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Printing the Thames in the 19th century

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The polluted Thames

Problems of urban expansion

The London bathing season.
View full size imageThe London bathing season. © NMM
The capital’s population quadrupled in size between the early 1840s and the end of the century. The resulting explosion of urban sprawl saw 40% of London’s working class drop below the poverty line.

During the 19th century the docks also developed, with the slums of the East End evolving around them. In 1845 Frederick Engels described the giant docks:

Quotation marks left
…the thousand vessels that continually cover the Thames … The masses of buildings, the wharves on both sides, especially from Woolwich upwards, the countless ships along both shores, crowding ever closer and closer together, until, at last, only a narrow passage remains in the middle of the river, a passage through
Quotation marks right
which hundreds of steamers shoot by one another; all this so vast, so impressive that a man cannot collect himself.

From The Condition of the Working Class in England, From Personal Observation and Authentic Sources, Frederick Engels, 1844-45.

Carrier of disease and pollution

The impact of this industrialization turned the River Thames into a carrier of disease and pollution. This threatened the lives of the people living near it or relying on it for their water supply. In the absence of proper sanitation, the effluent from the growing numbers of houses went directly into the Thames.

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Since many people used river water for drinking, disease spread rapidly when sewage came into contact with drinking water and contaminated it. As well as domestic waste, factories disgorged the coloured dyes, lead, soap, offal, chemicals, minerals and poisons used in manufacturing.


In addition, there was pollution from gas works, hospitals and slaughterhouses. As a result, there were a number of serious cholera epidemics between 1832 and the early 1850s.

In 1854 more than 10,000 people died. By the time of the 1858 'Great Stink', the Thames was described as a 'rich soup of sewage'.

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