If you lived in Olde London (or any other British city) - even right up until the 1860s - you would have found the stench absolutely unbearable. In the 1830s to 1850s, London's stench became known as "The Great Stink."

London's sanitation problems
The first record of piped water and an underground drainage system was under the Palace of Westminster and dates from the reign of Henry III, but it was not until Henry VIII's Parliament passed a Bill of Sewers, that a serious attempt was made to cope with the disposal of human waste. The problem persisted, however, and in 1660 Samuel Pepys complained that his neighbour's "house of office" (you know what he meant) had overflowed into his cellar "which doth trouble me" he continued, with masterly understatement. From time to time, up to the 186Os, various acts were passed, and commissions established, in an attempt to deal with the matter, but none of the solutions was far-reaching enough to get to grips with the problems caused by the steady growth of London.

With a low population, the waterways were able to absorb the pollution without any serious detriment to the health of the populace, who continued to use the streams and rivers not only as the means of disposing of waste of all kinds, but as a source of drinking water. As London grew in size, however, these waterways became increasingly unable to cope with the associated growth in the flow of sewage, but it was with the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of London-based industries and growth of the metropolitan population required to operate the machinery, that the sanitary problem became a serious danger to health. The unprecedented expansion of cheap housing associated with this growth and the primitive sanitary facilities and methods of disposal, together with the use of horse-drawn transport with its own particular smells, made the large metropolitan centre malodorous to a degree. By 1810, the one million population of London was served by 200,000 cess-pits.


Even in the 19th Century, people's faeces and urine were still being dumped in the Thames - a river that people also got their drinking water from. As a result, in the 19th Century there were several cholera epidemics.

Great Stink

During the 18th century, a new invention, the flush toilet, or water-closet, became more and more popular; the handy chamber-pot kept in the sideboard was no longer socially acceptable. By one of those curious paradoxes that occasionally embarrass the reformer, however, London at the beginning of the 19th Century was more dangerously polluted than ever due to the increase in the provision of these water-closets. The new WCs were so arranged that they discharged into the old cess-pits, which consequently overflowed into the surface water sewers beneath the streets. As these had been earlier designed to collect rainwater only, and to discharge into the rivers and ditches connected to the Thames, the improved domestic arrangements unaccompanied by improvements in the sewerage system brought London to the verge of disaster, a giant step forward for personal hygiene and two steps backward for public sanitation.

In the case of houses backing onto, or near to, the old London streams - the Fleet, the Wandle, the West Bourne, the Ravensbourne, the New, the Holbourne (whence Holborn) and many others, which had been partly or wholly covered over - the domestic closets discharged directly into the streams. Since those on the south side were mostly tide-locked, draining into the Thames only at low tide, the results are better imagined than described; however, much of London's drinking water was still extracted from the Thames, in many cases downstream from the sewage discharge points.

The disorganized state of London's administration frustrated all attempts to deal with this growing problem. In the early 19th Century, there were no less than eight independent Commissioners for Sewers, each concerned only with their own districts.

In addition to typhoid fever, cholera reached England from the east in 1832, (over 14,000 cases in London in a population of 1.7 million). Following this, the new Poor Law Commission under Edwin Chadwick, the great social reformer, published its "Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain" in 1842 which identified the source of the diseases as contaminated drinking water.

In 1847, spurred on by Chadwick's report, the newly-formed Metropolitan Commission for Sewers published a survey of London's sanitary arrangement above and below ground, but there was still no unified authority created. Amongst other results of this survey was the banning of the use of London's cesspits and the provision of flushing devices to the sewers which carried their contents, untreated, into the Thames. Since drinking water continued to be extracted from the Thames, now converted into an open sewer, typhoid fever and cholera became the two principal scourges of Victorian London. During 1848/49, deaths from cholera in south London reached 1.3 per thousand as opposed to 0.37 per thousand in the upstream cleaner reaches of the Thames, with the number of deaths reaching some 6,000.

Most of the area between Rotherhithe and Lambeth was below high-water level by as much as 7 feet, and far from the sewers discharging into the Thames, the Thames was, for several hours a day, backing up into the sewage ditches. In 1849, the Commission reported that King's Mills Sewer had ten years' accumulation of sewage in it, and Paradise Row sewer was waterlogged for 20 hours a day. Both of these were in the Rotherhithe area.

In 1834, fifteen years before this situation was publicised, John Martin, a well-known painter of Biblical events and disasters, had proposed that two intercepting sewers be built below the banks of the river, to terminate at the Tower on the north, and at the Surrey Canal on the south. Two immense receptacles were to be provided, to convert the sewage into manure, and the gas was to be burnt off by huge fires,thus assisting in forced ventilation. A more formal proposal for an intercepting sewer was placed before the Commission by Cubitt and Stephenson, and one man, Joseph Bazalgette, took these suggestions seriously, noting them for future reference. The event which pushed the Victorian legislators into taking action, and ultimately adopting Bazalgette's recommendations was the 'Great Stink' of 1858, when the combination of an unusually warm summer and an unbelievably polluted Thames made it necessary to hang sacking soaked in deodorising chemicals at the windows of the House of Commons.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Oct 3rd, 2006 at 02:01 PM..