Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 15, 1858 --- The Great Stink

In the House of Commons, the Tory leader, Mr. Disraeli, suspends the scheduled calendar to introduce legislation calling for the purification of the Thames. "That noble river," proclaims Disraeli, "has really become a Stygian pool, reeking with inevitable and intolerable horrors."

The Thames, in effect an open sewer, is especially noxious during the ongoing sweltering heat wave. Adding to the misery, drought-like conditions had lowered the river level and slowed the current. MP's are seen entering Westminster with scented handkerchiefs at their faces. Huge canvas sheets, soaked in lime, were hung against the windows to block the stench. Still, in late June, The Times reported several members were seen running from one of the riverside committee rooms: "The Chancellor of the Exchequer [Mr. Disraeli] with his pocket handkerchief ... applied closely to his nose, with body half-bent, hastened in dismay from the pestilential odor, followed closely by Sir James Graham, who seemed to be attacked by a sudden fit of expectoration."

The cleanup effort will not come cheaply. £3,000,000 must be raised through a special municipal tax.  The project will be managed by the Metropolitan Board of Works. The action is overdue; The Illustrated London News complained that "Father" Thames, "once a clear and limpid stream [has become] a river of
pollution, a Stream of Death, festering and reeking with all abominable smells, and threatening three millions of people with pestilence as the penalty for their ignorance and apathy."

After much study - and opposition from what The Quarterly Review called "the Hectors and Memnon of intramural muck" - a plan is drawn up to embank the Thames. Within the banks would be eighty miles of sewer channels which, operating almost entirely by simple gravity, carry London's effluvia off to the North Sea. Joseph Bazalgette, engineer for the Board of Works, conceived of the project and carried it through to conclusion, only slightly over budget, picking up a deserved knighthood amid the middens.

The Embankment wasn't finished until 1870, leading Punch to quip that progress was "slow, but sewer."

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