A fresh perspective on the Great Stink?

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Summer in London, June 2014. Temperatures are starting to climb, travelling on the London Underground is becoming a sweltering affair and sufferers from hay fever are certainly not enjoying things. Uncomfortable at times but living conditions are not a patch on those faced by Londoners during the heat of June 1858 – at the time, the hottest summer on record.


Cartoon from Punch, 21st June 1855. Wellcome Image no. M0012507.

The Great Stink” of that month is familiar to many people. The term conjures up images of a filthy River Thames filled with the waste of London and – infamously – disruption of the business of the Houses of Parliament, due to the stench wafting in from the river. Whilst concerns over the condition of the river had been raised in previous years, the heat of June 1858 resulted in the sewage in the Thames sending forth more sickening smells than ever before.

Often accounts of the Great Stink are contextualized as part of Victorian advancements in sanitation, particularly the great engineering projects of Joseph Bazalgette that would revolutionise how London disposed of its waste. Indeed, it’s said the smell of the Thames wafting into Parliament helped to focus the minds of the MPs into advocating the changes to legislation which would eventually lead to Bazalgette’s chain of sewers and filtration plants.

Map of London, with the Houses of Parliament on the extreme left, and Rotherhithe down river on the extreme right

The River Thames, with the Houses of Parliament to the extreme left of the map, on the north bank, and Rotherhithe down river to the right of Bermondsey.

But away from Westminster, what was the experience of the “Great Stink” like for other Londoners? Was it as bad downriver as it was towards the centre of the city? Here’s a description of Rotherhithe from the June 1858 Medical Officer of Health Report, sweltering in the summer heat:

“Rotherhithe, in common with all other Metropolitan riverside parishes, has suffered considerable inconvenience during the just elapsed month from the stenches arising from the filthy state of the Thames water. Perhaps in the annals of mankind such a thing was never before known, as that the whole stream of a large river for a distance of seven or eight miles should be in a state of putrid fermentation. The cause of the putrescency, and of the blackish-green colour of the water, is admitted by all to be the hot weather acting upon the ninety millions of gallons of sewage which discharge themselves daily into the Thames. Now, by sewage, must be understood, not merely house and land drainage, but also drainage from bone-boilers, soap-boilers, chemical works, breweries, and above all from gas factories, the last, the most filthy of all, and the most likely to cause corruption of the water. Should any person doubt this assertion, let him compare the foul black and stinking liquid of a sewer which passes by a gas work, with that of a sewer which receives only house and land drainage…”

The author of this account – Dr William Murdoch, Medical Officer of Health (MoH) for Rotherhithe – ends his description with a particularly striking image:

“It is quite impossible to calculate the consequences of such a moving mass of decomposition as the river at present offers to our senses…”

Where Murdoch differs from many of the other MoHs whose reports are included in London’s Pulse, our digitised collection of over 150 years of MOH Reports of London, is that his reports are monthly rather than yearly. As a result, the level of detail contained in his reports for this period is incredibly rich and evocative.

The quote above is also representative of Murdoch’s other reports, as the “bone-boilers, soap-boilers, chemical works, breweries … and gas factories” of Rotherhithe were often the focus of his attention. Reading Murdoch’s reports, what comes to mind is a cheek-by-jowl area of London: over-crowded not just with regards to living conditions, but also in its small industries, clustered under the arches of the railway line, branching out from the station we now know as London Bridge. And as this following description from May 1857 suggests, these trades created stinks of their own:


Here is a sense then, of how the smells of mid-Victorian London were never far from the thoughts of the residents of the city – perhaps not too surprisingly, given the prevailing belief of how disease was spread by invisible miasmas in the air. The Great Stink of 1858 is a familiar incident to many but the MOH reports allow a different perspective on it – though maybe a ‘fresh’ perspective might not be the right choice of words…

Author: Ross Macfarlane is a Public Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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