The Great Stink


In 1858, the city of London experienced one of the hottest summers anyone alive during this time could recall. Normally, people would continue about their lives as usual, albeit in a bit more discomfort; however the conditions of the city and the weather proved to be a putrid combination. London during this time was far from a gleaming metropolis. In his Report on Sanitary Conditions commissioned in 1842, Edwin Chadwick commented that the laboring classes were surrounded by “atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings” (Chadwick 1). The city’s sewage and filth was either dumped into overflowing cesspools or into the city streets themselves where it was washed into the rudimentary sewers that were originally built to carry rainwater to the Thames (Halliday 41). Parliament had formed several commissions in the years preceding 1858 to deal with the sewage and drainage issues the city faced, yet they accomplished very little, leaving the city of London and the Thames River to fester in the muck (Hawksley et al. 3-4).  It was this sewage, combined with the summer’s heat that combined to form what would become immortalized in the media as “The Great Stink.”

As the summer heat set in, the raw sewage in the Thames began to decompose, releasing noxious fumes into the air. The smell was so bad that the curtains in the Houses of Parliament were soaked in chloride of lime in a futile effort to curtail the stench coming off the river; there were even discussions of moving Parliament elsewhere temporarily (Halliday 17-18).  At this time, many leading scientists and physicians were concerned about the effects of miasmas, bad-smelling vapors thought to carry diseases, on people’s health and well-being, especially in light of the various cholera outbreaks around Europe (Evans 173-189) This miasma theory combined with The Great Stink forced Parliament to consider a complete overhaul of sanitation practices in London, leading to a massive feat of engineering in the construction of the London sewer system and beginning the cleansing of the Thames River.

- Jessica Richert