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The Great Stink

Engraving of Londoners pouring human waste into cesspitsThe Great Stink or The Big Stink was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated sewage almost overwhelmed people in central London.

Part of the problem was due to the introduction of more modern flush toilets. While these were a step forward on the chamber-pots that most Londoners used, they dramatically increased the volume of water and waste that was now poured into existing cesspits. These often overflowed into street drains originally designed to cope with rainwater, but now also used to carry outfalls from factories, slaughterhouses and other activities, contaminating the city before emptying into the River Thames.

Cholera became widespread during the 1840s (not least because many people believed the disease was due to air-borne "miasma"; no one then realised that the disease was water-borne — that discovery was not made until 1854 by London physician Dr John Snow after an epidemic centred in Soho), and sanitation reform soon became a high priority. Bringing together several separate local bodies concerned with sewers, the consolidated Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was established in 1848; it surveyed London's antiquated sewerage system and set about ridding the capital of an estimated 200,000 cesspits — an objective later accelerated by the "Great Stink".

In 1858, the summer was unusually warm. The Thames and many of its urban tributaries were extremely polluted; the warm weather encouraged bacteria to thrive and the resulting smell was so overwhelming that it affected the work of the House of Commons (measures included draping curtains soaked in chloride of lime, while members considered relocating upstream to Hampton Court) and the law courts (plans were made to evacuate to Oxford and St Albans). Heavy rain finally broke the hot and humid summer and the immediate crisis ended. However, a House of Commons select committee was appointed to report on the Stink and recommend how to put an end to the problem.

By this time, the consolidated Commission had been superseded (at the end of 1855) by the Metropolitan Board of Works, and despite numerous different schemes for "merciful abatement of the epidemic that ravaged the Metropolis", the MBW finally accepted a scheme proposed in 1859 by its own chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette. Over the next six years, the key elements of the London Sewerage System were created and the "Great Stink" became a distant memory.

London's sanitation problems
Bazalgette's solution
How the System Worked
See also

London's sanitation problems

The first record of piped water and an underground drainage system was under the Palace of Westminster and dates from the reign of Henry III, but it was not until Henry VIII's Parliament passed a Bill of Sewers, that a serious attempt was made to cope with the disposal of human waste. The problem persisted, however, and in 1660 Samuel Pepys complained that his neighbour's "house of office" had overflowed into his cellar "which doth trouble me" he continued, with masterly understatement. From time to time, up to the 186Os, various acts were passed, and commissions established, in an attempt to deal with the matter, but none of the solutions was far-reaching enough to get to grips with the problems caused by the steady growth of London.

With a low population, the waterways were able to absorb the pollution without any serious detriment to the health of the populace, who continued to use the streams and rivers not only as the means of disposing of waste of all kinds, but as a source of drinking water. As London grew in size, however, these waterways became increasingly unable to cope with the associated growth in the flow of sewage, but it was with the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of London-based industries and growth of the metropolitan population required to operate the machinery, that the sanitary problem became a serious danger to health.

Graphic shows a skeleton rowing across a cesspitThe unprecedented expansion of cheap housing associated with this growth and the primitive sanitary facilities and methods of disposal, together with the use of horse-drawn transport with its own particular smells, made the large metropolitan centre malodorous to a degree.

By 1810, the one million population of London was served by 200,000 cess-pits.

During the 18th century, a new invention, the flush toilet, or water-closet, became more and more popular; the handy chamber-pot kept in the sideboard was no longer socially acceptable. By one of those curious paradoxes that occasionally embarrass the reformer, however, London at the beginning of the 19th Century was more dangerously polluted than ever due to the increase in the provision of these water-closets. The new WCs were so arranged that they discharged into the old cess-pits, which consequently overflowed into the surface water sewers beneath the streets. As these had been earlier designed to collect rainwater only, and to discharge into the rivers and ditches connected to the Thames, the improved domestic arrangements unaccompanied by improvements in the sewerage system brought London to the verge of disaster, a giant step forward for personal hygiene and two steps backward for public sanitation.
In the case of houses backing onto, or near to, the old London streams - the Fleet, the Wandle, the West Bourne, the Ravensbourne, the New, the Holbourne (whence Holborn) and many others, which had been partly or wholly covered over - the domestic closets discharged directly into the streams. Since those on the south side were mostly tide-locked, draining into the Thames only at low tide, the results are better imagined than described; however, much of London's drinking water was still extracted from the Thames, in many cases downstream from the sewage discharge points.

The disorganized state of London's administration frustrated all attempts to deal with this growing problem. In the early 19th Century, there were no less than eight independent Commissioners for Sewers, each concerned only with their own districts.

In addition to typhoid fever, cholera reached England from the east in 1832, (over 14,000 cases in a population of 1.7 million). Following this, the new Poor Law Commission under Edwin Chadwick, the great social reformer, published its "Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain" in 1842 which identified the source of the diseases as contaminated drinking water.

In 1847, spurred on by Chadwick's report, the newly-formed Metropolitan Commission for Sewers published a survey of London's sanitary arrangement above and below ground, but there was still no unified authority created. Amongst other results of this survey was the banning of the use of London's cesspits and the provision of flushing devices to the sewers which carried their contents, untreated, into the Thames. Since drinking water continued to be extracted from the Thames, now converted into an open sewer, typhoid fever and cholera became the two principal scourges of Victorian London. During 1848/49, deaths from cholera in south London reached 1.3 per thousand as opposed to 0.37 per thousand in the upstream cleaner reaches of the Thames, with the number of deaths reaching some 6,000.

Most of the area between Rotherhithe and Lambeth was below high-water level by as much as 7 feet, and far from the sewers discharging into the Thames, the Thames was, for several hours a day, backing up into the sewage ditches. In 1849, the Commission reported that King's Mills Sewer had ten years' accumulation of sewage in it, and Paradise Row sewer was waterlogged for 20 hours a day. Both of these were in the Rotherhithe area.

In 1834, fifteen years before this situation was publicised, John Martin, a well-known painter of Biblical events and disasters, had proposed that two intercepting sewers be built below the banks of the river, to terminate at the Tower on the north, and at the Surrey Canal on the south. Two immense receptacles were to be provided, to convert the sewage into manure, and the gas was to be burnt off by huge fires,thus assisting in forced ventilation. A more formal proposal for an intercepting sewer was placed before the Commission by Cubitt and Stephenson, and one man, Joseph Bazalgette, took these suggestions seriously, noting them for future reference.
The event which pushed the Victorian legislators into taking action, and ultimately adopting Bazalgette's recommendations was the 'Great Stink' of 1858, when the combination of an unusually warm summer and an unbelievably polluted Thames made it necessary to hang sacking soaked in deodorising chemicals at the windows of the House of Commons.

Bazalgette's solution

Engraving showing construction of Bazelgate's sewer solutionFollowing an outbreak of cholera in 1853, Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Commission for Sewers, prepared a report essentially recommending a solution, previously put forward by the Victorian artist John Martin, of two great intercepting sewers flanking the Thames, to drain eastwards to treatment plants, where "deodorized water" would be discharged into the river.
Although there were no means then to finance such an enterprise, the idea had been formulated. Bazalgette believed that the drainage of the low-lying land in London was more important than cleansing the Thames, and he had got the priorities right.

The conditions near to the old rivers and streams had become deadly, and the Victorian reformers were determined that they must be improved, but it was not until 1856, when the old system of self-contained Commissioners of Sewers was superseded by the Metropolitan Board of Works, that the London-wide problem was seen as a whole. Bazalgette was empowered to design and execute "a system of sewerage to prevent any part of the sewage within the Metropolis from passing into the River Thames in or near the Metropolis."

Bazalgette’s project consisted of the construction of intercepting sewers north and south of the Thames, and immediately adjacent to the river. These were to receive the sewage from the sewers and drains which up to now had connected directly into the Thames. Until this time, Thames-side in central London was not protected by an embankment, and consisted of mud, shingle and sewage, onto which these various drains, outlets and ditches had discharged. A miscellaneous collection of ricketty lightermen’s stairs also connected to the foreshore, and it is still possible to see one or two of these old access ways - Wapping Old Stairs, east of The Tower, for example

The MBW took this opportunity to begin the task of confining the Thames in central London between masonry embankments, behind and below which were sited the riverside sewers. It is for the Victoria Embankment on the north, and the Albert Embankment on the south, as well as for London’s efficient sewerage system, that we have to thank Joseph Bazalgette. The construction of the sewers alone was a major civil engineering project, and between 1856 and 1859, 82 miles of brick intercepting sewers were built below London's streets, all flowing by gravity, eastwards. These were connected to over 450 miles of main sewers, themselves receiving the contents of 13,000 miles of small local sewers, dealing daily with half a million gallons of waste.

Constructing the interceptory system was a stupendous undertaking, involving 318 million bricks ,880,000 cubic yards of concrete and mortar, and the excavation of 3.5 million cubic yards of earth. The price of bricks in London rose by fifty per cent while it was being constructed.

Considering that the system was built during the wettest summer and the coldest winter recorded in the nineteenth century, it was an astounding achievement, even for Victorian civil engineers.

How the System Worked

Scemati map of Bazelgate's sewerage scheme for LondonThe two halves of the Main Drainage Scheme, north and south of the river, are broadly similar, and the principle upon which each is based was very simple. In short, get the sewage to the east of London, store it until high tide, then release it.

On each side, three intercepting sewers at different levels divert sewage away from the river and lead it, by gravity where possible, or by pumping where necessary, towards the outfalls at Beckton on the north and Crossness on the south. At each outfall, covered reservoirs enabled the sewage to be stored until high tide, and then discharged into the river on the ebb tide. The major pumping stations to fill the reservoirs were located at Abbey Mills near West Ham, and at Crossness itself on the south bank.

The northern system runs from Chiswick in the west via the Victoria Embankment, to Old Ford in the east. Sewers from the high ground in the north of London also join this system, combining in the Northern Outfall Sewer. The sewage is lifted at Abbey Mills, and thence by gravity to the Beckton reservoir. Abbey Mills is a splendid example of Victorian industrial architecture in the Byzantine style, and originally contained eight Cornish beam engines, now alas replaced by electric pumps.

The southern system contains three levels of intercepting sewers. The Low Level Sewer from Putney to Deptford picked up the Bermondsey branch and was joined by the High Level Sewer from Balham and the higher Effra Branch from Crystal Palace and Norwood; these combined at Deptford, and were there lifted some twenty feet to discharge directly into the Thames at Deptford Creek. By 1860, work was proceeding on the Southern Outfall Sewer, and this, when complete, took the the effluent from Deptford via Plumstead, and thence to Crossness. Here the sewage was pumped up into a reservoir 6.5 acres in extent by 17 feet deep, holding 27 million gallons, and was released at high tide to flow out on the ebb, towards the sea.

There was no attempt to treat the raw sewage: Bazalgette's concern was to get rid of it. Since the success of the enterprise rested on the use of the tides - two in each 24 hours - it follows that the reservoir had to be emptied in six hours, in order to utilise all of the ebb tide. In fact, to give some margin of safety, emptying had to take place in less time than this. And as soon as the ebb tide began to turn, the outlet culverts from the reservoir were closed by penstocks, and pumping continued, raising the incoming sewage from the deep-level culverts into the reservoir. Just before high tide in the river, the sluices connecting the reservoir and the river would be opened.

There were, of course, other regulations made concerning the supply of clean water to London at this time, but without Joseph Bazalgette's magnificent scheme, these would not have begun to deal with the essential problem - the appalling contamination of the River Thames. The success of these measures can be gauged by the fact that there was just one final outbreak of cholera in London in 1866 - just one year after HRH started the pumps at the opening ceremony.

See also

Great Smog of 1952
Waste Management
Britain’s Domestic Waste
Radioactive waste
Nuclear waste’s final resting place