The Great Stink

It’s hard to believe that only one or two generations ago, we were relying on chamber pots or crude outdoor toilets to get rid of daily human waste. Sewer systems, if there were any to be had, usually dumped directly into rivers without any kind of filtration system. Most of the time, the stench was manageable, if unpleasant. However, in central London in July and August 1858, hot weather exacerbated the problem, causing the river Thames to emit not just a foul odor, but also diseases such as cholera. Charles Dickens wrote of the Thames to a friend, describing it thusly: “I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature.”


The Thames Today

By the early 1800s, the people of London were using the river as both a source of water and as a rubbish bin. The city’s sewage and filth either was dumped into a cesspool or directly into the streets, where it would make its way into the rudimentary sewer system that carried away rain water into the Thames. The river became inundated with waste and pollution, causing it to become the most contaminated and unhygienic rivers in the world. Scientists began to note the deposits were six feet deep in spots and the whole river was afoul, especially in the summer months.

In June of 1858, the temperature in London reached an unseasonable 93 to 118 degrees farenheit. Combined with a drought, the level of the river dropped, leaving fermenting waste on the banks. The local newspapers began referring to this as the Great Stink, and one such paper observed, “Gentility of speech is at an end–it stinks, and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.”


The Silent Highwayman trolling the river in search of cholera victims

The cause of the Great Stink was a combination of more water being piped into the city, a great influx of inhabitants growing the population from one million to three million in a short expanse of time, and the introduction of flushing toilets, which all led to more water, and more excrement, being drained into the Thames on a daily basis.


Michael Faraday dropping paper into the Thames to judge its coloring.

 Add to the human waste, the outfalls from factories and slaughterhouses, and you had the perfect petri dish for a Great Stink. In 1855, scientist Michael Faraday sounded the alarm when he reported that the excessive waste from the sewers turned the river’s water into “an opaque brown fluid” with an unpleasant odor and dense clouds of fecal matter.


Londoners began to realize they needed to take action to alleviate the problem, so, in addition to a liberal spreading of lime on a daily basis, a series of interconnecting sewers that sloped to the outlying regions of the city, along with pumping stations, were drawn up and implemented over the next fifteen years. Parliament pushed forward a bill to fund this effort, partially in response to Londoners’ fears of an outbreak of cholera, but also because Parliament is situated on the north bank of the Thames, and the stench interfered with their ability to work. Joseph Bazalgette was the engineer in charge of this monumental effort, and his work saved more lives than any other public official during his day.


Joseph  Bazalgette

His system, which included 1,100 miles of additional street sewers which fed into 82 miles of interconnecting sewers was used until the beginning of the 21stcentury. The work used 318 million bricks and 880,000 cubic yards of concrete and mortar. The final cost was approximately 6.5 million pounds. This feat of urban planning was one of history’s most life-enhancing advancements and laid the foundation for modern London. The infrastructure was planned to accommodate population growth in the city to 4.5 million. Even though the population of the city is now well beyond that total, the 19thcentury sewer system remains the backbone of London’s sewers in the 21stcentury.


Joseph Bazalgette (top right) at the northern outfall sewer being built below London’s Abbey Mills pumping station. Photograph: Otto Herschan/Ge

The actions taken by Londoners in 1858 paved the way for further efforts to clean up the river, which is now considered one of the world’s cleanest bodies of water. But it will take constant vigilance, and consistent upgrades to the existing system, to prevent a repeat of 1858. Global warming is an unhappy fact of life on earth, and an anomaly of temperature as experienced in London in 1858 could certainly happen again.

Several in-depth books have been written about the Great Stink and its aftermath. Here is a sampling:



Becky Lower once got stuck inside her grandmother’s outhouse when she was very little. Perhaps that’s why her office shelf is filled with miniature outhouses today. It’s become a bit of an obsession, but she’ll stop collecting them when she runs out of space–promise!