6. Huge sums of money were spent on dumping tons of chlorine into the river but this short-term fix was no match for the Great Stink
Even though Parliament didn’t immediately release funds to improve London’s sewerage system, the city authorities did spend a lot of money trying to make the Big Stink go away. From the beginning of June 1858 through to the end of July, around 200 to 25- tons of lime chloride was dumped into the Thames in an effort to mask the awful smell. Far from having the desired effect, however, the lime chloride reacted badly with the effluent in the river and ended up producing noxious gases. For all the money the London authorities threw at the problem, the Great Stink was just being made worse.
The only people who did benefit at this time were the huge numbers of unskilled day laborers who had moved to London over the course of the mid-19th century. Several thousand were employed on day contracts to dump lime chloride into the river at high tide. Then, when the water was at its lowest, these day laborers would go out onto the filthy banks of the Thames to pile lime onto the piles of human waste. The short-term fix was costing the London City Council around Â£1,500 a week – a huge amount in those days, and all for nothing.
5. When even the Prime Minister argued that the Thames had become “intolerable”, Parliament finally acted
The Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli realized that his government wouldn’t survive for long if it didn’t fix the Great Stink. From the middle of June, he started exploring his options. On 15 June, Disraeli put his proposed Metropolis Local Management Amendment Bill before his peers. He argued that the Thames had become a “Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors”. While the river may not have been the responsibility of Parliament, the Prime Minister urged his colleagues to back him in upgrading the old water cleanliness laws.
Disraeli succeeded in getting the Act passed through Parliament. It gave the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) full responsibility for the state of the Thames. More importantly, it allowed the Board to borrow the huge amount of Â£3 million, plus it gave the board the ability to levy a small charge on London’s households. This way, the money could be paid back to the government over the next 40 years. Significantly, the sum was enough to put Bazalgette’s ambitious plans for a new sewerage system into action.
4. The response to the Great Stink was epic – 1,100 miles of new sewers and a network of huge pumping stations
Bazalgette’s new sewerage system was a marvel of Victorian engineering. In all, some 1,100 miles of additional sewers were constructed under the streets of London. These would collect both rainwater and waste and then channel both into a further 82 miles of main, interconnecting sewers. Bazaglette not only used the latest ideas, above all, he made full use of extra-strong Portland cement, but he also used common sense for his system. For instance, his tunnels were designed in such a way that simple gravity would do most of the work, taking waste out far out of the city.
Inevitably, the plans went over budget. Some 400 draftsmen were employed to work on the designs and then thousands of day laborers were brought in to build the tunnels and the pumping stations. The Prime Minister approved an additional Â£1.2 million in funding, bringing the total up past the Â£4 million mark, making this one of the most expensive engineering projects ever carried out, not just in England but anywhere in Europe.
3. The new sewerage system was expensive but brought immediate benefits, not least the end of deadly cholera outbreaks
Since Bazalgette had been working on his plans years before the Great Stink hit London, work on the new sewerage system could begin as soon as the government gave him the go-ahead. In April of 1865, the Southern Drainage System was complete. The main pumping station, still regarded as an engineering marvel, was officially opened by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Also in attendance were the Lord Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury, testament to the importance of the occasion.
London benefited almost immediately. The city was only hit by one more cholera outbreak, and this occurred in the east of the city, in an area where the new sewerage system had not yet been introduced. Hundreds of tons of human waste were being carried out of the city every day. The Great Stink was no more and people could get back to being proud of their river again. Parliament was so impressed with Bazalgette’s work that they intended to give him a bonus of Â£6,000, equivalent to three years’ salary. While this plan was vetoed, soon after the completion of the Northern Drainage System, Bazalgette was invited to the Palace to receive his Knighthood.
2. From the 1860s onward, London didn’t just smell better, it had more green spaces and riverside paths too
When Joseph Bazalgette died in March 1891, his obituary in The Illustrated London News praised the great man, noting that his “two great titles to fame are that he beautified London and drained it”. While his main sewers and drainage tunnels may be hidden underground, the embankments he along the side of the Thames are still there today. The Chelsea Embankment, the Albert Embankment and the Victoria Embankment were all built up to provide better drainage for his low-level sewers. They also had the additional benefits of providing Londoners with new green spaces and riverside walkways, making the city greener and more livable.
The Institution of Civil Engineers erected a monument to Bazalgette on the Victoria Embankment in 1901. Indeed, it is largely for his hugely-ambitious embankments that the engineers is celebrated today. As his obituary in The Times noted more than 100 years ago, when visitors “come to London a thousand years hence … the magnificent solidity and the faultless symmetry of the great granite blocks which form the wall of the Thames-embankment will still remain”.
1. The Great Stink led to long-lasting improvements to London life – thanks to the foresight of Bazalgette
According to some estimates, Bazalgette’s sewerage system extended the lifespan of the average Londoner by as much as 20 years. And it wasn’t just his contemporaries who benefited. One of the most notable things about the system built as a result of the Great Stink was that it was built to last. Indeed, while London had a population of around 2 million in the 1860s, Bazalgette had the foresight to build his sewer system for a population twice that number.
Today, with London’s population close to 9 million, much of Bazalgette’s system is being upgraded or simply replaced. Several of the main tunnels, as well as the main pumping stations, have become tourist attractions. And, while Bazalgette may not be the most famous of Victorian-era Britons, he continues to be credited with not only making London a cleaner, better-smelling city, but of saving countless numbers of lives.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: