Why Did London Stink in 1858?

By | May 9, 2019

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City of London and River Thames. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Today, the River Thames in England is about as picturesque a city river as one might imagine and is often cited as one of the cleanest waterways in the world. However, this was not always the case. In the 19th century, the water was so polluted that it caused frequent cholera outbreaks culminating in the “Great Stink” of 1858. Curiously, it was this stench that created the modern city of London that we know today.

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Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water (1828), by the artist William Heath. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

In 1801, the population of London stood at just a little over 1 million. By 1861, this number had tripled with increased population density. All these people went about their daily lives, working, socializing, eating, and using the loo. There were over 200,000 cesspits in the city and 360 sewers. Innovations in plumbing, such as the flush toilet put a greater burden on the system. The River Thames acted as the receptacle for raw sewage and sewage overflow; not only human but animal and industrial waste, too. Think of all the horses needed in a 19th-century city as well as numerous factories and slaughterhouses which dumped waste directly into the river. It was noted that at certain points of the shore, the toxic muck was six feet deep. The river was essentially biologically dead.

Finally, the Thames said no more.