London in the summertime sounds quite lovely, but in 1858, it was probably the last place anyone would want to be. That summer the city really stunk. Like, it literally smelled rancid, and the city could barely function as a result. The putrid odor, which emanated from the iconic River Thames, came to be known as the Great Stink.
The River Thames
The River Thames had long been an integral part of London since the city’s founding. The river not only served as a natural water source for the ever growing population, but as a dumping ground for disposing of the city’s waste. As you can imagine, as the city got bigger, so did the quantity of human, animal and industrial waste being disposed of in the river. Even as early as the 17th century, people began to realize this was a problem.
Now, one might think that better technology might have helped the situation, but it actually had the opposite effect. As sewer systems got better, and flushing toilets became more common, it actually became easier for waste to flow into the Thames.
While various people had ideas on how to improve the quality of water in the Thames, nothing was ever really done to address it. While the situation was bad, it wasn’t until the sizzling hot summer of ‘58 that things got out of hand.
The Great Stink
In June of 1858, London faced a heatwave. The water level in the Thames dropped, exposing disgusting raw waste on the banks of the river. That waste all started to rot under the sweltering heat, and the result was an unbearable stench that spread throughout the city.
The smell alone was enough to get people sick, but even worse was the water itself, which became a breeding ground for diseases like cholera. The press dubbed the event the ‘Great Stink’, and the issue came to affect nearly the entire population.
The stench became so bad that it even hindered the work of Parliament. Members could not bear the unimaginably bad smell. There was even some discussion about moving Parliament elsewhere, just so work could actually get done.
Solving the Issue
As often the case, the need for change became apparent when it started to affect the well-being of those in power. It became clear that a new sewer system was needed; one that could properly handle the needs of the growing population. Thankfully, even before the Great Stink wreaked havoc on the nostrils of Londoners, a plan to revamp the city’s sewers was already coming to fruition.
Assistant Surveyor Joseph Bazalgette had completed plans in June, 1856, to improve the sewer system in London. His plan included creating smaller, local sewers that would feed into larger sewers. These would then drain into strategically placed outflow pipes. With these changes, the new sewer system would be able to better handle the needs of an increasing London population. Once given the go ahead from the government, construction of a modern sewage system began.
The Stink Subsides
Over time, the new system would solve many of London’s sewage problems. The number of cholera case would eventually drop, and ultimately the terrible stench subsided. People could get back to enjoying their time out in the city.
While not typically remembered as a British hero, Joseph Bazalgette deserves a lot of credit for his role in combating the Great Stink. His sewer system assisted in preventing the further spread of diseases, undoubtedly saving lives in the process. He gave London the modern sewer system it desperately needed. And most of all, he helped the citizens of London to breathe a little easier.