Stuart Bagley, Steve Bruce, Megan Morris and Alex Schofield

Throughout history, smell has been an integral part of daily life. By studying the history of smell, we can explore the cultures of the past, and understand how it related to their employment, their eating habits and housing. Mark S R Jenner has stated that studying smell history can allow for a “more immersive experience”, in terms of experiencing and relating to the lives of people in the past. [1]

A timeline 1800 – 1864

Smell has often been neglected in preference for the study of the other senses, as visual or auditory sources are far easier to find and display and can depict a well-rounded insight into the past with little need for interpretation. [2]

Figure One – Faraday Giving his Card to Father Thames (1855)  [3]
By focusing upon the smells of the slums, and how people reacted to them, and then resolved the issues that smells gave rise to, we can gain a deeper understanding of scientific developments, sanitation and social issues in nineteenth century Britain.

From Medieval times, smells and odours had been associated with notions of death and disease. The idea that disease was spread by bad smells was known as miasma theory, and was an accepted convention within Britain until the 1860s. With most nineteenth century slums having little or no access to proper sanitation or running water, smell, especially bad smells, were an ever present part of everyday life for citizens, rich or poor.

In 1858, it was smell that forced Government to embark on works to prevent sewerage entering the River Thames, and by doing so, accidentally  helped purify its citizens water supply and prevented greater outbreaks of disease.

Figure Two – Edwin Chadwick

With outbreaks of cholera in the slums of London, and the Great Stink of 1858, smells within the slums, and the city of London as a whole, became a serious concern for middle class Victorians. It was those concerns that prompted reformers such as Henry Mayhew and Edwin Chadwick to write extensively on these issues, in relation to sanitation, poverty and conditions.

 Therefore, the history of London’s slums can be explored through the medium of smell. This section of the blog aims to use primary sources relating to events of the nineteenth century. It will examine how the people who lived within and interacted with the slum, experienced smell, with particular focus on sanitation and reform.


[1] Martin, J., ‘In the Realm of Senses: An Introduction’, American History Review, 116:2 (2011), p.313.

[2] Classen, C., Howes, D., & Synnott, A. Aroma: A Cultural History of Smell, (London: Routledge, 1994)

[3] Figure One – Punch Magazine, Faraday Giving His Card To Father Thames, 1885 <; [accessed 4 November 2016]

[4] Figure Two – Edwin Chadwick; [accessed 4 November 2016]