Category: history

In preparation for this summer’s great heatwave I’ve been reading about the the great stink, which occurred during two hot summer months in 1858. The stink happened because untreated human excrement and industrial waste was dumped into the Thames and then it just sat there. The stink was so bad parliament had to be evacuated and then, finally, it was decided that something had to be done about the sewers in the city.

Caricature;_Faraday_giving_his_card_to_Father_Thames._Wellcome_M0012507

London was a very different city back then. Here is one description:

In the century preceding 1856, over a hundred sewers were constructed in London, and at that date the city had around 200,000 cesspits and 360 sewers. Some cesspits leaked methane and other gases, which often caught fire and exploded, leading to loss of life, while many of the sewers were in a poor state of repair.

And here is another one:

Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface, even in water of this kind. … The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water; it was the same as that which now comes up from the gully-holes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer.

Eventually some genuinely lovely-looking sewage processing plants were built and the city was saved.

68e037baafed4c6be6f3cd603263c6b6 Image via That kind of woman.

I’m using the great stink as a coping strategy. Tomorrow it’s going to be thirty degrees, the day after will be even hotter. But at least that won’t happen again. I’m Nordic, my body hasn’t been conditioned to cope with anything hotter than 25 degrees. During scorching summer days I feel a strong urge to shut myself in a damp and cold earth cellar and wait for rain. But sometimes the heat is worth it for the thunderstorms that follow. I’ll be waiting for the day lightning flashes across the sky, the gutter outside our house floods and I can breathe again, thanks to those clever people who built the city sewers.

Everyday life history London