The Great Stink of London

Not all heroes wear capes, some wear luxuriant old-timey moustaches, but nevertheless, they save the city from a horrible fate. One such man was Joseph Bazalgette, who may have the most English name I’ve ever heard, but who also saved Victorian London from the city’s true arch-villain, The Great Stink!

Cloacina, the goddess of sewers, had no greater servant then Bazalgette. He was a civil engineer tasked with modernising key infrastructure in the city of London during the reign of Queen Victoria. Now, I know what you are thinking, “infrastructure modernisation…boring”, but stick with me gentle reader because we are about to go to London Below.

NPG x646; Sir Joseph William Bazalgette
Joseph Bazalgette…he has kind eyes

What’s that Smell?

Until the modern era, just about every city in the world was enthralled in the pong of hot garbage. That is no hyperbole either, food waste was left to moulder or burnt on the street. Most latrines were dumped into cesspits, some of them open-air, almost all of them leaking. Plus, the contents of a chamberpot were just as likely to be slung out the window as carted away to the muck pits. Stinky industrial processes like tanning, dying, and animal butchering all occurred inside city’s limits, and their foul refuse stayed there.

London has always been a particularly hard place to have a city. While the river and its connection to the sea make it ideal for shipping and trade, the Thames Valley is also a  floodplain. If left to its devices the valley would hold a much broader, shallower, and slower version of the river with a multitude of tributaries feeding into stagnating marshlands, aka a big reeking swamp. Flooding and drainage have always been problems.

When the city’s population was 200,000, as in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, waste management wasn’t such a big deal, though. Everything from dead rats to metric tonnes of horse shit, to the remains of last nights dinner, ended up in the river. Raw sewage pipes expelled waste into the river within the city limits, some of them upstream. Which meant that the floating rafts of awful got a riverside tour of the city before going on their merry way. On the rare bright summer’s day, the city and the river would reek, but the water would move the waste along, and things would return to proper old-fashion regular city stink soon enough.

A solid Elm trunk was hollowed and used as a water pipe for several hundred years

By 1801 London had grown to a little over 950,000 inhabitants yet by 1901 the city held 6,500,000 souls. During that period of rapid growth, the Medieval wooden water pipes and drains could not keep up with demand. The sewers were literally bursting, and the cesspits were monumental. A whole army of unfortunate labourers from rag and bone pickers to nightsoil men were needed just to keep the streets clear. Along with the mess, and the inclusion of industrial factories dumping in city limits; the river was steadily being encroached on by human habitation making the surface area narrower and poorly defined. The river and it’s tributary streams were diverted or built over. Marshlands were drained for new construction. The river slowed in places and stagnated as it filled with the waste of the largest city on Earth. The summer of 1858 was unusually hot and humid, but with little rainfall which caused the festering river to bake in the sun, and an odour so foul was born that people fled the city in terror fearing the stench alone would kill them. That summer The Great Stink of London ruled the town.

The problems with the river were decades in the making but by 1858 the mucky effluence was roughly 9 feet high in some sections, the water was completely opaque, and you could light it on fire. The name, The Great Stink, was coined in the press after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert tried to go out on a jaunty pleasure cruise and immediately turned back because the smell was so bad.

Vickie and Bert’s dinner cruise aside, the stench was unbearable for those living close to the river. Businesses closed shop, prostitutes found it hard to ply their trade as no one was in the mood for romance. The wealthy left for country houses in droves. The Parliment took to coating their curtains in Calcium hypochlorite (powered bleach, now used to disinfect pools) to try and fight the smell but many of the rooms on the lower floors were unusable due to the odour. The city employed a small army of workmen to pour 250 tonnes of Lime over the mouth of the sewer drains to dampen the smell, and it didn’t touch it. The river smelt so bad that a piece of proposed cleanup legislation in 1855 opened with these Lovecraftian prose about the Thames,

a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horror

and that was before it got really bad.

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Dirty Old Father Thames, Punch Magazine 18th June 1858

Killer Smells

To understand why people feared a smell we need to understand Miasma. Miasma Theory stated that illness could be caused by the ingestion of pollutants in the air caused by the decaying of organic matter, in other words, the smell of rotting things would make you rot. It was a radical improvement to Humourism but remember there is no understanding of bacteria or viruses or actual harmful chemical pollutants in Miasma Theory. Rotting things are corrupt and can corrupt healthy people through smell. Using miasmic logic doctors at the same time believed smelling rich foods could make someone fat.  While the roots of our current Germ Theory go all the way back to my Ancient Greek dream date, Thucydides it wasn’t until the work of Pasteur and Koch in the 1850-1900s that this Medieval medical system was finally put to bed.

In the Summer of 1858, however, this was all new and experimental stuff that thumbed its nose at centuries of accepted medical theory, and lots of people didn’t believe it. Yet, here is the thing, people had a reason to be afraid because while the smell of the river didn’t kill anyone, the polluted water that led to a massive Cholera outbreak certainly did. This was all the proof most people needed, including city planners, but as we all learned in science class, Correlation Does Not Imply Causation. Yes, the river smelled like the devil’s armpit and people were getting sick but the smell wasn’t getting them sick, the bacteria in the water was. Miasma Theory directly contributed to people’s deaths in the Stink, in part due to this asshole.


This is Dr William Farr, a respected epidemiologist that studied the Cholera outbreaks in London. He was the assistant commissioner for the 1851 London census and was on the General Board of Health’s 1854 Committee for Scientific Enquiries. He also had a huge boner for Miasma Theory. Farr was utterly convinced that Cholera was an airborne illness brought on by breathing air containing stinking particles of rotting waste. He also believed that elevation was a major contributing factor and you could build immunity to the illness if you spent time in different topographical settings.  When Dr John Snow, the scrappy upstart that was pushing for such quackery as anaesthetising patients during surgery, successfully tracked down the water pump causing the 1854 Soho Outbreak it was Farr that presented his meticulous, but wrong, work on elevation as a counterargument. Snow’s work was rejected by the Committee, Farr’s accepted and the city spent thousands of pounds fighting on the wrong front.

Instead of telling inhabitant to not drink from pumps connected to the Thames and to boil their water, citizens were advised to keep the air in their homes sweet smelling and avoid odiferous sections of the city. The city had the data it needed to enact good policy but because it ignored that in favour of more familiar hypotheses people died. Due to this decision, the heart of the British Empire was nearly brought to its knees. As the Illustrated London News put it on June 26th, 1858,

We can colonise the remotest ends of the earth; we can conquer India; we can pay the interest of the most enormous debt ever contracted; we can spread our name, and our fame, and our fructifying wealth to every part of the world; but we cannot clean the River Thames.

Farr would later accept Snow’s waterborne pathogen explanation but only in 1866 after bacteria had been accepted as scientific fact and Snow had already died.

Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water

Temples of Modernity

In 1848 the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was established under Edwin Chadwick because the river was already a problem ten years before it became a pong monster. Chadwick, a devoted Miasma man, took to flushing the sewers frequently in the hopes of controlling noxious airs. However,  all the flushing just pushed more waste into the river and made everything worse. Things didn’t start to change until Joseph Bazalgatte became the Head Engineer for the Commission in 1852 and spent four years planning out 1,100 miles of additional sewers.

Dirty Father Thames (Punch 1848) Santa’s homeless brother

The project was expensive £6.5 million in 1858 old-timey money (so like a bazillion pounds today) and would be a massive undertaking. Substantial underground areas would need to be dug out around the city, and land would need to be claimed as eminent domain in some sections. The river would need embanking in parts (Albert, Victoria, and Chelsea Embankments are all Bazalgattes) New laws ordered every building in London to be connected to the sewer system making this a project that literally touched every home. A massive topographical survey of the city was taken because the sewers would use gravity whenever possible and when not, enormous pumping stations would be needed. Most importantly, for the first time in the city’s history, all the drains would open outside the city but this meant other communities getting involved and they were less than eager to take on the discharge from the bowels of London.

The bureaucratic red tape hampered the project for years until the Stink and a change in parliamentary government led to funding getting pushed through. The Conservative government wanted to make a show of modernising the city, and it all began with the sewers.

The Crossness Pumping Station in Kent. A cathedral of civil engineering

The sewer system took decades to build and in the end, was a masterpiece of civil design that is still the foundation of London’s sewers today.  The sewers did something unheard of in Europe before, they made a stinkless city (at least by Victorian standards).  A city where smelling shit, piss and rotting horse carcases on your street became unusual instead of the norm. The cesspits, open gutters, stagnant ponds were all gone. Raw sewage floating through the heart of the river was gone. In the coming years, the only places that had Cholera epidemics were the areas of the city that were not yet hooked up to the new sewer system. As modern sanitation came into place Cholera became a malady of the tropics not of the East End.

So if you find yourself down by Embankment Pier go visit Bazalgette’s memorial and thank him for vanquishing the Great Stink to London Below and making London Above a sweeter smelling place.


PS: An intrepid reader informed me that the beautiful Crossness Pumping Station is at risk of closure due to asbestos. If you can make a donation to help fund the cleanup or help spread the word so this important civic landmark can be saved it would be much appreciated.

What to Know More? Check out:

Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson

The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis by Stephen Halliday

The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum by Sarah Wise

London’s Sewers by Paul Dobraszczyk