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Episode
233

The Great Stink

Feb 1, 2022
History
-
19
minutes

In the summer of 1858 London was hit by a terrible smell coming from the river Thames.

In this episode, we'll learn about why the capital city smelled so bad, what was done about it, and the solution found by an ingenious civil engineer to ensure it never happened again.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:23] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Great Stink.

[00:00:29] A stink, by the way, means a terrible smell, a foul odour

[00:00:35] And in London, in the mid-19th century, there was a great stink indeed, a stink so bad, a smell so terrible, that it resulted in some of the most important, but least visible, changes to the city in history.

[00:00:54] So, in this episode, which I’m pleased to say does not come with an accompanying fragrance, we will first talk about life in London in the 19th century, we’ll talk about the circumstances that led up to the Great Stink, what actually happened during the summer of 1858, the actions that were taken, and how this changed the city of London forever.

[00:01:21] I should, perhaps, warn you that there will be some descriptions of some pretty bad smells in the next twenty minutes, so if you were about to eat your breakfast, then I’d press pause and do that first.

[00:01:35] OK then, The Great Stink, the smelliest story in the history of London.

[00:01:43] If you have been to London, you will know that it has a large river that runs through the middle, called the Thames. 

[00:01:52] Without this river, there would have been no London, or at least London would never have been what it is today. The Romans chose to settle on the northern banks of London because the Thames provided easy access. 

[00:02:07] The Vikings sailed up the Thames to attack medieval London, and the Thames later on provided fantastic access to both trade and military ships.

[00:02:19] It’s a big river, both wide and deep.

[00:02:24] At London Bridge, in the centre of London, it’s around 250 metres wide, and can be up to 25 metres deep.

[00:02:34] It’s also a tidal river, meaning that the level of the water in the river goes up and down with the tide.

[00:02:44] And for centuries, in fact for the entirety of the history of London, the Thames was the main source both of drinking water and the main rubbish tip for Londoners.

[00:02:59] Waste from industry, waste from cooking, waste from slaughterhouses - the places where animals were killed - and of course human waste, urine and faeces - most of it ended up in the Thames.

[00:03:15] I know what you’re probably thinking. 

[00:03:17] Hmm, getting your drinking water from the same place where you put your rubbish doesn’t sound like a good idea.

[00:03:25] But what people in London thought was that, because the Thames was a tidal river and so close to the sea, all of the bad stuff would be flushed out to sea, and the water would be fine to drink.

[00:03:42] The problem was that the tide was so strong that it also pulled all of the rubbish back up the river, so it wasn’t so simple as all of the waste just going in one direction.

[00:03:56] But the river was big, and for centuries the population of London was sufficiently small that it didn’t really matter.

[00:04:07] In the year 1300 London was one of the biggest cities in Europe, but its population was still only around 80,000 people.

[00:04:18] By 1800 it had reached a million, and by 1860 it had grown threefold to over 3 million.

[00:04:28] The river Thames was, of course, still the same size. 

[00:04:32] The city was cramped, it was crowded.

[00:04:36] Very few people had flushing toilets, and they would take their household waste to primitive cesspits, essentially just holes in the ground full of waste.

[00:04:50] These cesspits would often overflow, leading to horrible waste flowing down the streets of the city. 

[00:04:59] Some of these cesspits were linked up to sewers

[00:05:03] Now, sewer is a word that we’ll hear a lot in this episode - a sewer is the underground pipe used to take waste away from one area to another.

[00:05:15] These sewers were often very basic, normally made of wood, which meant that they would frequently leak waste into the ground.

[00:05:27] They, theoretically, led the waste directly into the Thames, which was by the mid-19th century collecting all of the waste of a rapidly industrialising city of 3 million people.

[00:05:42] The city had, by this time, developed its own nasty smell. 

[00:05:48] I’ll leave you to think about exactly what that smell would have been, but it certainly wasn’t nice.

[00:05:55] And starting in 1831, the city had started to see outbreaks of cholera, a nasty infection that causes vomiting and diarrhea. These outbreaks continued, and tens of thousands of people died.

[00:06:14] The presiding belief about how infections spread at this time was something called the miasma theory, which essentially says that diseases and infections such as cholera spread through bad air. 

[00:06:31] Although we now know that this was completely false, it isn’t hard to imagine how people came to this conclusion. The city was very smelly, there was lots of rotting food and waste around, and it seemed plausible that this nasty smell was causing cholera.

[00:06:53] It was, in fact, an English physician called John Snow who first suggested that cholera was caused by drinking contaminated water. Although he conducted several experiments that strongly suggested this was the case, his suggestions were largely ignored. 

[00:07:14] The miasma theory had been the dominant theory since Hippocrates in the fourth century BC, so simply saying it was wrong was a bold move.

[00:07:27] Given that the presiding belief was that it was bad smells that caused disease to spread, the authorities in London hurried to get rid of the open, stinking cesspits, and move to flushing sewers that would take the waste more quickly away from the areas in which people lived, and flush it out into the Thames.

[00:07:51] This might have made the streets smell slightly better, but did nothing to help the outbreaks of cholera, which is, of course, an infection carried by contaminated water, it isn’t something you get through bad smells.

[00:08:08] The water was still filthy, and the sewers leaked into the drinking water, and there were continued outbreaks of cholera.

[00:08:18] Then in the summer of 1858, in fact only a month after the death of John Snow, the city was hit by a heatwave.

[00:08:30] Now, you probably don’t associate London, or any part of the UK for that matter, with wonderful hot weather, but at times it can get quite hot.

[00:08:41] And the summer of 1858 was one of those times.

[00:08:46] Towards the end of June the temperature started rising. It got to 35 degrees Centigrade in the shade and up to 48 degrees in the sun.

[00:08:58] Lovely, you might think.

[00:09:00] Well, it might be lovely if you are sitting on a beach somewhere sipping a cold drink. 

[00:09:06] But it was not lovely in London.

[00:09:09] Now, I want you to imagine what the effect of this temperature would be on a river 25 metres deep and 250 metres wide that, for its entire history, has been filled with human waste, dead animals, industrial waste and all sorts of horrible, rotting things.

[00:09:30] Imagine this dark brown water getting heated up to almost 50 degrees Centigrade under the hot sun. It started to evaporate, leaving pieces of waste on the banks, and reducing to a thick brown slime.

[00:09:49] It was horrible to look at, but even worse to smell. 

[00:09:54] In a letter to a friend, the author Charles Dickens wrote “I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature”

[00:10:09] A whiff means a smell, and “head-and-stomach-distending” means causing your head and stomach to swell, to grow in size. 

[00:10:20] The smell covered the entire city, and before long newspapers were reporting on it as “The Great Stink”.

[00:10:28] Even Queen Victoria couldn’t escape it. During the summer of 1858 she tried to go on a pleasure cruise with her husband, Albert, down the river Thames.

[00:10:40] She had taken a bouquet of flowers with her, and kept it close to her face, right up against her nose, to avoid the terrible smell.

[00:10:50] But it was too much for her. She only lasted a few minutes before instructing the boat to turn around - so awful was the stench.

[00:11:01] It was also too much for the Members of Parliament, the MPs, whose place of business, the Houses of Parliament, was on the banks of the river. All of the curtains of the building were covered in lime chloride in an attempt to cover up the smell. 

[00:11:19] MPs ran from one meeting to another with their handkerchiefs in front of their noses. People literally couldn’t work because the smell coming from outside was so terrible.

[00:11:32] And it wasn’t like there was an immediate way to fix it. 

[00:11:38] There was, essentially, a huge, bubbling open sewer that ran through the heart of the city. Centuries of waste lay in it, rotting and giving off a terrible smell with the heat.

[00:11:53] The authorities tried to pour lime directly into the river, and up to 250 tonnes of lime was poured into the river every single week. 

[00:12:06] In the end, as the temperature dropped, it started to rain and the river started to flow again, the smell improved and the smell on the streets of London went from absolutely disgusting and so bad that you couldn’t even breathe to just bad.

[00:12:24] But it was clear to all that something had to be done. Simply putting all of the city’s waste into the river wasn’t an option. 

[00:12:35] There had been plenty of warnings of this before, going back even to the 17th century, 200 years before, but it really took such a terrible event, one that affected everyone in the city, and one that also affected the top politicians in the country personally, for any action to be taken.

[00:12:57] The action they decided to take was a complete overhaul of the city’s sewage system, of the system of taking waste away from the city.

[00:13:08] A civil engineer called Joseph Bazalgette had proposed a plan to do this in 1856 but it had been rejected on the grounds that it was too expensive. 

[00:13:22] The summer of 1858, and the terrible smell that had filled the air of the nation’s capital, made it clear that almost no price was too high to not have to relive, or should I say resmell, that experience.

[00:13:38] Indeed, there was an article in The Times newspaper that read “Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench". 

[00:13:52] Essentially, the smell was so bad that the government had to do something.

[00:13:58] On August 2nd, a month and a half into the Great Stink, Parliament voted to support Bazalgette’s plan, and work started in early 1859.

[00:14:10] The plan was both incredibly complicated and beautifully simple.

[00:14:16] Bazalgette used the natural geography of London to carry waste from the higher areas to the lower ones, allowing gravity to do the hard work, and using pumping stations when required.

[00:14:31] Several of the sewers were built using an egg shape, wider at the top than the bottom, which meant the liquid would flow more effectively.

[00:14:42] There was still the problem of how to actually put these large sewers under a city that already had three million people.

[00:14:51] Bazalgette’s genius was to reclaim land from the river, and to put the sewers on the banks of the river in the most built-up areas.

[00:15:02] There’s an area in central London, just south of Trafalgar Square, called The Embankment. 

[00:15:09] It used to be part of the river Thames, but Bazalgette reclaimed this land and built a large pipe for his sewer, meaning that he didn’t need to dig below houses, he simply dug part of the river and built on top of this.

[00:15:26] It was a monumental piece of engineering. He used 318 million bricks, 670,000 metres cubed of concrete, and it resulted in over 2,000 kilometres of sewers under London. 

[00:15:43] The entire project cost £6.5 million, which is today’s equivalent of just over a billion Euros.

[00:15:53] But if there was ever money well-spent, this was it.

[00:15:59] Bazalgette had the foresight to understand that he needed to build a sewage system for the London of the future, and he actually made the pipes twice as large as they needed to be at the time.

[00:16:14] The sewer system that Bazalgette put into place is still in operation today, his is still the basis for all of the sewers in London.

[00:16:24] The city was so thankful for his work that it was even proposed that he was given a bonus of almost a million Euros. This would have been completely unprecedented - he was a public servant, and the Victorians were not known for handing out money. 

[00:16:44] And although it was initially approved, the bonus was later denied, but it just shows quite how thankful people were for his work.

[00:16:56] He is certainly one of the unsung heroes, the unknown heroes of London, and it is his work, his fantastic engineering, that has meant that The Great Stink is an experience that Londoners have not had to repeat.

[00:17:12] If you go to London, you can see a monument to Joseph Bazalgette on the Victoria Embankment, a testament to all that he has done to the city.

[00:17:23] Or, you can simply go to the bathroom, flush the toilet, close your eyes, think about this story, and be thankful for Joseph Bazalgette.

[00:17:36] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Great Stink.

[00:17:41] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:17:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:49] Did you know anything about the story of The Great Stink? Do you have any examples of other “unsung heroes” from your city or country?

[00:17:58] And have there ever been any similar episodes, any times where a town you know has been covered in foul smells, and people have had to do something about it?

[00:18:09] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:18:13] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:18:23] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:28] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:23] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Great Stink.

[00:00:29] A stink, by the way, means a terrible smell, a foul odour

[00:00:35] And in London, in the mid-19th century, there was a great stink indeed, a stink so bad, a smell so terrible, that it resulted in some of the most important, but least visible, changes to the city in history.

[00:00:54] So, in this episode, which I’m pleased to say does not come with an accompanying fragrance, we will first talk about life in London in the 19th century, we’ll talk about the circumstances that led up to the Great Stink, what actually happened during the summer of 1858, the actions that were taken, and how this changed the city of London forever.

[00:01:21] I should, perhaps, warn you that there will be some descriptions of some pretty bad smells in the next twenty minutes, so if you were about to eat your breakfast, then I’d press pause and do that first.

[00:01:35] OK then, The Great Stink, the smelliest story in the history of London.

[00:01:43] If you have been to London, you will know that it has a large river that runs through the middle, called the Thames. 

[00:01:52] Without this river, there would have been no London, or at least London would never have been what it is today. The Romans chose to settle on the northern banks of London because the Thames provided easy access. 

[00:02:07] The Vikings sailed up the Thames to attack medieval London, and the Thames later on provided fantastic access to both trade and military ships.

[00:02:19] It’s a big river, both wide and deep.

[00:02:24] At London Bridge, in the centre of London, it’s around 250 metres wide, and can be up to 25 metres deep.

[00:02:34] It’s also a tidal river, meaning that the level of the water in the river goes up and down with the tide.

[00:02:44] And for centuries, in fact for the entirety of the history of London, the Thames was the main source both of drinking water and the main rubbish tip for Londoners.

[00:02:59] Waste from industry, waste from cooking, waste from slaughterhouses - the places where animals were killed - and of course human waste, urine and faeces - most of it ended up in the Thames.

[00:03:15] I know what you’re probably thinking. 

[00:03:17] Hmm, getting your drinking water from the same place where you put your rubbish doesn’t sound like a good idea.

[00:03:25] But what people in London thought was that, because the Thames was a tidal river and so close to the sea, all of the bad stuff would be flushed out to sea, and the water would be fine to drink.

[00:03:42] The problem was that the tide was so strong that it also pulled all of the rubbish back up the river, so it wasn’t so simple as all of the waste just going in one direction.

[00:03:56] But the river was big, and for centuries the population of London was sufficiently small that it didn’t really matter.

[00:04:07] In the year 1300 London was one of the biggest cities in Europe, but its population was still only around 80,000 people.

[00:04:18] By 1800 it had reached a million, and by 1860 it had grown threefold to over 3 million.

[00:04:28] The river Thames was, of course, still the same size. 

[00:04:32] The city was cramped, it was crowded.

[00:04:36] Very few people had flushing toilets, and they would take their household waste to primitive cesspits, essentially just holes in the ground full of waste.

[00:04:50] These cesspits would often overflow, leading to horrible waste flowing down the streets of the city. 

[00:04:59] Some of these cesspits were linked up to sewers

[00:05:03] Now, sewer is a word that we’ll hear a lot in this episode - a sewer is the underground pipe used to take waste away from one area to another.

[00:05:15] These sewers were often very basic, normally made of wood, which meant that they would frequently leak waste into the ground.

[00:05:27] They, theoretically, led the waste directly into the Thames, which was by the mid-19th century collecting all of the waste of a rapidly industrialising city of 3 million people.

[00:05:42] The city had, by this time, developed its own nasty smell. 

[00:05:48] I’ll leave you to think about exactly what that smell would have been, but it certainly wasn’t nice.

[00:05:55] And starting in 1831, the city had started to see outbreaks of cholera, a nasty infection that causes vomiting and diarrhea. These outbreaks continued, and tens of thousands of people died.

[00:06:14] The presiding belief about how infections spread at this time was something called the miasma theory, which essentially says that diseases and infections such as cholera spread through bad air. 

[00:06:31] Although we now know that this was completely false, it isn’t hard to imagine how people came to this conclusion. The city was very smelly, there was lots of rotting food and waste around, and it seemed plausible that this nasty smell was causing cholera.

[00:06:53] It was, in fact, an English physician called John Snow who first suggested that cholera was caused by drinking contaminated water. Although he conducted several experiments that strongly suggested this was the case, his suggestions were largely ignored. 

[00:07:14] The miasma theory had been the dominant theory since Hippocrates in the fourth century BC, so simply saying it was wrong was a bold move.

[00:07:27] Given that the presiding belief was that it was bad smells that caused disease to spread, the authorities in London hurried to get rid of the open, stinking cesspits, and move to flushing sewers that would take the waste more quickly away from the areas in which people lived, and flush it out into the Thames.

[00:07:51] This might have made the streets smell slightly better, but did nothing to help the outbreaks of cholera, which is, of course, an infection carried by contaminated water, it isn’t something you get through bad smells.

[00:08:08] The water was still filthy, and the sewers leaked into the drinking water, and there were continued outbreaks of cholera.

[00:08:18] Then in the summer of 1858, in fact only a month after the death of John Snow, the city was hit by a heatwave.

[00:08:30] Now, you probably don’t associate London, or any part of the UK for that matter, with wonderful hot weather, but at times it can get quite hot.

[00:08:41] And the summer of 1858 was one of those times.

[00:08:46] Towards the end of June the temperature started rising. It got to 35 degrees Centigrade in the shade and up to 48 degrees in the sun.

[00:08:58] Lovely, you might think.

[00:09:00] Well, it might be lovely if you are sitting on a beach somewhere sipping a cold drink. 

[00:09:06] But it was not lovely in London.

[00:09:09] Now, I want you to imagine what the effect of this temperature would be on a river 25 metres deep and 250 metres wide that, for its entire history, has been filled with human waste, dead animals, industrial waste and all sorts of horrible, rotting things.

[00:09:30] Imagine this dark brown water getting heated up to almost 50 degrees Centigrade under the hot sun. It started to evaporate, leaving pieces of waste on the banks, and reducing to a thick brown slime.

[00:09:49] It was horrible to look at, but even worse to smell. 

[00:09:54] In a letter to a friend, the author Charles Dickens wrote “I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature”

[00:10:09] A whiff means a smell, and “head-and-stomach-distending” means causing your head and stomach to swell, to grow in size. 

[00:10:20] The smell covered the entire city, and before long newspapers were reporting on it as “The Great Stink”.

[00:10:28] Even Queen Victoria couldn’t escape it. During the summer of 1858 she tried to go on a pleasure cruise with her husband, Albert, down the river Thames.

[00:10:40] She had taken a bouquet of flowers with her, and kept it close to her face, right up against her nose, to avoid the terrible smell.

[00:10:50] But it was too much for her. She only lasted a few minutes before instructing the boat to turn around - so awful was the stench.

[00:11:01] It was also too much for the Members of Parliament, the MPs, whose place of business, the Houses of Parliament, was on the banks of the river. All of the curtains of the building were covered in lime chloride in an attempt to cover up the smell. 

[00:11:19] MPs ran from one meeting to another with their handkerchiefs in front of their noses. People literally couldn’t work because the smell coming from outside was so terrible.

[00:11:32] And it wasn’t like there was an immediate way to fix it. 

[00:11:38] There was, essentially, a huge, bubbling open sewer that ran through the heart of the city. Centuries of waste lay in it, rotting and giving off a terrible smell with the heat.

[00:11:53] The authorities tried to pour lime directly into the river, and up to 250 tonnes of lime was poured into the river every single week. 

[00:12:06] In the end, as the temperature dropped, it started to rain and the river started to flow again, the smell improved and the smell on the streets of London went from absolutely disgusting and so bad that you couldn’t even breathe to just bad.

[00:12:24] But it was clear to all that something had to be done. Simply putting all of the city’s waste into the river wasn’t an option. 

[00:12:35] There had been plenty of warnings of this before, going back even to the 17th century, 200 years before, but it really took such a terrible event, one that affected everyone in the city, and one that also affected the top politicians in the country personally, for any action to be taken.

[00:12:57] The action they decided to take was a complete overhaul of the city’s sewage system, of the system of taking waste away from the city.

[00:13:08] A civil engineer called Joseph Bazalgette had proposed a plan to do this in 1856 but it had been rejected on the grounds that it was too expensive. 

[00:13:22] The summer of 1858, and the terrible smell that had filled the air of the nation’s capital, made it clear that almost no price was too high to not have to relive, or should I say resmell, that experience.

[00:13:38] Indeed, there was an article in The Times newspaper that read “Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench". 

[00:13:52] Essentially, the smell was so bad that the government had to do something.

[00:13:58] On August 2nd, a month and a half into the Great Stink, Parliament voted to support Bazalgette’s plan, and work started in early 1859.

[00:14:10] The plan was both incredibly complicated and beautifully simple.

[00:14:16] Bazalgette used the natural geography of London to carry waste from the higher areas to the lower ones, allowing gravity to do the hard work, and using pumping stations when required.

[00:14:31] Several of the sewers were built using an egg shape, wider at the top than the bottom, which meant the liquid would flow more effectively.

[00:14:42] There was still the problem of how to actually put these large sewers under a city that already had three million people.

[00:14:51] Bazalgette’s genius was to reclaim land from the river, and to put the sewers on the banks of the river in the most built-up areas.

[00:15:02] There’s an area in central London, just south of Trafalgar Square, called The Embankment. 

[00:15:09] It used to be part of the river Thames, but Bazalgette reclaimed this land and built a large pipe for his sewer, meaning that he didn’t need to dig below houses, he simply dug part of the river and built on top of this.

[00:15:26] It was a monumental piece of engineering. He used 318 million bricks, 670,000 metres cubed of concrete, and it resulted in over 2,000 kilometres of sewers under London. 

[00:15:43] The entire project cost £6.5 million, which is today’s equivalent of just over a billion Euros.

[00:15:53] But if there was ever money well-spent, this was it.

[00:15:59] Bazalgette had the foresight to understand that he needed to build a sewage system for the London of the future, and he actually made the pipes twice as large as they needed to be at the time.

[00:16:14] The sewer system that Bazalgette put into place is still in operation today, his is still the basis for all of the sewers in London.

[00:16:24] The city was so thankful for his work that it was even proposed that he was given a bonus of almost a million Euros. This would have been completely unprecedented - he was a public servant, and the Victorians were not known for handing out money. 

[00:16:44] And although it was initially approved, the bonus was later denied, but it just shows quite how thankful people were for his work.

[00:16:56] He is certainly one of the unsung heroes, the unknown heroes of London, and it is his work, his fantastic engineering, that has meant that The Great Stink is an experience that Londoners have not had to repeat.

[00:17:12] If you go to London, you can see a monument to Joseph Bazalgette on the Victoria Embankment, a testament to all that he has done to the city.

[00:17:23] Or, you can simply go to the bathroom, flush the toilet, close your eyes, think about this story, and be thankful for Joseph Bazalgette.

[00:17:36] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Great Stink.

[00:17:41] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:17:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:49] Did you know anything about the story of The Great Stink? Do you have any examples of other “unsung heroes” from your city or country?

[00:17:58] And have there ever been any similar episodes, any times where a town you know has been covered in foul smells, and people have had to do something about it?

[00:18:09] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:18:13] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:18:23] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:28] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:23] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Great Stink.

[00:00:29] A stink, by the way, means a terrible smell, a foul odour

[00:00:35] And in London, in the mid-19th century, there was a great stink indeed, a stink so bad, a smell so terrible, that it resulted in some of the most important, but least visible, changes to the city in history.

[00:00:54] So, in this episode, which I’m pleased to say does not come with an accompanying fragrance, we will first talk about life in London in the 19th century, we’ll talk about the circumstances that led up to the Great Stink, what actually happened during the summer of 1858, the actions that were taken, and how this changed the city of London forever.

[00:01:21] I should, perhaps, warn you that there will be some descriptions of some pretty bad smells in the next twenty minutes, so if you were about to eat your breakfast, then I’d press pause and do that first.

[00:01:35] OK then, The Great Stink, the smelliest story in the history of London.

[00:01:43] If you have been to London, you will know that it has a large river that runs through the middle, called the Thames. 

[00:01:52] Without this river, there would have been no London, or at least London would never have been what it is today. The Romans chose to settle on the northern banks of London because the Thames provided easy access. 

[00:02:07] The Vikings sailed up the Thames to attack medieval London, and the Thames later on provided fantastic access to both trade and military ships.

[00:02:19] It’s a big river, both wide and deep.

[00:02:24] At London Bridge, in the centre of London, it’s around 250 metres wide, and can be up to 25 metres deep.

[00:02:34] It’s also a tidal river, meaning that the level of the water in the river goes up and down with the tide.

[00:02:44] And for centuries, in fact for the entirety of the history of London, the Thames was the main source both of drinking water and the main rubbish tip for Londoners.

[00:02:59] Waste from industry, waste from cooking, waste from slaughterhouses - the places where animals were killed - and of course human waste, urine and faeces - most of it ended up in the Thames.

[00:03:15] I know what you’re probably thinking. 

[00:03:17] Hmm, getting your drinking water from the same place where you put your rubbish doesn’t sound like a good idea.

[00:03:25] But what people in London thought was that, because the Thames was a tidal river and so close to the sea, all of the bad stuff would be flushed out to sea, and the water would be fine to drink.

[00:03:42] The problem was that the tide was so strong that it also pulled all of the rubbish back up the river, so it wasn’t so simple as all of the waste just going in one direction.

[00:03:56] But the river was big, and for centuries the population of London was sufficiently small that it didn’t really matter.

[00:04:07] In the year 1300 London was one of the biggest cities in Europe, but its population was still only around 80,000 people.

[00:04:18] By 1800 it had reached a million, and by 1860 it had grown threefold to over 3 million.

[00:04:28] The river Thames was, of course, still the same size. 

[00:04:32] The city was cramped, it was crowded.

[00:04:36] Very few people had flushing toilets, and they would take their household waste to primitive cesspits, essentially just holes in the ground full of waste.

[00:04:50] These cesspits would often overflow, leading to horrible waste flowing down the streets of the city. 

[00:04:59] Some of these cesspits were linked up to sewers

[00:05:03] Now, sewer is a word that we’ll hear a lot in this episode - a sewer is the underground pipe used to take waste away from one area to another.

[00:05:15] These sewers were often very basic, normally made of wood, which meant that they would frequently leak waste into the ground.

[00:05:27] They, theoretically, led the waste directly into the Thames, which was by the mid-19th century collecting all of the waste of a rapidly industrialising city of 3 million people.

[00:05:42] The city had, by this time, developed its own nasty smell. 

[00:05:48] I’ll leave you to think about exactly what that smell would have been, but it certainly wasn’t nice.

[00:05:55] And starting in 1831, the city had started to see outbreaks of cholera, a nasty infection that causes vomiting and diarrhea. These outbreaks continued, and tens of thousands of people died.

[00:06:14] The presiding belief about how infections spread at this time was something called the miasma theory, which essentially says that diseases and infections such as cholera spread through bad air. 

[00:06:31] Although we now know that this was completely false, it isn’t hard to imagine how people came to this conclusion. The city was very smelly, there was lots of rotting food and waste around, and it seemed plausible that this nasty smell was causing cholera.

[00:06:53] It was, in fact, an English physician called John Snow who first suggested that cholera was caused by drinking contaminated water. Although he conducted several experiments that strongly suggested this was the case, his suggestions were largely ignored. 

[00:07:14] The miasma theory had been the dominant theory since Hippocrates in the fourth century BC, so simply saying it was wrong was a bold move.

[00:07:27] Given that the presiding belief was that it was bad smells that caused disease to spread, the authorities in London hurried to get rid of the open, stinking cesspits, and move to flushing sewers that would take the waste more quickly away from the areas in which people lived, and flush it out into the Thames.

[00:07:51] This might have made the streets smell slightly better, but did nothing to help the outbreaks of cholera, which is, of course, an infection carried by contaminated water, it isn’t something you get through bad smells.

[00:08:08] The water was still filthy, and the sewers leaked into the drinking water, and there were continued outbreaks of cholera.

[00:08:18] Then in the summer of 1858, in fact only a month after the death of John Snow, the city was hit by a heatwave.

[00:08:30] Now, you probably don’t associate London, or any part of the UK for that matter, with wonderful hot weather, but at times it can get quite hot.

[00:08:41] And the summer of 1858 was one of those times.

[00:08:46] Towards the end of June the temperature started rising. It got to 35 degrees Centigrade in the shade and up to 48 degrees in the sun.

[00:08:58] Lovely, you might think.

[00:09:00] Well, it might be lovely if you are sitting on a beach somewhere sipping a cold drink. 

[00:09:06] But it was not lovely in London.

[00:09:09] Now, I want you to imagine what the effect of this temperature would be on a river 25 metres deep and 250 metres wide that, for its entire history, has been filled with human waste, dead animals, industrial waste and all sorts of horrible, rotting things.

[00:09:30] Imagine this dark brown water getting heated up to almost 50 degrees Centigrade under the hot sun. It started to evaporate, leaving pieces of waste on the banks, and reducing to a thick brown slime.

[00:09:49] It was horrible to look at, but even worse to smell. 

[00:09:54] In a letter to a friend, the author Charles Dickens wrote “I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature”

[00:10:09] A whiff means a smell, and “head-and-stomach-distending” means causing your head and stomach to swell, to grow in size. 

[00:10:20] The smell covered the entire city, and before long newspapers were reporting on it as “The Great Stink”.

[00:10:28] Even Queen Victoria couldn’t escape it. During the summer of 1858 she tried to go on a pleasure cruise with her husband, Albert, down the river Thames.

[00:10:40] She had taken a bouquet of flowers with her, and kept it close to her face, right up against her nose, to avoid the terrible smell.

[00:10:50] But it was too much for her. She only lasted a few minutes before instructing the boat to turn around - so awful was the stench.

[00:11:01] It was also too much for the Members of Parliament, the MPs, whose place of business, the Houses of Parliament, was on the banks of the river. All of the curtains of the building were covered in lime chloride in an attempt to cover up the smell. 

[00:11:19] MPs ran from one meeting to another with their handkerchiefs in front of their noses. People literally couldn’t work because the smell coming from outside was so terrible.

[00:11:32] And it wasn’t like there was an immediate way to fix it. 

[00:11:38] There was, essentially, a huge, bubbling open sewer that ran through the heart of the city. Centuries of waste lay in it, rotting and giving off a terrible smell with the heat.

[00:11:53] The authorities tried to pour lime directly into the river, and up to 250 tonnes of lime was poured into the river every single week. 

[00:12:06] In the end, as the temperature dropped, it started to rain and the river started to flow again, the smell improved and the smell on the streets of London went from absolutely disgusting and so bad that you couldn’t even breathe to just bad.

[00:12:24] But it was clear to all that something had to be done. Simply putting all of the city’s waste into the river wasn’t an option. 

[00:12:35] There had been plenty of warnings of this before, going back even to the 17th century, 200 years before, but it really took such a terrible event, one that affected everyone in the city, and one that also affected the top politicians in the country personally, for any action to be taken.

[00:12:57] The action they decided to take was a complete overhaul of the city’s sewage system, of the system of taking waste away from the city.

[00:13:08] A civil engineer called Joseph Bazalgette had proposed a plan to do this in 1856 but it had been rejected on the grounds that it was too expensive. 

[00:13:22] The summer of 1858, and the terrible smell that had filled the air of the nation’s capital, made it clear that almost no price was too high to not have to relive, or should I say resmell, that experience.

[00:13:38] Indeed, there was an article in The Times newspaper that read “Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench". 

[00:13:52] Essentially, the smell was so bad that the government had to do something.

[00:13:58] On August 2nd, a month and a half into the Great Stink, Parliament voted to support Bazalgette’s plan, and work started in early 1859.

[00:14:10] The plan was both incredibly complicated and beautifully simple.

[00:14:16] Bazalgette used the natural geography of London to carry waste from the higher areas to the lower ones, allowing gravity to do the hard work, and using pumping stations when required.

[00:14:31] Several of the sewers were built using an egg shape, wider at the top than the bottom, which meant the liquid would flow more effectively.

[00:14:42] There was still the problem of how to actually put these large sewers under a city that already had three million people.

[00:14:51] Bazalgette’s genius was to reclaim land from the river, and to put the sewers on the banks of the river in the most built-up areas.

[00:15:02] There’s an area in central London, just south of Trafalgar Square, called The Embankment. 

[00:15:09] It used to be part of the river Thames, but Bazalgette reclaimed this land and built a large pipe for his sewer, meaning that he didn’t need to dig below houses, he simply dug part of the river and built on top of this.

[00:15:26] It was a monumental piece of engineering. He used 318 million bricks, 670,000 metres cubed of concrete, and it resulted in over 2,000 kilometres of sewers under London. 

[00:15:43] The entire project cost £6.5 million, which is today’s equivalent of just over a billion Euros.

[00:15:53] But if there was ever money well-spent, this was it.

[00:15:59] Bazalgette had the foresight to understand that he needed to build a sewage system for the London of the future, and he actually made the pipes twice as large as they needed to be at the time.

[00:16:14] The sewer system that Bazalgette put into place is still in operation today, his is still the basis for all of the sewers in London.

[00:16:24] The city was so thankful for his work that it was even proposed that he was given a bonus of almost a million Euros. This would have been completely unprecedented - he was a public servant, and the Victorians were not known for handing out money. 

[00:16:44] And although it was initially approved, the bonus was later denied, but it just shows quite how thankful people were for his work.

[00:16:56] He is certainly one of the unsung heroes, the unknown heroes of London, and it is his work, his fantastic engineering, that has meant that The Great Stink is an experience that Londoners have not had to repeat.

[00:17:12] If you go to London, you can see a monument to Joseph Bazalgette on the Victoria Embankment, a testament to all that he has done to the city.

[00:17:23] Or, you can simply go to the bathroom, flush the toilet, close your eyes, think about this story, and be thankful for Joseph Bazalgette.

[00:17:36] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Great Stink.

[00:17:41] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:17:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:49] Did you know anything about the story of The Great Stink? Do you have any examples of other “unsung heroes” from your city or country?

[00:17:58] And have there ever been any similar episodes, any times where a town you know has been covered in foul smells, and people have had to do something about it?

[00:18:09] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:18:13] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:18:23] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:28] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]