“Notorious London” Revisits Great Stink of 1858

british history series recalls london's smelliest summer

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The River Thames is a beautiful landmark of England—but it wasn’t always. In fact, its notorious stench led to urban reforms and waste management solutions. This week on Wondrium Shorts, endure the Great Stink of 1858.

London is one of the greatest and most historical cities on Earth. In fact, the attraction to the city was so great that its population doubled between 1715 and 1815, from 630,000 people to 1.4 million. Forty years later, 3.2 million Londoners roamed the streets. Due to the population explosion, waste disposal became a huge problem. It was even dumped in the streets. Flushable toilets and industrial waste led into the Thames, London’s great river.

Things came to a head in 1858 when the stench became so powerful it overwhelmed the entire city. In his video series Notorious London: A City Tour, Dr. Paul Deslandes, Professor of History at the University of Vermont, explains the Great Stink of 1858.

London Goes down the Drain

As indoor and outdoor restrooms flourished, so did the cesspool—a small, crude pit dug under houses to which waste would drain. They were emptied in the wee hours of the morning by sanitation workers known as “night soil” men, who charged a shilling to empty the cesspool with a bucket and scrape its walls.

“Londoners with the financial means to do so had plumbers connect their water-closets and cesspools—often surreptitiously—directly to the city’s drainage system and sewers, which had initially been constructed to transport rainwater and waste from streets directly into the Thames,” Dr. Deslandes said. “By 1815, city prohibitions enacted to keep waste separate from stormwater and other types of runoff had been lifted.”

According to Dr. Deslandes, eight private companies provided water to London’s residents. Most of these companies drew water directly from the river and sold it to customers for drinking and bathing. In 1842, social reformer Edwin Chadwick published a paper warning about the consequences of not investing in infrastructure reform like removal of sewage waste to the countryside, but resistance to change kept human waste flowing through the city and into the Thames.

A Stain on the City

“By 1857, the city was spewing 250 tons of fecal matter a day into the river, along with a variety of other harmful substances,” Dr. Deslandes said. “The reckoning that had been building for decades finally came in the late spring and summer of 1858.”

Everyone from Charles Dickens to Queen Victoria wrote about the Great Stink. Newspapers and satire magazines covered the topic extensively. For example, according to Dr. Deslandes, the London Standard wondered if a river full of the “rankest and most offensive effluvia” was truly befitting of London.

How did London’s 3.4 million residents deal with it all?

“Those who lived near the river and could afford to leave their homes did, but many, including the poorest, had little choice but to cope,” he said. “They wore handkerchiefs around their faces to block the smell or carried sweet-smelling herbs and fragrances to sniff. The government attempted to deal with the problem by ordering some 250 tons of lime a day to be dumped into those points where sewers fed into the river.”

However, lime was expensive and not fully effective. In the end, only by funding a wastewater infrastructure project aligned with Chadwick’s early warnings solved the problem.

This article is part of our “Deeper Dive” series where we examine the stories behind our Wondrium Shorts on YouTube.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily