stream. Thither the Lords and Commons of the realm resort daily, and latterly these noble lords and honourable gentlemen have been so uncommanded by the annoyance that, as an expedient, canvass soaked in chloride of zinc has been hung before the open windows of the stately palace of administration, and barge loads of quicklime have been emptied on the murky bank of filthy deposit.
Indeed, the very business of the governance of the realm was threatened by the ‘Great Stink.’ The Westmorland Gazette, 26 June 1858, reports how ‘every window of the House of Commons was tightly closed to keep out the stench,’ but the smell seemed to multiply ‘with tenfold power in the passages and corridors.’ As a result, ‘there were not more than thirty members present.’
And if any member of the House of Lords or House of Commons were somehow not aware of the problem, it was, quite literary, under their noses. The Evening Mail contains the following quip from Earl Grey:
He was sure that if any noble lord would take the trouble to go into the library of the House he would find he had never smelt such a smell as would greet him there before.
This provoked laughter from the House. But despite the laughter, and the ‘sheets steeped in chloride of lime’ covering the windows, the Palace of Westminster could not keep the stink out. This resulted in a particularly farcical scene, as related in the Derby Mercury, with the great men of government forced to flee one of their committee rooms:
Panic in a Committee-Room of the House of Commons from the State of the Thames – a sudden rush from the room took place, foremost amongst them being the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with a mass of paper in one hand, and with his pocket handkerchief clutched in the other, and applied to his nose, followed closely by Sir James Graham, who seemed to be attacked by a sudden fit of expectoration; Mr. Gladstone also seemed much affected, whilst Mr. Cayley sought a solace and relief in a cup of hot coffee. The other members of the committee also quitted the apartment. They were glad to proceed with their business in another room.
With ‘speeches shortened, threatened opposition withdrawn, bills discharged,’ the very business of government was threatened by the stench from the river. Officials had succumbed to ‘diarrhea and sore throats,’ brandy was in ‘great demand,’ and aside from the awful smell, the scent of camphor and eau de cologne combined to create a ‘mephitic vapour,’ making legislation all but impossible.
But what had caused this ‘Great Stink?’ The Duke of Buccleuch alluded to ‘the enormous increase in population and the vast number of houses that had sprung up’ in London, as being behind the issue, as well as stating:
At the present moment the evil may have been increased in a great degree by the dryness of the season. For some time back we have had very little rain, and the sewage came down in its natural state in no way diluted by rain water. Besides, there were many offensive factories located close to their lordships’ House, including soap and bone boiling operations, the refuse from which and from breweries assisted in making the river still more foul.
The growth of the city and its industrialization was reflected back in the waters which ran through it. The Thames was the sum of the city, the sum of its success, but also of its waste and refuse.
And let’s not forget that the Thames was a vital transport route, and as such, was buzzing with river traffic. This did not help the dire situation it was in, as the Shoreditch Observer explains, featuring a report entitled ‘Observations on the State of the Thames: On the Purification of the Rivers; and the Safe Disposal of the London Sewerage’ by Shoreditch medical officer Robert Barnes:
It is not surprising that the vicinity of the steam boat piers, near most of which large sewers empty their contents, should be peculiarly offensive. The agitation caused by the boats, and still more by the flood-tide, stirs up this fermenting mud, rolls it a little way into the stream where it is kept always in a highly concentrated state, slowly moving in the back waters and sluggish currents and shallows, which mostly exist in-shore even in rapid rivers. Thus the concentrated sewage and the hot mud on the banks and fore-shores maintain a constant source of empoisonnement which has frequently extended its influence into the mid-stream.
Of particular concern at the time was the temperature of the river mud, and the fear that it was fermenting the already foul waters of the Thames. Robert Barnes describes how this mud reached temperatures of ’80, 100 and 110 degrees,’ but some reports, like one this one from the Derby Mercury, put that temperature even higher:
Dr. Lewis Thomson… has found the mud on the banks at a temperature of 120 degrees; if the sewers were no longer flushed, poisonous vapours would ascend the gully-holes and enter houses.
Thus, the ‘Great Stink’ was a perfect storm of contributing factors. The fact that, as related in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, 90,000,000 gallons of sewage entered the river from London on a daily basis, with only 400,000,000 gallons of fresh water passing over Teddington lock to counteract such pollution, meant that for all intents and purposes the Thames was a giant open sewer. Factor in the heat of that summer, the river craft stirring up the foul waters, the ever-increasing London population and their ever-increasing waste, and you get the ‘Great Stink.’
Relieving Father Thames
So something had to be done, and fast. The situation was untenable, with the Houses of Parliament nearly rendered uninhabitable and the lives of Londoners made unbearable by the stench, as well as the risk of disease to which the state of the river exposed them.
Luckily, there were many individuals and organizations who stepped forward to offer a solution to this problem. The Aberdeen Press and Journal at the end of June 1858 reports:
How many plans have been proposed and rejected for the remedy of this grievous evil. Four bodies fight over the subject of metropolitan drainage – the Board of Works, the Metropolitan Board of Works, the Sewerage Commissioners, and that ancient body, the Thames Conservators.
Practical Suggestions for Diverting the Sewage from the Thames, and appropriating it to Agricultural Use; relieving the overcrowded thoroughfares of London, and securing improved means of locomotion.
Written by Joseph Mitchell, complete with cost estimates, maps and plans, this could be yours for 2s 6d.
Of course, there were committees set up to tackle the problem, the Derby Mercury reporting how ‘The House of Commons Committee on the state of the Thames has been busy receiving the evidence of scientific gentlemen as to the cause of the present exhalations from our great sewer, and the remedies.’
One of these ‘scientific gentlemen’ was Mr. Walker, who suggested discharging ‘all the sewage at high water.’ Meanwhile the Westmorland Gazette, 10 July 1858, outlines the idea of Mr. William Steevens, an agricultural mechanist. He proposed to create a ‘series of stations in the river at the low water-mark,’ where the sewage would be contained and ‘hermetically sealed.’ Then, a steam-engine would be employed to carry away the sewage from these points, and then sent via the canal system for agricultural use.
But it was ultimately the Metropolitan Board of Works and civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette who embarked on the ‘great scheme which should relieve poor Father Thames of the humiliating duty which it is now required to perform.’ The Illustrated London News, over a year later in August 1859, describes how Parliament eventually ‘placed in the hands of the Metropolitan Board of Works the means for carrying out the plans which were designed by Mr. Bazalgette, their engineer, in the year 1854.’
The scheme was to create more sewers, relieving the burden on that most notable of open sewers the Thames. The Illustrated London News relates how:
Mr. Bazalgette’s scheme proposes, by constructing three arterial lines of sewers on the north side of the Thames, converging to one point at the River Lea, and passing thence side by side in one large embankment to Barking Creek, to divert the sewage from the Thames; and, should it not be possible to make it available for agriculture, to cast it away at a point fourteen miles below London-bridge, at high water, so that the ebb tide may carry it twelve miles lower, or twenty-six miles below London-bridge; and similarly to deal with the sewage on the south side of the river.
Vitally, the new tunnels would be ‘large enough to carry off the maximum flow of sewage which will arise from the calculated prospective population of London many years hence.’
And Bazalgette’s plans were a huge success. Knighted in 1875, his new sewers (still in use today) helped to eliminate cholera in London’s water system, and reduce cases of typhus and typhoid. The Thames was saved, the lives of countless Londoners were saved, and we have the ‘Great Stink’ to thank for provoking this revolution in civil engineering, and Sir Joseph Bazalgette for his pioneering designs.