Saturday, March 14, 2009


The Great Stink or The Big Stink was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated sewage almost overwhelmed people in central London, England.

Until the late 16th century, London citizens were reliant for their water supplies on water from shallow wells, the River Thames, its tributaries, or one of around a dozen natural springs, including the spring at Tyburn which was connected by lead pipe to a large cistern or tank (then known as a conduit): the Great Conduit in Cheapside. So that water was not abstracted for unauthorised commercial or industrial purposes, the city authorities appointed keepers of the conduits who would ensure that users such as brewers, cooks and fishmongers would pay for the water they used.

Wealthy Londoners living near to a conduit pipe could obtain permission for a connection to their homes, but this did not prevent unauthorised tapping of conduits. Otherwise - particularly for households which could not take a gravity-feed - water from the conduits was provided to individual households by water carriers, or "cobs". In 1496 the “Water Carriers” formed their own guild called “The Brotherhood of St. Cristofer [sic] of the Waterbearers.”

In 1582 Dutchman Peter Morice leased the northernmost arch of London Bridge and, inside the arch, constructed a waterwheel that pumped water from the Thames to various places in London. Further waterwheels were added in 1584 and 1701, and remained in use until 1822.

However, in 1815 house waste was permitted to be carried to the Thames via the sewers, so for seven years human waste was dumped into the Thames and then potentially pumped back to the same households for drinking, cooking and bathing.

Prior to the Great Stink there were over 200,000 cesspits in London. Emptying one cesspit cost a shilling - a sum the average London citizen then could ill afford. As a result, most cesspits added to the air-borne stench.

Part of the problem was due to the introduction of flush toilets, replacing the chamber-pots that most Londoners had used. These dramatically increased the volume of water and waste that was now poured into existing cesspits. These often overflowed into street drains originally designed to cope with rainwater, but now also used to carry outfalls from factories, slaughterhouses and other activities, contaminating the city before emptying into the River Thames.

In 1858, the summer was unusually hot. The Thames and many of its urban tributaries were overflowing with sewage; the warm weather encouraged bacteria to thrive and the resulting smell was so overwhelming that it affected the work of the House of Commons (countermeasures included draping curtains soaked in chloride of lime, while members considered relocating upstream to Hampton Court) and the law courts (plans were made to evacuate to Oxford and St Albans). Heavy rain finally broke the hot and humid summer and the immediate crisis ended. However, a House of Commons select committee was appointed to report on the Stink and recommend how to put an end to the problem.

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