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London's 'Great Stink' and Victorian Urban Planning

By Professor Martin Daunton
The 'Great Stink'

Detail from 'Punch' cartoon, depicting 'King Cholera'
'Punch' cartoon: King Cholera 
The appearance of cholera from Asia in 1831 provided another powerful incentive. The wealthy were not immune to it - indeed, it's possible they were the group who were most vulnerable to the illness.

Water closets were adopted by the more affluent households of London in the early 19th century, in place of privies and cess pits. As a result, sewers originally intended to take rain water into the Thames now carried raw sewage - which was then extracted by the water companies to be drunk by their customers. The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers had responsibility for the situation, but didn't have the power to impose sufficient taxes to solve the problem.

'Such was the overpowering smell ... that the curtains of the Commons were soaked in chloride of lime ...'

The crisis came to a peak in the 'Great Stink' of London in 1858. Such was the overpowering smell from the Thames, that the curtains of the Commons were soaked in chloride of lime in a vain attempt to protect the sensitivities of MPs. It is no surprise that a bill was rushed through Parliament and became law in 18 days, to provide more money to construct a massive new sewer scheme for London, and to build the Embankment along the Thames in order to improve the flow of water and of traffic.

Published: 2004-11-04



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