London’s Great Stink heralds a wonder of the industrial world

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London's Great Stink heralds a wonder of the industrial world
Joseph Bazalgette (top right) at the northern outfall sewer being built below London’s Abbey Mills pumping station / © Otto Herschan/Getty

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London's Great Stink heralds a wonder of the industrial world
Joseph Bazalgette (top right) at the northern outfall sewer being built below London’s Abbey Mills pumping station / © Otto Herschan/Getty

By the mid-1800s, the River Thames had been used as a dumping ground for human excrement for centuries. At last, fear of its ‘evil odour’ led to one of the greatest advancements in urban planning: Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system

In the steaming hot summer of 1858, the hideous stench of human excrement rising from the River Thames and seeping through the hallowed halls of the Houses of Parliament finally got too much for Britain’s politicians – those who had not already fled in fear of their lives to the countryside.

Clutching hankies to their noses and ready to abandon their newly built House for fresher air upstream, the lawmakers agreed urgent action was needed to purify London of the “evil odour” that was commonly believed to be the cause of disease and death.

The outcome of the “Great Stink”, as that summer’s crisis was coined, was one of history’s most life-enhancing advancements in urban planning. It was a monumental construction project that, despite being driven by dodgy science and political self-interest, dramatically improved the public’s health and laid the foundation for modern London.

You’ll see no sign of it on most maps of the capital or from a tour of the streets, but hidden beneath the city’s surface stretches a wonder of the industrial world: the vast Victorian sewerage system that still flows (and overflows) today.

London is, of course, an ancient metropolis, but according to the city’s prolific biographer (and Londoner) Peter Ackroyd, the 19th century “was the true century of change”. And by the mid-1800s, reform of the capital’s sanitation, like much else in the nation’s political and social life, was long overdue.

For centuries, the “royal river” of pomp and pageantry, the city’s main thoroughfare, had doubled as a dumping ground for human, animal and industrial waste. […]

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