A stench so vile that Londoners keeled over! The summer of 1858 was a nightmare of stickiness and stinkiness (and in the heat, the Thames even turned into a stagnant cesspool)

  • In summer of 1858, the thermometer seldom fell below 30c after May
  • On June 16, the Royal Meteorological Society confirmed it was 35c in the shade 
  • 'Stiflingly hot', wrote Queen Victoria. 'Steamy and heavy', she asserted

ONE HOT SUMMER

by Rosemary Ashton (Yale £25)

The summer of 1858 was hotter than dragon's breath, the thermometer seldom falling below 30c after May.

On June 16, the Royal Meteorological Society confirmed it was 35c in the shade in central London. A reading of 39c was taken in Greenwich, 34c in Beckenham.

'Stiflingly hot', wrote Queen Victoria in her journal. 'Steamy and heavy', she asserted. 'Oppressive'.

The summer of 1858 was hotter than dragon's breath, the thermometer seldom falling below 30c after May

The summer of 1858 was hotter than dragon's breath, the thermometer seldom falling below 30c after May

It must have been particularly unbearable for ladies, as underneath the crinolines and hooped skirts were layers and layers of frilly petticoats. 'Girls sweltered in vests, stays, heavy woollen stockings and overalls with long sleeves,' remembered Charles Darwin's daughter, Etty.

It was an immense dispensation for barristers when the Lord Chancellor permitted them to remove their wigs.

There were no fridges, ice, electric fans, air conditioning; no roll-on deodorant or Old Spice body spray. 1858 was a nightmare of stickiness and stinkiness. In the heat, the Thames turned into a stagnant blackish-green cesspool, 'a result of the sewage of over two million inhabitants being discharged into the river'.

The Houses of Parliament and other buildings adjacent to the Thames were filled with choking smells and 'pestiferous exhalations'. Yet a person 'literally baked' if windows were kept shut.

Thomas Carlyle, an author who resided in Chelsea, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a poet with a flat in Blackfriars, fled town to avoid 'the river stink'. Carlyle, indeed, scurried all the way to his hometown, Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire.

The Queen said of the river that its present state was 'little creditable to a great country, and seriously prejudicial to the health and comfort of the inhabitants of the metropolis'.

There were outbreaks of typhus, diarrhoea, scarlet fever and cholera, particularly when the filthy water was drunk by people ignorant of water-borne bacilli. 'Stories went round of the stench striking men and women down where they stood.'

Needless to say, steamboat excursions were abandoned. One skipper was reported as saying 'no stench that ever he had encountered was comparable with that which assailed the passengers'. 

'Stiflingly hot', wrote Queen Victoria in her journal. 'Steamy and heavy', she asserted. 'Oppressive'

'Stiflingly hot', wrote Queen Victoria in her journal. 'Steamy and heavy', she asserted. 'Oppressive'

To try and solve 'the foulest nuisance that ever disgraced the annals of a nation', therefore, Disraeli, as Chancellor of the Exchequer — his Prime Minister, Lord Derby, was absent with the gout — steered the emergency Thames Purification Bill onto the Statute Books.

Disraeli had to overcome the reluctance of MPs (who worried about costs — why should provincial constituencies stump up for Londoners' problems?) and the scepticism of private water companies (who couldn't see what the fuss was about).

The estimated budget of £3 million (£342 million in today's money) was to be paid through the levy of a special tax spread over 40 years at three pence in the pound. In the short term, each day 200 tons of quick lime were thrown upon the waters — to little effect.

The genius who solved the practical problems was Joseph Bazalgette, sanitary engineer at the Metropolitan Board of Works.

He created one of 'the most extensive and wonderful works of modern times', a series of embankments and promenades and a network of sewers, which conveyed London's untreated waste to outfalls and sluices in the East, beyond the reach of the immediate tides at Barking. Perhaps it wasn't so very nice if you lived in Barking?

Bazalgette removed the muddy banks from the centre of the city, as 'the sewage lodging on the mud banks is the cause of great evil'. At a cost of £2.5 million (£285 million today), he covered the 52 acres of the Victoria and Chelsea Embankments on the north side of the Thames, and the Albert Embankment on the south, with granite and cobbles.

Another £4 million (£456 million today) was invested in the construction of 82 miles of brick sewers. 'It was tremendous hard work,' said Bazalgette, who was knighted for his services to plumbing. His system of catacombs is still in force today.

'Stiflingly hot', wrote Queen Victoria in her journal. 'Steamy and heavy', she asserted. 'Oppressive'. 

Frankly, I'd have welcomed more detail about Bazalgette and his engineering project. Rosemary Ashton, however, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, loses interest in lavatories and drains.

She pads her book out with extraneous information about Darwin, who in 1858, 'was galvanised into writing up his findings quickly', publishing his theory that, as 'species were mutable productions', mankind must 'come under the same law'. Did he fear he wasn't fit enough to survive the great stink, so got a wriggle on?

Meanwhile, also in 1858, the divorce laws were beginning to be reformed.

Hitherto, divorces had needed an Act of Parliament to succeed — the average number of successful divorces between 1800 and 1850 was two per annum.

With divorce taken away from antiquated ecclesiastical courts, and now overseen by the civil courts, in 1858 a total of 244 divorce petitions were heard — quite a leap. Possibly the heat made husbands and wives extra irritable with each other.

Ashton also gives much space to Charles Dickens, who in 1858 separated from his wife, fell in love with the actress Ellen Ternan, and started to give his famous public readings.

Dickens had spotted a gap in the market. The regular theatres were shutting down because of the heat, so the public was glad he was on hand as a great entertainer, filling airier spaces such as St Martin's Hall in Long Acre.

Come the winter, by which time the weather had presumably broken, Christmas pantomimes, which lampooned topical events, had scenes where dank brown sewers and infernal rivers were transformed into crystal caverns and green forests. They also became magical fountains spouting jets of clear sparkling water 'before the eyes of astonished audiences'.

Over the next decade, says Ashton, the Thames was progressively cleansed and traffic congestion generally eased with the opening of the first Underground lines.

Bazalgette died in 1891, his obituaries praising the way he'd done so much to improve 'the convenience and stateliness of this immense city'.


 

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