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The Great Stink of London
Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis
By Stephen Halliday
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Stephen Halliday
All rights reserved.
London's Sanitation before 1850
The flood is now, below London Bridge, bad as poetical descriptions of the Stygian Lake, while the London Dock is black as Acheron ... where are ye, ye civil engineers? Ye can remove mountains, bridge seas and fill rivers ... can ye not purify the Thames, and so render your own city habitable?
From Complacency to Panic
In 1844 the influential contemporary journal The Builder published a pompous but reassuring letter from a Professor of Chemistry. Professor Booth wrote: 'The free currents of air which are necessarily in constant circulation from their proximity to the majestic Thames ... have been considered (and not improperly) as a great cause of the salubrity of the metropolis.' This claim is significant for two reasons. First, it is a clear statement of the 'miasmic' theory of disease which was prevalent at the time and which held that good and bad health were caused primarily, if not exclusively, by the properties of the air inhaled by the lungs. In the same passage Booth expressed a more extravagant version of the theory: 'From inhaling the odour of beef the butcher's wife obtains her obesity.' The theory long survived the discovery that diseases like cholera were transmitted through water rather than air and Florence Nightingale, who died in 1910, went to her grave firmly believing in the miasmic theory. The theory bedevilled many attempts by reformers to secure improvements in the water supply and sanitation of London, as will be seen in later chapters.
However, the greater reason for the significance for Booth's claim about the 'salubrity' of London lies in its complacent view of the waters of the Thames. Fourteen years after Booth made this claim, in the hot summer of 1858, the drapes of the Houses of Parliament were being soaked in chloride of lime to act as a barrier, albeit an ineffective one, against the foul odours arising from the river. Despite these precautions the leader of the House and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Disraeli, was seen fleeing from the chamber, his handkerchief to his nose and, as Bazalgette observed in his interview with the Saturday Journal, there was even talk of moving Parliament elsewhere. Henley upon Thames was considered.
Professor Booth's flattering assessment of the quality of London's air and the condition of its river was not unique in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Charles Lucas, an Irishman who qualified as a doctor in Paris, had written in 1756 that London's water 'undoubtedly is one of the principal causes why our capital is the most healthful great city in the world', and in 1818 another writer, Samuel Leigh, claimed of the capital:
Its healthfulness is equal to that of any other metropolis in existence; its plentiful supply of water which is furnished by different water companies, must also have an excellent effect on the cleanliness, and consequently on the health, of the inhabitants of London, while its system of sewers and drains ... adds still more to the general causes which conduce to salubrity.
In 1826 John Britton had written:
With regard to the diseases and proportion of salubrity usually attaching to London, it is a satisfaction to state generally, that since the complete extinction of the Plague by the Great Fire of l666, this metropolis has fully deserved to be considered as one of the most healthy on earth; and that in consequence of the open mode of building that now prevails, its increase to an almost indefinite extent is not likely to be attended with additional unwholesomeness.
London's Water Supply
For many centuries the condition of London's water supply had been a cause of some pride to its inhabitants. The Romans had laid clay pipes throughout the City, conveying the waters of the Walbrook to public conduits and baths like the ones discovered in Upper Thames Street. During the medieval and Tudor periods water was drawn from the Thames, from its tributaries and from the numerous natural wells which are remembered in modern street and district names such as Well Court, near St Paul's Cathedral; Wellclose Square, off Cable Street; and the Clerks' Well, or Clerkenwell. Other important wells were found at Holywell, near Blackfriars, and St Clement's Well, close to St Clement's Inn. Most inhabitants drew and carried their own supplies from these sources while wealthier citizens employed the services of water-carriers who in 1496 formed themselves into a guild of their own called 'The Brotherhood of St Cristofer [sic] of the Waterbearers'. From the thirteenth century onwards civil engineering projects of increasing complexity were undertaken to supplement local supplies using pipes of clay, sandstone, lead and hollowed-out elm trees. Thus in 1237, during the reign of Henry III, Gilbert de Sandford granted to the City all the springs in his fief of Tyburn at Mary le Bourne (now Marylebone), the water from which was carried to the great conduit in Cheapside by lead pipes. The water was freely available to householders but some revenue had to be collected to maintain and repair the pipes so in 1312 certain citizens were appointed 'to faithfully collect the money assessed upon brewers, cooks and fishmongers at their discretion for the easement they enjoy of the water of the conduit of Chepe, and to expend the same upon the repairs and maintenance of the said conduit'.
In the following century, in 1439, the abbot and monks of Westminster made a similar grant to the City, allowing them 'to erect a fountain-head with fountains, vents, cisterns and other works in the manor of Paddington' for the purpose of increasing the City's water supplies. In 1582 a Dutchman called Peter Morice leased from the City for £25 10s a year the first arch of London Bridge, within which he constructed a waterwheel which drew water from the Thames and piped it to premises in the City. This continued in use for 240 years until 1822 – seven years after house waste was permitted to be carried to the Thames via the sewers.
The most remarkable enterprise was that of Hugh Myddleton (or Middleton), a successful goldsmith, banker and cloth maker, and Member of Parliament for Denbigh. In 1613 he began to construct the New River which brought fresh water from a spring at Amwell in Hertfordshire to a point near Sadlers Wells, a distance of some 38 miles. Early difficulties in financing the project were overcome with the assistance of an investment by James I and for this successful enterprise Myddleton was made a baronet in 1622. The New River remains a source of London's water. A century later, in 1723, the Chelsea Water Company was established to draw water from the North Bank of the Thames, adopting the slogan 'water three times a week for three shillings a quarter' and over the following 122 years six other companies followed in drawing water from the river: the West Middlesex, Grand Junction, East London, South London, Lambeth and Southwark companies. By the time the last of these started, in 1845, thirty years had passed since house drains had been allowed to empty into the sewers. The consequences for the purity of the drinking water may be imagined, but these were overlooked by commentators such as Professor Booth and the other writers quoted at the beginning of this chapter.
Not everyone shared Professor Booth's confidence in the purity of the Thames. In 1827 the pamphleteer John Wright had anonymously published The Dolphin, or Grand Junction Nuisance, Proving that Several Thousand Families in Westminster and its Suburbs are Supplied with Water in a State Offensive to the Sight, Disgusting to the Imagination and Destructive to Health which drew attention to the pollution of water supplies by industrial effluent and leakage from sewers. Copies of the pamphlet were distributed to houses in Westminster. Wright had been an associate of William Cobbett and edited some of the old campaigner's works before his indignation at the quality of the water supplied to his house in Regent Street, and drawn from the Thames near the mouth of the Ranelagh sewer, led him to attack the Grand Junction Waterworks company which supplied it. The pamphlet claimed that the company sent up 'to be used daily at the breakfast table ... a fluid saturated with the impurities of fifty thousand homes – a dilute solution of animal and vegetable substances in a state of putrefaction – alike offensive to the sight, disgusting to the imagination and destructive to the health'.
Wright dedicated his pamphlet to the radical M.P. Sir Francis Burdett, who raised what a later Select Committee described as 'an alarm' which prompted the appointment of a Royal Commission in 1828. Its members concluded that 'the present state of the supply of water to the Metropolis is susceptible of and requires improvement; that many of the complaints respecting the quality of the water are well founded; and that it ought to be derived from other sources than those now resorted to'.
The Commission's report was considered by a Select Committee upon whose recommendation Parliament appointed the ageing and distinguished engineer Thomas Telford 'to Survey and Report his Opinion as to the best Mode of Supplying the Metropolis with Pure Water'. His report recognised the pollution problems posed by the Thames and proposed to bring water supplies to London from three unpolluted sources. Aqueducts would bring water from the River Ver at Aldenham and from the Wandle at Beddington, while the New River company would augment its supplies by drawing on waters from the upper reaches of the Lee and from wells north of London. The cost was estimated with confident precision as £1,177,840 16s 5d. A further Select Committee was appointed to consider the matter further in 1834 following which no further steps were taken.
In April 1850, in his campaigning journal Household Words Charles Dickens gave an account of his visit to the works of the Grand Junction Water Company at Kew. Dickens asked the engineer: 'How many companies take their supplies from the Thames, near to, and after it has received the contents of, the common sewers?' The engineer replied: 'No water is taken from the Thames below Chelsea, except that of the Lambeth Company, which is supplied from between Waterloo and Hungerford Bridges.' Dickens observed that, the Thames being a tidal river, any sewage entering the river was liable to be conveyed by the tidal flow above Chelsea but the engineer replied that many problems of water pollution were caused by dirt entering cisterns within houses. The engineer's complacency echoed that of a spokesman for the company, Dr Pearson, who, in his evidence to the Royal Commission on the Water Supply of the Metropolis twenty-two years earlier, had informed the Commissioners that: 'The impregnating ingredients of the Thames are as perfectly harmless as any spring water of the purest kind in common life: indeed, there is probably not a spring, with the exception of Malvern, and one or two more, which are so pure as Thames water.'
The Chelsea company was not as complacent as the Grand Junction. In 1825 the quality of the company's water had been so poor that it prompted complaints from the royal palaces, and so in 1829 James Simpson, the company's engineer, introduced a process by which water was filtered through a bed of sand before being piped for consumption. This process remains the basis of water filtration to this day though it was sixty years before Pasteur's work revealed that the sand provided a biological as well as a physical barrier to impurities, as a result of which discovery further refinements to the process have been introduced.
A Stygian Lake
By 1853 London's drainage problem was being voiced in the columns of The Builder, the journal that had carried Professor Booth's complacent assessment only nine years earlier. A correspondent writing under the name 'Quondam' wrote the letter containing the complaint which opened this chapter: 'The flood ... is now, below London Bridge, bad as poetical descriptions of the Stygian Lake, while the London Dock is black as Acheron ... where are ye, ye civil engineers? Ye can remove mountains, bridge seas and fill rivers ... can ye not purify the Thames, and so render your own city habitable?'
Since this was written in mid-winter, when the river would have been relatively well supplied with winter floodwaters, and the temperature low, we may conclude that the condition of the river had markedly deteriorated since Booth's earlier claim. Within two years, in the summer of 1855, Faraday's famous letter, quoted in the preface, had drawn public attention to the condition of the Thames, while in the hot, dry summer of 1858 the 'Great Stink' was on the point of driving Parliament from London. The deterioration in the years since Professor Booth's flattering verdict on the qualities of the river can be explained by reference to changes in London's drainage system which occurred in the early nineteenth century and which represented a significant change from the arrangements which had prevailed at least since medieval times.
London's Natural Drainage System
In order to understand how London's drainage system developed it is important to grasp two principles. The first is that the drainage grew around London's system of natural watercourses, notably the following, shown on the map on the opposite page:
On the north side of the river, from west to east:
Stamford Brook: Wormwood Scrubs to Chiswick
Counters Creek: Wormwood Scrubs to Chelsea
Hampstead to Chelsea via Hyde Park (and the Serpentine)
Hampstead to Westminster (also called the
Aye or Kings Scholars Pond)
Highgate and Hampstead to the City
Islington to Cannon Street
Stepney to Poplar
Hackney Brook: Hornsey to the River Lea
On the south side, from west to east:
Wimbledon to Barnes
Merton to Wandsworth
Tooting to Battersea
Norwood to Vauxhall
Peck/EarlsSluice/ These originate in East
Dulwich and enter the
Thames at Bermondsey and Rotherhithe
Bromley to Deptford
Originally, these were open streams and one of them, the Fleet, was a substantial river, navigable as far as Old Bourne (Holborn) and even harbouring pirates who emerged from the Fleet to attack a vessel carrying King Edward II in 1310. As London grew the streams were gradually covered over so that now only the Ravensbourne, Beverley Brook and the Wandle are still open streams for much of their length. The covering-over of the Walbrook began in 1463 and that of the Fleet in 1732. In 1846 the foetid gases it contained caused it toexplode, disgorging a tide of sewage which swept away three poor houses in Clerkenwell. The remaining streams were mostly covered over during the expansion of London's housing in the nineteenth century, though part of the Tyburn near its junction with the Thames remained open until the 1970s. The rivers still run beneath London's streets. The Fleet, for example, is a substantial river running beneath Farringdon Road and entering the Thames beneath Blackfriars railway bridge. Occasionally, intrepid explorers journeyed by boat along these subterranean passages. One of the most enterprising was John Hollingshead, who, in 1862, published an account of a voyage along the Tyburn, which at that date was still conveying London's sewage into the Thames. At one point his guides stopped the boat and informed him that he was, at that very moment, immediately beneath Buckingham Palace. His reaction was all that a patriot could wish: 'Of course, my loyalty was at once excited, and, taking off my fan-tailed cap, I led the way with the National Anthem, insisting that my guides should join the chorus.'
The second essential point that must be grasped about London's early drainage system is that it was intended for surface water drainage, as had been the case with Rome's 'Cloaca Maxima', built between 800 and 735 BC. Foul sewage from buildings was diverted into cesspools which were emptied, at irregular intervals, by 'nightsoil men'. Until 1815 it was illegal to discharge effluent from buildings to the sewers. In the words of The Builder, written in 1884:
At the commencement of the present century it was penal to discharge sewage or other offensive matter into the sewers, which were intended for surface drainage only. The sewage of the Metropolis was collected into cesspools which were emptied from time to time and their contents conveyed into the country for application to the land.
Excerpted from The Great Stink of London by Stephen Halliday. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Halliday. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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