18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London

D.G. Hewitt - June 3, 2019

In the middle of the 19th century, London was arguably the greatest city in the world. It was the heart of an Empire than spanned the globe. The city was also one of great learning and culture, home to scientists such as Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin, as well as writers like Charles Dickens. It was a city of enormous wealth and opulence, and every year, thousands of new people arrived hoping to find their fortunes.

But running through this great city was the filthiest of rivers. Between the years 1800 and 1850, the population of London more than doubled. And the River Thames became the dumping ground for the almost all of the city’s inhabitants. While poets and writers praised the majesty of the Thames, in reality, it was a putrid river of filth. In 1858, a ‘perfect storm’ of factors combined to cause the ‘Great Stink’. An ‘evil odour’ rose up out of the Thames and spread through the city. Life became unbearable.

To some historians, the Great Stink was one of the most important events in the history of London. While it may well have been wholly unpleasant, it forced the government to act, and act decisively. Here, we present everything you need to know about the Great Stink, from its causes to its consequences:

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
London’s booming population used the Thames as their main sewer – and drank from it too. Wikimedia Commons.

18. Thanks to London’s rising population and lack of proper infrastructure, the Great Stink of 1858 was a long time coming

The Big Stink was a long time coming. From more than 100 years, London was becoming an increasingly unpleasant city to live in. And the soaring population was the main reason for this. Factories were springing up everywhere, filling their air with dirty smoke. Filthy and dangerous slums were hastily put up to house the poorest of the poor. And through it all ran the River Thames. A far cry from the majestic ‘Old Father Thames’ of poets and writers, by the 1850s it had almost literally been transformed into one giant sewer flowing through the very heart of England’s capital.

The sewers serving London were not up to the job. For the most part, they were small, narrow brick tunnels over the old Fleet and Walbrook rivers. Originally, they were intended to take excess water into the Thames. However, by the 1850s, all manner of things were flowing into the main river, including waste from slaughterhouses and factories. What’s more, accidental drownings and suicides were commonplace in Victorian London, and dead bodies would sometimes remain bobbing and rotting away in the Thames for weeks, even months.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Flush toilets took waste away from local cesspits and straight into the Thames. Pinterest.

17. New flush toilets were made available to the masses after 1851, and they actually made things worse!

The invention of the flushing toilet was supposed to make things better for Londoners. And it did – but just for a wealthy few. Unveiled to the masses at the Great Exhibition, held in London in 1851, the flushing toilet was a big hit with those Londoners rich enough to afford one. The problem was, the original city sewers were only ever designed to deal with water. With flushing toilets, human waste started flowing into the sewers and then into the Thames itself. Many toilets also flushed into old cesspools which were unable to cope with the sheer volume. They flooded, with the effluent finding its into the river.

While the rich were able to flush their waste away – out of sight and out of mind – the lives of the poor were made even worse. Even in the 1850s, large numbers of Londoners still got their everyday water from the Thames. Not only were people taking filthy water but bathe in, but they were also drinking it too. It’s no surprise, then, that disease was rife, and there were regular major outbreaks of the biggest killer of them all: cholera.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Waste took weeks to flow out of London in the 19th century. Pinterest.

16. Many Londoners believed the Thames was tidal and so would carry their waste away; they were wrong

That Londoners could throw their filth into the River Thames in the morning and then draw bathing and drinking water from the same river in the evening may seem shocking to us. However, it’s worth remembering that even in the 19th century, many of the city’s residents lacked a proper understanding of their biggest river. Many people, and above all, the uneducated masses, believed that their waste would just wash away with the river. However, since the Thames is a tidal river in London, the reality was quite different.

The Thames ebbed and flowed. At high tide, the high water kept the sewage pushed up the drains and sewage. So, when people went to the river to take advantage of the high level and draw water from it, they may not see waste floating in it. When the tide was low, however, the waste would pour out of the sewers and drains. At that time of the day, it would have been impossible not to notice the filth, with animal carcasses and human bodies sometimes visible from London’s famous bridges.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
A popular cartoon showing Faraday and Father Thames. Wikimedia Commons.

15. Charles Dickens and the scientists Michael Faraday were among the prominent Victorians who warned that the Thames was getting worse and worse

Some of the most prominent figures in Victorian-era London warned of the risks posed by the filthy Thames. Above all, the eminent scientist Michael Faraday was a vocal campaigner, calling on the government to clean up the dirty river. In one notable address to the Royal Institution, Faraday argued: “If there be sufficient authority to remove a putrescent pond from the neighborhood of a few simple dwellings, surely the river which flows for so many miles through London ought not to be allowed to become a fermenting sewer.”

But it wasn’t just scientists who commented on the state of the Thames. Famously, Charles Dickens noted in his bestselling book Little Dorrit (published between 1855 and 1857, right before the Great Stink) that the Thames was “a deadly sewer…in the place of a fine, fresh river.” What’s more, writing to a friend who lived outside of the capital, Dickens said: “I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature.” Similarly, the filthy, smelly river appeared almost as a central character in many of the most popular fictions of the time, including crime thrillers and gruesome murder mysteries.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
London’s water was full of human waste, dead bodies and more. Wikimedia Commons.

14. When the government closed centuries-old cesspits in 1846, people had no option but to throw their waste into the Thames

Years before the Great Stink hit London, the city’s citizens had been calling on the government to clean up the river. Things came to a head when Parliament passed the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act in 1846. Contrary to the title of the legislation, this made things much worse for the majority of Londoners, making disease far more rampant. The Act called for the closure of old cesspits, some of which had been in use since the time of Henry VIII, while others were filled in with stone. To replace this old method of waste disposal, the Act ruled that small drains should be connected to the main sewers, completely overwhelming the system.

In 1848, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers (MCS) was set up to deal with the problem. It soon appointed Joseph Bazalgette as its head. The esteemed engineer immediately drew up plans for a new sewerage system for the city. The problem was, he estimated his plan would cost £5.4 million, while the city authorities only had a budget of around £2.4 million. Even the locations of Bazalgette’s proposed discharge points were dismissed by the men in charge. The plans were put on hold, and London continued to suffer.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Even the best scientists of the age thought cholera spread by bad smell. Pinterest.

13. The bad smell wasn’t just unpleasant – according to the doctors of the time, it was also responsible for killer typhoid outbreaks

In the years before the Big Stink, London had been hit by 3 major cholera outbreaks. The first, in 1831-32 killed in excess of 6,000 Londoners. A second outbreak hit between 1848-49, claiming more than 14,000 lives this time. And then again in 1853, a third outbreak of cholera led to 10,000 lives across the city. At the time, many experts blamed bad air for spreading the deadly disease. Even when Dr John Snow argued that dirty water, not dirty air, spread cholera, the ‘miasma theory’ was the dominant belief.

So strongly did many leading scientists and politicians believe in the miasma theory that this was one the main reasons for the closing of London’s many cesspits in the 1830s and 1840s. It was hoped that washing the smell out of residential quarters would reduce the risk of further outbreaks of cholera. Instead, it made things worse. Ultimately, however, the Big Stink proved Dr Snow was right in his belief that drinking dirty water was to blame for the spread of cholera. After all, if bad air caused disease, surely Londoners would have been dying at an unprecedented rate in the 1850s. Sadly, Dr Snow died in 1858, at the height of the Great Stink, and so didn’t live to see his ideas become accepted by his peers.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Soaring temperatures made the Thames smell even worse in the summer of 1858. Wikimedia Commons.

12. A summer heatwave made a bad smell unbearable – and even people living miles outside central London suffered

London was, then, a dirty, smelly city well before the summer of 1858, with poor sanitation and a filthy main river running through it. So the last thing Londoners needed was a heatwave. But that’s exactly what they got. In June of that year he temperatures in the capital averaged 34-36 °C (93-97 °F) in the shade, rising to 48 °C (118 °F) in the sun. far from being pleasant, this made things truly unbearable. Indeed, it was said that you could smell the foulness of the Thames more than 8 miles away!

The heatwave also caused water levels to fall. By July of 1858, the height of the Thames had dropped significantly. While there was less dirty water flowing under London’s famous bridges, this meant that raw effluent from the sewers started to pile up on the banks of the river. In some places right in the heart of the city, these mounds of waste stood 6 feet high. Most people avoided going down to the river if they could, but even then they couldn’t escape the overpowering stench.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Victorian London had a booming press and they all reported on the Great Stink. Wikimedia Commons.

11. It was the press who came up with the name ‘The Great Stink’ – and they blamed the authorities for the state of the Thames

Shortly after the start of the heatwave, the London-based press started talking of ‘The Great Stink’. The widely-read City Press newspaper argued that the dirty state of the capital’s river could no longer be tolerated. One of its editors – clearly a subscriber to the miasma theory of how disease is spread – argued: “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.” Similarly, the country’s most prestigious publication, the Times of London, called the Thames “a pestiferous and typhus breeding abomination”.

Notably, these influential newspapers started blaming the British government, openly calling on them to address this national shame. One of the most famous reports from the days of the Great Stink appeared in the Illustrated London News. Here, the reporter argued that the state of the river undermined Britain’s claims of greatness. He said: “We can colonize the remotest ends of the earth; we can conquer India; we can pay the interest of the most enormous debt ever contracted; we can spread our name, and our fame, and our fructifying wealth to every part of the world; but we cannot clean the River Thames.”

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Punch magazine and its cartoon of Dirty Father Thames. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Satirical cartoons were hugely popular in Victorian London, and the Great Stink gave cartoonists plenty of ammunition

The Great Stink coincided with a boom in illustrated newspapers and satirical publications in London and across the rest of Britain. In particular, publications such as the widely-read Illustrated London News and the much-loved Punch magazine featured cartoons both lamenting the state of the nation’s most famous river and lambasting the government for letting things get so bad. According to some historians, as politicians hated being mocked, such satire proved to be highly influential.

Many of the cartoons featured the figure of ‘Father Thames’, the personification of the famous river. He was shown to be in ill health, sometimes close to death. Moreover, he was often depicted as the victim of greedy or thoughtless people, above all politicians. While many cartoons may have made fun of the Great Stink, there was a serious tone to almost all of them; far from being a laughing matter, the state of the Thames was actually shown to be a matter of life or death for everyday Londoners.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Entrepreneurs promised to keep people safe from cholera and from bad smells. Pinterest.

9. While most suffered, a few entrepreneurs tried to find ways of making money out of the unpleasantness

Throughout history, entrepreneurial individuals have tried to make money out of a crisis. And the Great Stink was no exception. Indeed, with great smell came great opportunity. Shops across the city started selling scented handkerchiefs, to be held up to the nose in order to guard against the foul stench. Unless you were far away from the Thames, however, they were almost totally useless. Just as ineffective were the scent boxes many wealthy ladies carried around with them. The gentlemen of London probably fared better, consuming vast amounts of tobacco and trying to cover up the smell with smoke.

But the biggest winners were the chlorine merchants who made a small fortune as Londoners tried to mask the hideous smells of Father Thames. Chemists also sold huge amounts of carbolic acid. Both were used to cover curtains and other home furnishings. Such solutions were expensive and, of course, only a small proportion of Londoners actually had curtains. What’s more, while anti-stink products promised a lot, they were universally useless.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Queen Victoria and her husband Albert had to abandon a cruise on the stinky Thames. Wikimedia Commons.

8. The Great Stink didn’t just affect the poor – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s river cruise was cancelled due to the stench

Since many had to get their bathing and drinking water from the filthy river, London’s poor suffered the most from the state of the Thames. But even the city’s richest citizens couldn’t escape the Great Stink. Indeed, even the Queen was affected. According to the official records, Victoria and her beloved husband Albert planned on taking a leisurely cruise down the Thames one summer’s day in June of 1858. But, even though she came equipped with a scented handkerchief and kept this pressed to her face the whole time, Victoria could only bear to be on the river for a few minutes. Almost as soon as the boat departed on the cruise, she ordered it to turn around and for her staff to take her back to Buckingham Palace.

Similarly, the country’s Members of Parliament struggled to escape the Big Stink. Since the Palace of Westminster was – and, indeed, still is – located right on the river, the putrid smell of the water came in through the walls and windows. What’s more, reports from the time note that, as the heatwave caused the water levels to drop, a huge pile of human waste was left piled up right next to Parliament. It got so bad that many MPs called for parliament to be moved to Oxford or the city of St Albans.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Even though Parliament was next to the smelly Thames, it was slow to act. Pinterest.

7. While the people of London suffered, Parliament maintained that “Her Majesty’s Government” wasn’t responsible for the filthy river

Even when they were considering leaving London for Oxford in order to escape the Great Stink, politicians were reluctant to take action to clean up the Thames. While the people of London suffered with the putrid smell, the country’s leaders debated who was responsible for keeping the river clean. Lord John Manner, a key member of the Conservative government, argued in July 1858 – at the very height of the Great Stink – that “Her Majesty’s Government has nothing whatever to do with the state of the Thames”.

In theory, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was responsible for the cleanliness of London’s water, including the state of the Thames. However, its budget was nowhere near big enough to carry out any meaningful work. Moreover, it didn’t have the power to impose any form of taxation in order to pay for the much-needed upgrades to the capital’s drainage and sewerage system. As the situation became even worse, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had no choice but to step in and break the deadlock. As The Times reported at the end of July, “Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench.”

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Chlorine did little to make the smell of the full sewers more bearable. Pinterest.

6. Huge sums of money were spent on dumping tons of chlorine into the river but this short-term fix was no match for the Great Stink

Even though Parliament didn’t immediately release funds to improve London’s sewerage system, the city authorities did spend a lot of money trying to make the Big Stink go away. From the beginning of June 1858 through to the end of July, around 200 to 25- tons of lime chloride was dumped into the Thames in an effort to mask the awful smell. Far from having the desired effect, however, the lime chloride reacted badly with the effluent in the river and ended up producing noxious gases. For all the money the London authorities threw at the problem, the Great Stink was just being made worse.

The only people who did benefit at this time were the huge numbers of unskilled day laborers who had moved to London over the course of the mid-19th century. Several thousand were employed on day contracts to dump lime chloride into the river at high tide. Then, when the water was at its lowest, these day laborers would go out onto the filthy banks of the Thames to pile lime onto the piles of human waste. The short-term fix was costing the London City Council around £1,500 a week – a huge amount in those days, and all for nothing.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Benjamin Disraeli finally agreed to fund the construction of new sewers. Wikipedia.

5. When even the Prime Minister argued that the Thames had become “intolerable”, Parliament finally acted

The Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli realized that his government wouldn’t survive for long if it didn’t fix the Great Stink. From the middle of June, he started exploring his options. On 15 June, Disraeli put his proposed Metropolis Local Management Amendment Bill before his peers. He argued that the Thames had become a “Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors”. While the river may not have been the responsibility of Parliament, the Prime Minister urged his colleagues to back him in upgrading the old water cleanliness laws.

Disraeli succeeded in getting the Act passed through Parliament. It gave the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) full responsibility for the state of the Thames. More importantly, it allowed the Board to borrow the huge amount of £3 million, plus it gave the board the ability to levy a small charge on London’s households. This way, the money could be paid back to the government over the next 40 years. Significantly, the sum was enough to put Bazalgette’s ambitious plans for a new sewerage system into action.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
Bazalgette (top, second right) inspects his new sewer system. Wikimedia Commons.

4. The response to the Great Stink was epic – 1,100 miles of new sewers and a network of huge pumping stations

Bazalgette’s new sewerage system was a marvel of Victorian engineering. In all, some 1,100 miles of additional sewers were constructed under the streets of London. These would collect both rainwater and waste and then channel both into a further 82 miles of main, interconnecting sewers. Bazaglette not only used the latest ideas, above all, he made full use of extra-strong Portland cement, but he also used common sense for his system. For instance, his tunnels were designed in such a way that simple gravity would do most of the work, taking waste out far out of the city.

Inevitably, the plans went over budget. Some 400 draftsmen were employed to work on the designs and then thousands of day laborers were brought in to build the tunnels and the pumping stations. The Prime Minister approved an additional £1.2 million in funding, bringing the total up past the £4 million mark, making this one of the most expensive engineering projects ever carried out, not just in England but anywhere in Europe.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
One of the huge pumping stations of the vast new sewer network. Londonist.

3. The new sewerage system was expensive but brought immediate benefits, not least the end of deadly cholera outbreaks

Since Bazalgette had been working on his plans years before the Great Stink hit London, work on the new sewerage system could begin as soon as the government gave him the go-ahead. In April of 1865, the Southern Drainage System was complete. The main pumping station, still regarded as an engineering marvel, was officially opened by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Also in attendance were the Lord Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury, testament to the importance of the occasion.

London benefited almost immediately. The city was only hit by one more cholera outbreak, and this occurred in the east of the city, in an area where the new sewerage system had not yet been introduced. Hundreds of tons of human waste were being carried out of the city every day. The Great Stink was no more and people could get back to being proud of their river again. Parliament was so impressed with Bazalgette’s work that they intended to give him a bonus of £6,000, equivalent to three years’ salary. While this plan was vetoed, soon after the completion of the Northern Drainage System, Bazalgette was invited to the Palace to receive his Knighthood.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
London’s impressive embankments were madein the wake of the Great Stink. Pinterest.

2. From the 1860s onward, London didn’t just smell better, it had more green spaces and riverside paths too

When Joseph Bazalgette died in March 1891, his obituary in The Illustrated London News praised the great man, noting that his “two great titles to fame are that he beautified London and drained it”. While his main sewers and drainage tunnels may be hidden underground, the embankments he along the side of the Thames are still there today. The Chelsea Embankment, the Albert Embankment and the Victoria Embankment were all built up to provide better drainage for his low-level sewers. They also had the additional benefits of providing Londoners with new green spaces and riverside walkways, making the city greener and more livable.

The Institution of Civil Engineers erected a monument to Bazalgette on the Victoria Embankment in 1901. Indeed, it is largely for his hugely-ambitious embankments that the engineers is celebrated today. As his obituary in The Times noted more than 100 years ago, when visitors “come to London a thousand years hence … the magnificent solidity and the faultless symmetry of the great granite blocks which form the wall of the Thames-embankment will still remain”.

18 Facts About the 1858 Great Stink of London
The monument to the man who brought the Great Stink to an end. Londonist.

1. The Great Stink led to long-lasting improvements to London life – thanks to the foresight of Bazalgette

According to some estimates, Bazalgette’s sewerage system extended the lifespan of the average Londoner by as much as 20 years. And it wasn’t just his contemporaries who benefited. One of the most notable things about the system built as a result of the Great Stink was that it was built to last. Indeed, while London had a population of around 2 million in the 1860s, Bazalgette had the foresight to build his sewer system for a population twice that number.

Today, with London’s population close to 9 million, much of Bazalgette’s system is being upgraded or simply replaced. Several of the main tunnels, as well as the main pumping stations, have become tourist attractions. And, while Bazalgette may not be the most famous of Victorian-era Britons, he continues to be credited with not only making London a cleaner, better-smelling city, but of saving countless numbers of lives.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“London’s ‘Great Stink’ and Victorian Urban Planning.” BBC History.

“Too hot? In 1858 a heatwave turned London into a stinking sewer.” BBC News.

“Breathing in London’s history: from the Great Stink to the Great Smog.” The Museum of London.

“Story of cities #14: London’s Great Stink heralds a wonder of the industrial world.” The Guardian.

“The Great Stink of London.” The History Press.

“A fresh perspective on the Great Stink?” Wellcome Collection.

“Will 2018 be the year of climate action? Victorian London’s ‘Great Stink’ sewer crisis might tell us.” University of New South Wales.

“Victorian London’s ‘Great Stink’ sewer crisis offer lessons about solving climate change.” CityMonitor.

“The Great Stink.” Gustavus Adolphus College.