I think the best way to describe the ceremony was a short, sad funeral. It was held Tuesday noon, 21 July, 1858, in London's park like Brompton Cemetery. There was not a cloud in the sky. The temperature was in the mid-nineties Fahrenheit, and the formalities for the dearly departed Doctor John Snow, who had died of a stroke the week before, were as brief as decorum would allow.
Many admired the “austere and painfully shy” man who would one day be called the “greatest physician of all time”, who founded not only anesthesiology but epidemiology as well. But on this day the stench overwhelmed grief and respect.
The stench wafted from the river which snaked through the capital of the British Empire, 300 yards from Brompton Cemetery. In an average year, the river's current was dwarfed by the twice daily 23 foot tides. But in 1858 the last rain in the Thames valley had been in March - over three months ago – and Old Man Thames had become a warm stagnant open air cesspit, it's swelling twice a day merely rearranging the human and animal waste piling up across the 700 foot wide 6 foot deep tidal flats, crossed by the new London Bridge.
Twelve years before, in 1842, the city had outlawed the municipal cesspits that were overflowing into the streets and polluting the 17,000 wells used by the 2 ½ million residents of London for drinking and cooking. Civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette would report: 'Within a period of about six years, thirty thousand cesspools were abolished, and all home and street refuse was turned into the river'" Now 250,000 tons of sewage was being poured directly into the Thames every day. Then, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, some 827,000 curious paid a penny each to use a flush toilet for the first time. These proved so popular they were kept open for a year, earning over £1000 at a penny a flush. The public's apatite for indoor plumbing accelerated the transfer of poo from human bottoms to river bottom, which is why Dr. John Snow had opposed closing the cesspits.
Dr. Snow had identified the source of an August, 1854 Cholera outbreak that killed over 600 people, as a cesspit contaminated public pump in the poverty crippled Soho section of London. “I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the pump...that the deceased persons used to drink the pump water from Broad Street, either constantly or occasionally.” But even after identifying water as the means of transmission, Dr. Snow had cautioned against the outlawing of cesspits, because he knew without a sewer, that would merely postpone the problem. His stand had earned him the enmity of most of the socially progressive scientists of the day, such as Dr William Murdoch and the great chemist Michael Faraday, who still ascribed the source of pestilence to mal-aria, or “ bad air”, and miasmas, disease carrying odors.
In July of 1855, Faraday wrote to the London Times, describing a boat trip down the Thames. “The whole of the river was an opaque pale brown fluid....I tore up some white cards...and then dropped some of these pieces into the water...before they had sunk an inch below the surface they were indistinguishable...Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface, even in water of this kind.” In June of 1858 “blackish-green” water was reported by Health Officer Dr. Murdoch. “It is quite impossible to calculate the consequences of such a moving mass of decomposition... as the river at present offers to our senses” Dr. Snow had warned about turning the river into an open sewer, but even in sewers the waster flows. The eight weeks of June-July 1858, when the Thames stopped flowing, came to to be called “The Great Stink”
Solutions to the problem of air or water born disease had been debated for almost two decades, through five Prime Ministers, two of them Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby. Whatever solution was offered, there were always objections to paying for it. In 1848 the conservative editors of “The Economists” turned to the Old Testament:: “Suffering and evil...cannot be gotten rid of: and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation... have always been more productive of evil than good”. No proof was offered for this contention. But the defenders of doing nothing went further. It was claimed new sewers would be an invasion of person freedom, a big government intrusion, a tax and spend liberal fraud. Filthy water was not the problem. And even the revered Dr. Snow was against big government sewer projects, claimed the opponents.
The latter argument was not quite true, but Snow's position was nuanced enough to be obscure In fact he suggested it would be a good idea to end "that form of liberty to which some communities cling, the sacred power to poison to death not only themselves but their neighbors” Still the opponents confused enough of the public as to muddy the already filthy waters. In 1855 Charles Dickens had satirized the opponents by describing a mythical pro-stink campaign rally. “Ratepayers... Health is enormously expensive. Be filthy and be fat. Cesspools and Constitutional Government! Gases and Glory! No insipid water!!” Dickens was kidding, but even to him the stench was no joke. He wrote a friend, “I can certify that the offensive smells...have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature” And still the opponents cautioned delay after delay, spreading confusion and misinformation much like modern day climate change deniers do – proving again that we have not changed since leaving our Garden of Eden toilet.
Few would ever see the wiggling predators in a drop of Thames water under a microscope. But in the summer of 1858 everyone could smell the stench. It was, in the words of author David Barnes, “catastrophic...a devastating and even incapacitating onslaught. The stench was intolerable.” Wrote a reporter for the Illustrated London News, “The intense heat had driven our legislators from those portions of their buildings (Westminster) which overlook the river. A few members...ventured into the library, but they were instantaneously driven to retreat, each man with a handkerchief to his nose.”
The absentee tenant representing Leitrim, Ireland, John Brady, asked Lord John Manners, the Commissioner of Works and Public Buildings in Derby's second government, if anything could be done. Lord Manners replied the Thames was not under his “jurisdiction.” . Four days later another minister returned to the topic, and Lord Manners again avoided it, insisting, “Her Majesty's Government have nothing whatever to do with the state of the Thames".
Although Smith-Stanley was the Prime Minister in 1858, he sat in the House of Lords. The leader of the House of Commons was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, the most capable politician of his generation. And Disraeli realized the stench was growing stronger than the opposition. The desperate politicians were spending £1,500 per week to shovel 250 tons of lime across the mud flats at low tide. Under the direction of engineer Goldsworthy Gurney, curtains soaked in chloride were draped over the windows of Westminster to block the stench. Nothing seemed to help. In mid-June Gurney had to warn the Commons, he could “no longer be responsible for the health of the house.” On 11 June, 1858 even the official diarist of the House of Commons was forced to note, “Gentlemen sitting in the Committee Rooms and in the Library were utterly unable to remain there in consequence of the stench which arose from the river.”
Finally, on 15 June, Disraeli brought the latest version of the “do something about the stench” bill up for debate, recalling the ancient river Styx, the river of death, and referring to the Thames as a “ a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors". The cost would be a special 3 pence tax on all London households for the next 40 years - £3 million to rebuild the sewers of London. Noted The Times of London, “Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench” .
Wrote the London Globe, “Disgust, alarm, and reasonable precautions induced members” to finally take action. The Times wrote, “Gentility of speech is at an end – it stinks; and who so once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.”
The sewer plan, after almost two decades of design and redesign, was simple, as explained by Joseph Bazalgette, the man who would be responsible for building it. “The existing streams and drains all ran down to the river on both sides”, he wrote.
First, the Thames - that “pestiferous and typhus breeding abomination” - was to be walled off by massive embankment, built atop new intersecting sewers (above, right center) on either shore “...so as to intercept those streams:” Atop the embankments new roads could be built, and parks and open spaces. It promised a better world, a world of light and fresh air and ease of commute. But most of all it promised and end to the stench.
The waste was not to be treated. It was merely to be dumped somewhere else, farther away, down stream, out to sea. English humans were still searching for the Garden of Eden, where their poop would remain out of sight, sight of mind, out from under their noses and out of their drinking water.
The massive tax increase passed in just 18 days, from creation, consideration, amendments, debate and passage. Usually only declarations of war received such quick treatment. It would have been cheaper to have fixed the problem earlier, and Lord knows most people wanted to fix it sooner. Uncounted lives would have been saved. The economy would have been improved, along with the health of the citizens, by following the simple rule of never shitting where you eat. But it did not pass until the richest who refused to pay for the improvements, could no longer say no while holding their noses. It would take another twenty years to complete the work, but at last it was begun in August of 1858, just before the rains came back..
The London sewers did not return English men and women to the Garden of Eden. None of us ain't ever going to get back there. And yet, we never seem to stop trying.