The traditional methods
For centuries, human waste had been removed from the cesspits as 'night soil' and taken away for use as fertilizer on fields around London.
With the relentless growth of London, this was no longer feasible. The population of London doubled between 1801 and 1841, and the city was rapidly spreading outwards. Most houses used cesspits, which often overflowed through the floorboards. Many cesspits emptied into open sewers or the tributaries of the Thames.
|Open sewer in Wilton Street, Silvertown. © NMM|
The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers
|The 'silent highway'-man. 'Your money or your life!'. © NMM|
With the situation worsening, something was finally done in 1847. The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was formed to tackle the problem.
The Commission's first act was to close the cesspits. This turned out to be a disaster, as the city's sewage now found its way into the Thames.
Before long, the river itself was little more than a sewer. Londoners were quick to notice how rapidly their river had declined. The satirical magazine Punch published several memorable cartoons deploring the disgusting state of the Thames.
The smell was only a small part of the problem, as London obtained most of its drinking water from the Thames. This made Londoners particularly vulnerable to water-borne diseases such as cholera.
The first cholera pandemic began in India in 1817 and spread outwards to Europe, reaching Britain in 1831-32. In just over a year, around 31,000 died from the disease. London's first case occurred in February 1832, and at least 6,000 died in the capital. Later outbreaks killed 54,000 people in Britain in 1848-49 (including 14,000 in London) and 31,000 in 1853-54 (10,000 in London).
|London Docks, looking west, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd. © NMM|
During the third epidemic, Dr John Snow proved that cholera was a water-borne disease, but few medical men believed him at the time. Most still supported the miasma theory, which stated that disease was caused by foul air from rotting matter and stagnant water.
|'The London bathing season'. © NMM|
The Great Stink
In 1856 the Metropolitan Board of Works had been formed to carry out large public works in London, including the construction of a sewage disposal system. However, it did not have sufficient funds for such a task.
|Father Thames introducing his offspring to the fair city of London. © NMM|
As so often before – and since – very little was done until powerful people felt their interests were being threatened.
For many years, the smell caused by sewage in the Thames became particularly unbearable during the summer.
During the summer of 1858 it was so bad that even Members of Parliament suffered, and curtains soaked in chemicals were used to keep the smell out of the House of Commons. Unsurprisingly, the necessary funds for a sewage disposal system were soon made available.