In London, 1858, the city was going through a bad heat wave. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of the city, the River Thames was practically a sewer. The condition of the river got so out of hand, people were dying of disease, and the stench was insufferable. It was so bad, the government had to create a whole new sewage system for the city.
It was 118 degrees Fahrenheit. In this kind of heat, the water in the river will start to evaporate. Waste of all kinds, whether it be human waste, waste from slaughterhouses, or the chemicals which were a product of the industrial revolution, were pouring into the river constantly. With the water evaporating, the nasty waste was layering up on the shores, and in that intense heat, a smell was starting to arise worse than ever before. It was named The Great Stink of London by the reporters in the city.
The City Press 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.” A scientist named Michael Faraday did an experiment, by dropping little white strips of papers into the water. They didn’t even sink an inch before disappearing from view into the dirty depths of the water.
This didn’t just affect the poor, this time, but was a problem that affected everyone. The Parliament building had just recently been built along the river, and the members of parliament could not stand the smell. They walked around with their noses covered with cloth, and soaked the curtains in the building with bleach as a futile attempt to ward off the stench. The Queen and her husband even had to cancel a cruise on the river because the smell was so intolerable.
It only took 18 days to come up with the money for a new sewage system. This was good news to the city. So many people had died from this. Cholera had been a huge problem in the city since 1831, and 40,000 people of London died from the disease from 1831 to 1866. At first, even before it became the Great Stink, the river had still been in very poor condition. However, Victorians at this time didn’t have the best grip on the scientific facts we have come to know today. The Miasma Theory is the theory that cholera and other diseases are spread through the scent of the diseases, not through contaminated water. It was the accepted theory at this time about the spread of cholera, even the famous Florence Nightingale being among the many believers in this theory. When it was proven in 1891 that cholera is, in fact, spread by water, and not air, she still held on to her old beliefs from when she’d been a nurse.
One of the main reasons for this happening goes back to 1841 when parliament passed the Cholera Bill. They believed in the Miasma Theory, so they believed in order to get rid of the disease, they needed to get rid of the dangerous smells. They created parks throughout the city, tearing down the homes of the poor and pushing them into smaller areas together, and having the parks work as “lungs” for London. Another thing they did was use the flushing toilet. The flushing toilet was popular among the middle class, and they were urged to flush their toilets often. They figured this would help flush away the bad smells, but in fact it just flushed more and more waste into the Thames, and eventually the Great Stink was caused.
When the new sewage system was put into effect, the condition of the River Thames gradually got better. Londoners could finally live their lives without the intense fear of disease from the miasma effect lingering over their heads and around their noses.
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“Story of Cities #14: London’s Great Stink Heralds a Wonder of the Industrial World.” The Story of Cities. Guardian News and Media, 04 Apr. 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.
Lemon, Johanna. “The Great Stink.” The Great Stink. Cholera and the Thames, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.
“10 Amazing Facts About Cholera and The Great Stink of London.” 5-Minute History. 5-Minute History, 25 Oct. 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.