The Great Stink of London: How a civil engineer saved a city.


Think your city stinks? Chances are even the smelliest towns of modern civilization have nothing on 1858 London during “The Great Stink”.

What was it?

The Great Stink of central London occurred in the hot summer months of July and August in 1858. For years, untreated human waste and industrial wastewater flowed up and down the banks of the River Thames, causing a horrible smell that got even stronger in the damp summer days.

The pollution in the water had been getting worse for several years due to a deteriorating and inadequate sewer system that dumped its contents directly into the Thames.

Thought to contain contagious diseases, the wastewater may have even caused three separate outbreaks of cholera in the years prior.

The situation had grown dire enough to warrant intervention from members of the national government. Eventually, a civil engineer by the name of Joseph Bazalgette proposed a solution that would push the polluted water eastward out of the city through a newly constructed sewer system.

Construction began on Bazalgette’s plan in 1859 and lasted until 1875. The project included an intricate series of waterways, outfalls, and massive pumps that served to divert wastewater away from the Thames.

The project was completed after 16 stinky years and successfully prevented any further cholera outbreaks due to sewage.

Historian Peter Ackroyd observed that Bazalgette probably saved more lives than any other official during the Victorian period and should be recognized as a hero of London.

How did people cope with The Great Stink?

While the average Londoner was helpless in the face of the smelly Thames, members of Parliament were so overcome with the odor that they tried soaking the curtains in Parliament with lime chloride to mask the stink.

Ultimately, this too proved futile in the face of the horrid stench. All the locals could really do was complain (and did they ever) until the new sewage system was constructed.

Let the moaning begin…

The Great Stink became a part of every-day life for most people, including satirical artists. Inspired by the hazardous vapors, they were able to produce a number of depressing comics across several publications:

Cartoon from Punch Magazine, Volume 35 Page 137; July 10, 1858

Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up.

Cartoon from Punch Magazine, Volume 15 Page 152; October 7, 1848

Filthy river, filthy river, Foul from London to the Nore, What art thou but one vast gutter, One tremendous common shore?

“The Wonders of a London Water Drop”. Punch magazine, May 11, 1850.

Cartoon from Punch magazine, page 41; July 31, 1858.

A workman uses lime to disguise the smell of the Thames, reflecting the actions of Parliament, who had dipped their curtains in lime chloride.

Caricature published in Punch; July 3, 1858.

“Father Thames introducing his offspring to the fair city of London”; the children are representative of diphtheria, scrofula and cholera.

So… does it still stink?

In addition to finally cleaning up the Thames, Joseph Bazalgette’s elegant sewage system still operates well into the 21st century. Despite being constructed so long ago, the sewers can still effectively service a population that has ballooned to over 8 million people.

After Bazalgette died, his obituary in The Times read, “The magnificent solidity and the faultless symmetry of the great granite blocks which form the wall of the Thames-embankment will still remain … The great sewer that runs beneath Londoners … has added some 20 years to their chance of life.”