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'Punch' cartoons

Victorian social commentators expressed their concerns at the state of the river. In 1849, the Morning Chronicle newspaper sponsored by Henry Mayhew to conduct a massive survey of Britain's working poor. His contributions highlighting the life of the poor in London were both shocking and controversial. Mayhew’s articles were later collected and published in four volumes London Labour and the London Poor, 1861. The magazine Punch, commented on government policy, providing moral judgements on political and social events. Founded by Mark Lemon, Henry Mayhew and Douglas Jerrold in 1841, it championed the poor and dispossessed, often through very hard-hitting cartoons. From the late 1840s to mid 1850s it focused on the appalling quality of Thames water.

A hand-book to the Thames.

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A hand-book to the Thames.
A commentary on the state of the River Thames. The cartoon is a critique on the panoramas featuring the Thames such those produced in the 1840s and 1850s by the 'Illustrated London News'. It shows the banks of the Thames with pollution pouring into it from factories along its bank. The cartoon’s commentary emphasizes a cemetery, bone boilers, sewers, guano factory, soap factory, gas works and patent manure works. Smoke belches from the chimneys to pollute the air as well as disgorging effluent into the river. The text invites John Murray, a contemporary publisher who produced guide-books of London, to include these unpleasant scenes as well as picturesque tourist views in his books.

The 'silent highway'-man. 'Your money or your life!'

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The 'silent highway'-man. 'Your money or your life!'
A strong visual response to the problems caused by the very hot summer of 1858. This resulted in a terrible smell from the Thames caused by the high level of sewage and pollution. The cartoon shows death silently rowing a boat on the polluted river with dead animals floating by. The absence of life demonstrates the lethal effects of the pollution, causing disease and fever. In the distance the northern shoreline looms through the haze with the profile of St Paul’s Cathedral matched by the belching smoke from the factory on the left.
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Father Thames introducing his offspring to the fair city of London.

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Father Thames introducing his offspring to the fair city of London.
A biting satire showing a grimy grizzled Father Thames presenting three children to a young woman on the far right, wearing a crown. Holding a shield bearing the coat of arms of London, she is intended to symbolize London; though her features also represent Queen Victoria. She recoils in horror from the three diseased children respectively representing cholera on the far right, scrofula in the centre and diptheria on the left. These are diseases caused by insanitary conditions. Dead animals float by and litter the banks of the river. St Paul’s is visible on the far left and the smoke disgorges from factory chimneys on the right. A gas works acts as a visual counterpoint to St Paul’s on the far right. From 1845 artists were commissioned to paint frescoes showing historical events, in the newly built Houses of Parliament. The work was still underway in 1858, the year of the ‘Great Stink’, when the stench from the river was so great that parliament was affected. So the cartoon is a commentary on paying more attention to the glories of the past while ignoring the crisis of the present. It implies that Parliament and the monarch should be confronted with the plight of the poor and help them.

The London bathing season.

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The London bathing season.
A year later the situation had not improved. The stink perpetuates in the summer and dead animals still float by. Conditions are so bad that the little chimney sweep, even though filthy and covered in black soot, will not risk going in the river to wash off the soot.
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Find out more
StoriesPrinting the Thames in the 19th century
The print imagery of the period and the artists who focused on the Thames
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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