Oct 042011

A few weeks ago, my home was under attack by an unidentified smell. It offended me in such a primal way that at first I assumed it was a dead animal, but soon discovered that our plumbing had revolted against us. As I gagged and grimaced my way through the days until the repairs were finished, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Victorian London.

Close your eyes and think of England. What do you see? Perhaps you see lovely ladies in elaborate dresses and dapper gentlemen sauntering through the streets of London. Or modestly-dressed country tourists gazing in wonder at the metropolis. Or maybe you are a bit more practical and through this pretty picture you also see a filthy little Oliver Twist darting among the crowd. Now, do you also see the horse manure on the dirt road? Or the slaughter house around the corner? If in your imaginings you also use your sense of smell, you would be nearly knocked out because, let’s get real: Victorian London smelled bad–really, really bad.

Father Thames

Most immediately, your nostrils would be assaulted by the myriad smells of the businesses of “fat-boilers, glue-renderers, fell-mongers, tripe-scrapers, [and] dog-skinners,”1 that are going on all around you, right there in the middle of London. But the worst offense of all lies just below the surface.

The way the sewage system worked in the mid-century is that, in addition to open ditches, which were going out of favor but still existed, there was a series of underground brick and granite tunnels with various types of drainage openings. Newer homes had their own drain hole of about 2-6 inches in diameter and some buildings like Parliament had larger barrel-drains into which they could cast any garbage and human waste down. Otherwise, there were gulley-holes, or trap door holes on the street going directly down to the sloped tunnel below. These gulley-holes were frequently stopped up, having been inundated with feces, food, road trash, and blood and other refuse from slaughter houses. Once all of this stuff was in the sewer system, the final destination was the Thames, if it made it that far.

Henry Mayhew was concerned about the people of London of all ranks and classes and he wrote extensively on the conditions of the poor. He also wrote about sanitation and seemed to be ahead of his time in understanding the link between sanitation and health. In his various printings of London Labour and the London Poor, from which a good deal of my descriptions come, he fills many pages, discussing in great detail the sewage system of London.

He explains how the tide of moving sewage water can be as far removed from the street surface as 51 feet (north side of the Thames) and as close as 5 feet (south side of the Thames), and he quotes an official statement regarding the south side that, “When the tide rises above the orifices of the sewers, the whole drainage of the district is stopped until the tide recedes again, rendering the whole system of sewers in Kent and Surrey only an articulation of cesspools.”2 These cesspools can be seen as “dead ends,” where refuse just piled up due to lack of water running through to cleanse it.

Here is a list of some things you may find in such a dead end:

The deposit has been found to comprise all the ingredients from the breweries, the gas-works, and the several chemical and mineral manufactories; dead dogs, cats, kittens, and rats; offal from slaughter-houses, sometimes even including the entrails of the animals; street-pavement dirt of every variety; vegetable refuse; stable-dung; the refuse of pig-styes; night-soil; ashes; tin kettles and pans (pansherds); broken stoneware…; pieces of wood; rotten mortar and rubbish of different kinds; and even rags.3

Sewer Scavenger

In the case of backed up debris, people had to manually pull this “crap” up to the street surface. And you thought your job sucked. The sewage tunnels were so old and in such a bad state that pile ups were frequent and clean-up crews had a difficult time maneuvering the putrid and treacherous paths. As you can imagine, some became overwhelmed. From an account of a survey party in Surrey and Kent in 1849:

The surveyors…find great difficulty in levelling the sewers of this district; for, in the first place, the deposit is usually about two feet in depth, and in some cases it amounts to nearly five feet of putrid matter. The smell is usually of the most horrible description, the air being so foul that explosion an choke damp are very frequent. On the 12th January we were very nearly losing a whole party by choke damp, the last man being dragged out on his back (through two feet of black foetid deposits) in a state of insensibility…Two men of one party had also a narrow escape from drowning in the Alscot-road sewer, Rotherhithe.4

Something else to consider are those drainage holes in the houses: when a backup occurred in a neighborhood, the smell (and sometimes nasty matter) had to go somewhere, and often that was right up into the homes. And though the money of high society could afford such personalized disposal holes, it couldn’t pay for immunity against the stench:

In the Belgrave and Eaton-square districts there are many faulty places in the sewers which abound with noxious matter, in many instances stopping up the house drains and “smelling horribly.” It is much the same in the Grosvenor, Hanover, and Berkeley-square localities (the houses in the squares themselves included). Also in the neighbourhood of Covent-garden, Clare-market, Soho and Fitzroy-squares; while north of Oxford stree, in and about Cavendish, Bryanstone, Manchester, and Portman-squares, there is so much rottenness and decay that there is no security for the sewers standing from day to day…throughout the new Paddington district the neighbourhood of Hyde Park Gardens andt he costly squares and streets adjacent, the sewers abound with the foulest deposit, from which the most disgusting effluvium arises.”5

But let us not forget that the Thames was not just for waste disposal: “We drink, and use for the preparation of our meals, the befouled water…; for, more than seven-eighths of our water-supply from the companies is drawn from the Thames, the main sewer of the greatest city in the world, ancient or modern, into which millions of tons of every description of refuse are swept yearly.”6

Oh, but it was worse for the poor:

We then journeyed on to London street, down which the tidal ditch continues its course…As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer, the sun shown upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow. Indeed, it was more like watery mud than muddy water, and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink.

As we gazed in horror at the pool, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it, we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women built over it, we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it, and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it, seemed, by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble.

And yet as we stood gazing in horror at the fluvial sewer, we saw a child from one of the galleries opposite lower a tin can with a rope, to fill a large bucket that stood beside her…We asked if they really did drink the water? The answer was, “They were obliged to drink the ditch unless they could beg or thieve a pailful of the real Thames.”7

At the time, the connection was only beginning to be made between water contamination and the persistent cholera that had plagued Britain (though they did believe that air quality, or “miasma,” could be to blame), so although Parliament and media outlets were besieged by outcry from the concerned public, lawmakers repeatedly fought over a complete overhaul of the sewage system because it would be too costly a project to undertake.

But then developed a situation in the summer of 1858 that pushed proper waste disposal to the front of the London consciousness and it seemed like money was no longer an object. This was the Great Stink of London.

It’s hard to imagine that the smell and sanitary conditions prior to 1858 were not the worst of it, but certainly the Great Stink was impressive. One newspaper wrote, “Gentility of speech is at an end – it stinks; and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.”8

The smell was so powerful that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert turned around after only minutes of a cruise down the Thames, and the House of Commons considered moving locations after sheets soaked in lime chloride didn’t mask the problem. It is no surprise, then, that after years of bickering, in this summer of 1858 it took only 18 days to reach a decision to build a new sewer system at the cost of what would be £1.5 billion today.9

Joseph Bazalgette was the engineer who undertook the massive project and it took 16 years to completely finish. It seemed to work for the time but was far from perfect. In 1895 the leaky pipes burst during a drought and caused a water shortage that resulted in many poor neighborhoods getting their water shut off completely.10

It seems that London is doomed to have sewage problems. According to the Times Online, due to leaky old pipes, “3.5 billion litres of water are lost a day in England and Wales, more than a fifth of the country’s supply,”11 and that is certainly distressing.

Considering what the Victorians went through, I can’t really complain about my own personal house stench. In my case, a few weeks now of clean air has turned the smell into a distant memory. As for society at large, we are over 150 years removed from the powerful stench of the Victorian era. Maybe just something to think about next time you sit back and enjoy Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

1 Kellow Chesney, The Victorian Underworld (Devon: Readers Union Limited, 1970), 16
2 Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: the condition and earnings of those that will work, cannot work, and will not work, Vol. 2 (London: Charles Griffin and Company, 1851), 443
3 Ibid., 446
4 Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: a cyclopaedia of the conditions and earnings of (1) those that will not work; (2) those that cannot work; and (3) those that will not work re-issue of Vol. 1 (G. Woodfall, 1852), 395
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., 390
7 Henry Mayhew and William S. Gilbert, London Characters (London: Chatoo and Windus, 1881), 453
8 Paul Simons, “The big stench that saved London,” The Times Online: The Sunday Times, 17 June, 2008
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.


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