Antiqua Print Gallery The Great Stink
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The Great Stink

The Great Stink or The Big Stink was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated sewage was very strong in central London, England.

Water supply and sanitation prior to the Great Stink

Until the late 16th century, London citizens were reliant for their water supplies on water from shallow wells, the River Thames, its tributaries, or one of around a dozen natural springs, including the spring at Tyburn which was connected by lead pipe to a large cistern or tank (then known as a conduit): the Great Conduit in Cheapside. So that water was not abstracted for unauthorised commercial or industrial purposes, the city authorities appointed keepers of the conduits who would ensure that users such as brewers, cooks and fishmongers would pay for the water they used.
Wealthy Londoners living near to a conduit pipe could obtain permission for a connection to their homes, but this did not prevent unauthorised tapping of conduits. Otherwise - particularly for households which could not take a gravity-feed - water from the conduits was provided to individual households by water carriers, or "cobs". In 1496 the “Water Carriers” formed their own guild called “The Brotherhood of St. Cristofer of the Waterbearers.”
In 1582 Dutchman Peter Morice leased the northernmost arch of London Bridge and, inside the arch, constructed a waterwheel that pumped water from the Thames to various places in London. Further waterwheels were added in 1584 and 1701, and remained in use until 1822.
However, in 1815 house waste was permitted to be carried to the Thames via the sewers, so for seven years human waste was dumped into the Thames and then potentially pumped back to the same households for drinking, cooking and bathing.
Prior to the Great Stink there were over 200,000 cesspits in London. Emptying one cesspit cost a shilling - a cost the average London citizen then could ill afford. As a result, most cesspits added to the air-borne stench.

Circumstances immediately before the Great Stink

Part of the problem was due to the introduction of flush toilets, replacing the chamber-pots that most Londoners had used. These dramatically increased the volume of water and waste that was now poured into existing cesspits. These often overflowed into street drains designed originally to cope with rainwater, but now also used to carry outfalls from factories, slaughterhouses and other activities, contaminating the city before emptying into the River Thames.
During 1858, the summer was unusually hot. The Thames and many of its urban tributaries were overflowing with sewage; the warm weather encouraged bacteria to thrive and the resulting smell was so overwhelming that it affected the work of the House of Commons (countermeasures included draping curtains soaked in chloride of lime, while members considered relocating upstream to Hampton Court) and the law courts (plans were made to evacuate to Oxford and St Albans). Heavy rain finally ended the heat and humidity of summer and the immediate crisis ended. However, a House of Commons select committee was appointed to report on the Stink and recommend how to end the problem.

New sewage system

By this time, the consolidated Commission had been superseded (at the end of 1855) by the Metropolitan Board of Works, and despite numerous different schemes for "merciful abatement of the epidemic that ravaged the Metropolis", the MBW finally accepted a scheme proposed during 1859 by its own chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette. Over the next six years, the main elements of the London Sewerage System were created and the "Great Stink" became a memory.
John Martin was also occupied with schemes for the improvement of London, and published various pamphlets and plans dealing with the metropolitan water supply, sewerage, dock and railway systems (his 1834 plans for London's sewerage system anticipated by some 25 years the 1859 proposals of Joseph Bazalgette to create intercepting sewers complete with walkways along both banks of the River Thames).

Cholera outbreaks

Cholera became widespread during the 1840s (not least because many people believed the disease was due to air-borne "miasma"; no one then realized that the disease was water-borne — that discovery was not made until 1854 by London physician Dr John Snow after an epidemic centred in Soho), and sanitation reform soon became a priority. Consolidating several separate local bodies concerned with sewers, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was established during 1848; it surveyed London's antiquated sewerage system and began ridding the capital of its cesspits — an objective later accelerated by the "Great Stink".
Because of the miasmatic theory's predominance among Italian scientists, the 1854 discovery by Filippo Pacini of the bacillum that caused the disease was ignored, and the bacteria had to be rediscovered thirty years later by Robert Koch.
Although the new sewerage system was in operation, and water supplies gradually improved, it did not prevent a later epidemic during the 1860s, especially in east London. However, a forensic investigation by Captain Tyler of the Railway Inspectorate showed that the polluted river Lea was entering reservoirs of the East London Water Company, and so caused the epidemic. The water-borne explanation had now been proved beyond doubt, and yet further efforts to obtain pure water meant that it was the last epidemic of the deadly disease in the capital.

Jobs prior to and during the Great Stink

Tosher - A tosher was someone who scavenged through the sewers looking for various riches. Before the Great Stink, toshers were regarded as a lower class because of the terrible smell from the sewage. However, because the toshers (who often worked as whole families) worked in the sewage they gained a tolerance for certain diseases that arose and killed many later during the Great Stink.
Grubber - People referred to as grubbers would scavenge in drains in a similar effort of the tosher to find small treasures to sell. Both the tosher and the grubber, in their removal of small items, helped to ease the flow of water and waste in the sewer systems.
Mudlark - Similar to the tosher and the grubber, Mudlarks were people who scavenged in the mud of the Thames and other rivers. Mudlarks were generally young children who gathered small items in the mud and sold them for very small amounts.
Nightsoil man - Nightsoil men removed human and animal waste from the city to farms for use as manure. However, as London expanded, there were fewer farms further away from the city. A farmer would have to pay an average of 2s 6d (12½p) for the manure. However, the trade ceased almost completely when in 1870 solidified bird droppings, called guano, from South America became available at a much lower cost. This caused an increase of households dumping waste into the street where it made its way to the Thames through the sewers and other rivers.
Flusherman - Workers who were employed by the Court of Sewers. These men would literally "flush" away waste and anything that might block the flow of water in the new sewer system. In Henry Mayhew's book London Labour and the London Poor, he describes the look of the flushermen:
"The flushermen wear, when at work, strong blue overcoats, waterproofed (but not so much as used to be the case, the men then complaining of the perspiration induced by them), buttoned close over the chest, and descending almost to the knees, where it is met by huge leather boots, covering a part of the thigh, such as are worn by the fishermen on many of our coasts. Their hats are fan-tailed, like the dustmen's."
Rat-catcher - Rat-catchers were hired by the city to catch rats in the underground sewer system in order to prevent the spread of diseases. These rat catchers were paid little, but their aid in preventing more disease during and after the great stink greatly helped London.

(Source Wikipedia)