The "Great Stink" of 1858: England's smelliest summer

Ilana Quinn

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1854 political cartoon illustrating the River ThamesGetty Images

In the summer of 1858, the putrid smell of the once-beloved River Thames became too much for members of the British Parliament to bear.

The thick summer heat combined with the cesspool known as “Father Thames” drifted into the House of Commons, prompting lawmakers to (finally) take action.

The River Thames — a long stretch of water that passes through Oxford and drains Greater London — had been accumulating human waste, and other unpleasant objects, for centuries.

Before the seventeenth century, low-paid workers called “night soil collectors” walked around London, shoveling piles of waste from the streets and placing them into the river. They didn’t have gloves or hazmat suits, inevitably leading to all kinds of illnesses common in Victorian England.

Deprived of the modern toilets and sewage systems we so often take for granted, Londoners during the nineteenth century therefore flushed their waste into the river.

Murder victims and even executed pirates were also dumped into the Thames, contributing to an even more ghastly smell.

The development of the sewage system in the River Thames was also disastrous.

An 1850 labor periodical advocating for the fair treatment of workers described the construction of a new sewer running into the River Thames, which unfortunately resulted in the injury of a young boy and the death of two men:

Two men were drowned. One boy was driven by the force of the water to the mouth of the shaft leading into the sewer. He was taken out almost exhausted and conveyed to the hospital, but no fatal injury is apprehended.

In both its construction and use as a toxic sewer running through the poorest parts of the district, the River Thames highlighted the jarring gap between rich and poor.

The stench of the River Thames had been a problem long before politicians finally decided to act.

Most members of parliament lived far from the filth and noise of so-called “semi-criminal” Victorian London: the areas of the city where the poor were forced to abide.

Victorian statesmen were often from the nobility, owning sprawling family country estates and mansions segregated from the homes of the impoverished.

Despite the government’s delayed response, some newspapers had been highlighting the contamination of Father Thames before the summer of 1858.

In a letter to the editor of The Times, an advocate for the drainage of the river expressed concern at the worsening situation. Reflecting on an old undated report, the writer despairs at the failure of response from the government:

I also in the same letter went at considerable length into the river influence, in operation both as regards the scour in the river and the shifting accumulations of silt below bridge, conceiving that these influences tend to produce effects which do not appear to me to have been hitherto sufficiently considered, and which, if real, are all-important, so long as the river is replaceable either wholly or in part of the sewage.

Landscape artist John Martin also devised plans to reinvent the Thames as early as the 1820s. He hoped to solve the pollution crisis and even used modern engineering principles to filter dirty water so only clean water would run through the river.

Despite its modernity, Martin’s plan went untouched by authorities.

A few years before the Great Stink, scientist Michael Faraday also noted the peculiar smell and appearance of the river, stating: “Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface… the whole river was for the time a real sewer.” He too was ignored.

International newspapers took notice of the increasingly unbearable stench, with The New York Times using the situation to assert the supposed superiority of American cities:

Were New-York as far from the sea as London, for example, with a river no bigger than the Thames for an outlet, what would be the condition of this unhappy City!

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That fateful summer in 1858, the stench of the River Thames invading the new Houses of Parliament was ultimately too strong to ignore.

The summer heat caused centuries of human waste, decomposing corpses and industrial waste to ferment, resulting in a smell undeterred by the strongest of cologne.

After years of campaigning from city inhabitants, authorities finally began drafting a bill to solve the crisis.

The Times aptly reported “proximity to the source of the stench concentrated their attention on its causes in a way that many years of argument and campaigning had failed to do…

While the somewhat bizarre story of the Great Stink has a happy ending — with engineer Joseph Bazalgette devising and implementing a new sewage system existing in London to this day, it also stresses the repressive class system written about by writers like Dickens and Gaskell.

Parliament’s failure to act until the stench could literally no longer be ignored represents the segregation between rich and poor.

While the rich could easily escape to their country homes and use carriages to avoid pools of human waste, the poor had no choice but to stay.

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