The Great Stink of 1858 – Steve Bruce

A Capital of Empire, with a pestilent sewer for its heart

Through the heart of the town a deadly sewer ebbed and flowed, in the place of a fine fresh river.” [1]

As Charles Dickens so aptly stated in his novel Little Dorrit, the state and stench of the River Thames had reached a peak of polluted filth by 1855 that disgusted both its inhabitants and visitors to the city alike. The public, newspapers and politicians alike, all were in agreement, the river Thames stank and was a source of miasmatic disease.

The City Press bluntly stated that:

“Gentility of speech is at an end—it stinks, and who so once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it”.[2]

But what had caused this drastic deterioration of a once proud and healthy waterway?

The Cause?

“What was the cause of it? The drains of London were pouring down their filth into the river at low water. There was no outflow from them at high water. The tide kept the sewage up the drains then; but when the tide had been running out for hours and the water in the river began to run low, then the drains began to pour out their sewage and of course when the tide came in again it was all swept up by the stream. When the tide ebbed it all came down and so it kept oscillating up and down the river, while more filth was continuously adding to it until the Thames became absolutely pestilential.” [3]

What led to the Great Stink of 1858 was, ironically, every step taken by the citizens of London in their efforts to distance themselves from their own waste products, and the almost absolute neglect of Government and its commissions that were responsible for their care.

Blame lay squarely on the 1846 Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act which had forced the filling in and closure of old cesspits and the joining of house waste systems to the sewers, without the creation of any intervening treatment system, between the sewers and the river.

A George Jennings Patented Lavatory (engraving)
A George Jennings Patented Lavatory.[4]

Flushed with success…

Whilst the wealthy had been installing flushing lavatories since 1810, the sanitary engineer George Jennings installed his flushing toilets at the Great Exhibition of 1851 for the “relief” of the expected crowds. The provision of public toilets for the first time at the exhibition delighted the public and many more people  installed them in their homes.

But these marvellous new devices increased the amount of water and waste going into the river Thames. Some 160 gallons of waste contaminated water were added to the sewers each year by each new lavatory and between 1850 and 1856, water consumption in London doubled.

By the year 1855, the bodily waste of three million Londoners was being emptied into the Thames untreated and undiluted and along with it came the decaying corpses of animals, the blood and offal from hundreds of slaughterhouses, chemical and industrial wastes from factories and businesses, fermenting slimes from hundreds of breweries and the everyday slurries, general rubbish and filth that three million human beings and their livestock could continuously produce.

“The effects on the river were appalling, for it became the main-and-open-sewer of London.” [5]

Faraday – prophet of doom

In 1855, three years before “The Great Stink” the famous inventor and scientist Michael Faraday wrote a letter “Observations on the Filth of the Thames” to the Royal Institution, which was subsequently published in The Times, as a warning that the River Thames was dying, if not already dead.

His closing words were prophetic:

“ If there be sufficient authority to remove a putrescent pond from the neighbourhood of a few simple dwellings, surely the river which flows for so many miles through London ought not to be allowed to become a fermenting sewer. The condition in which I saw the Thames may perhaps be considered as exceptional, but it ought to be an impossible state; instead of which, I fear it is rapidly becoming the general condition. If we neglect this subject, we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we to be surprised if, ere many years are over, a season give us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness.” [6]

Faraday giving his card to Father Thames; And we hope the Dirty Fellow will consult the learned Professor. Punch (21 July, 1855) [7]

The “Black Cloud” in the Thames

When the Great Stink first began in 1858, the scientist Goldsworthy Gurney, following, literally, in Faradays wake up and down the river, reported that:

 “I found that the principal stench came from the discoloured black water, which is discovered by the sulphuretted hydrogen and organic matter……….. I found that the sulphurous smell was given out in large quantities where the water was inky black …………………….. wherever the black colour penetrated there was no mistake as to its coming direct from the solid sewage.”[8]

The state of the waters Gurney described illustrated the profound change the river had undergone in only three years since Faraday’s 1855 observations. Gurney concluded that a vast “black cloud” of human waste was simply moving up and down the river, perpetually, with the tides, and that the river was not washing it out to sea as expected.

The Great Stink begins

June 1858 saw a lengthy spell of dry weather, a drought in the countryside surrounding the capital and a fall in the level of the river Thames.[9] It was recorded that it was 15 °F above the day’s average for the last 43 years – greater than any June since 1818.[10]

“The Black Cloud” of rotting human waste that Gurney had reported, gradually settled on the freshly exposed banks and mud flats in thick deposits, and there it steamed, fermented and decomposed.

“……in parts the deposit is more than six feet deep ……… the whole of this is thickly impregnated with impure matter”.[11]

Amongst the first to be affected by the growing miasma from it were the River Boatmen who complained that their livelihood was threatened by the awful stench of the river, day-trippers turned back at the smell and women “had to hold their handkerchiefs over their faces” when crossing Westminster Bridge.[12]

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set out on a pleasure cruise on the Thames, but were forced to return to shore within a few minutes as the vile stench of the river was so terrible.[13]

One London newspaper commented that:

“The whole of London part of the river, has become little better than a foul ditch, every dip of the oar or revolution of the paddle stirring up the loathsome gases and filling the air with sickening exhalations. One of our most healthful and most national recreations, boating, and a source of vigorous enjoyment to thousands of the youth of London, must, if the Thames remains in its present polluted state, be entirely given up as a pastime…..”[14]

Letters flooded into The Times:

To the Editor of the times.

Sir, – The stinks of our once noble and respected Father Thames are now too nauseous for endurance. I rowed on Saturday from Westminster to the Crabtree in Putney Reach, and there was no intermittence – no cessation – one fatal, horrid, open, deadly cesspool. What is to be done?

Yours, &c.,

June 13,   OARSMAN.[15]

A lawyer at the Temple described his discomfort:

“….I am one of those unfortunate lawyers who “hug the festering shore,” and festering it is, indeed, with a vengeance. The stench of the Temple to-day is sickening and nauseous in the extreme; we are enveloped in the foul miasma which spreads on either side of this repository of the filth of nigh three millions of human beings, and day and night every breath of air which we draw for the sustenance of life is tainted with poisonous exhalations. If I open my windows in rushes the stench, and I imbibe large draughts of poisonous matter ……….”[16]

The Era noted that:

“The foul and filthy state of the river is no secret, but a pervading evil that everyone who approaches its banks or bridges becomes disgustingly conscious of, while those whom business or recreation tempt onto its surface are affected by its fetid exhalations to nausea, vomiting, and all the symptoms of a miasmatic fever.”[17]

Satirical poems soon began to appear describing the state of the river, in Punch appeared “Piff-Piff! An Ode to the Thames”, then “Slow but Sewer” and “A Sonnet upon a Scent” which were widely redistributed to other news sheets.

PIFF-PIFF! AN ODE TO THE THAMES. The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Thursday, June 24, 1858; Issue 28551. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

By June 25th 1858, many people were reportedly falling ill, and Doctors accused the dreadful river stench of complicity in these illnesses, terming it “Thames Fever”. Dr. John Challice wrote to The Times:

“I have daily persons consulting me who have been seized with nausea, sickness, diarrhoea, and by them attributed to the effects of the effluvia from the river. Some have complained that the peculiar taste remained on their palate for days………. The Thames…………is now daily becoming more and more intensified and poisonous.”[18]

By June 26, 1858, the Courts of Justice were facing closure due to the appalling stench from the river.

courts-of-justice  [19]

Panicking Politicians!

The public were in no doubt who was to blame for the sickening stench that pervaded their streets, homes and businesses, that destroyed the enjoyment of cooking and eating and oppressed them relentlessly day after day, week after week. Nowhere was free of it, the stench was ever present. The Era newspaper expressed the general anger towards Westminster politicians who had done nothing since Michael Faraday’s prophetic warning three years earlier:

“…..the abominable state of the Thames has arisen from the fallacy of believing that there is still a river in the metropolis; whereas had the authorities acted honestly, repudiated this absurdity, and called the Thames ditch, between the first and last of the metropolitan bridges, by its proper name of the great sewer of London, the evil would have stared everybody in the face; not a nostril of the two million and a half noses in the capital but would have smelt out the abomination, and, with compressed olfactories, indignantly cried aloud for instant purification.”[20]

But now, relief for Londoners was to come from the infliction of misery on those very politicians who had neglected the growing problem of the previous decade. A “hard-worked and nearly stifled M.P.” sent a letter to The Times describing their own distress:

“At length a member went over to the window near him, and flung up a portion of it; but no sooner had he done so than he retreated as if he had received a blow in the face, and in the same moment we all expressed our disgust and loathing by ejaculations of a lively and energetic character, not necessary to particularize. The fact was, we felt ourselves half choked and half poisoned. We wished for pure air to cool the apartment ………. I do not in the slightest degree exaggerate when I say we might have stood over a filthy cesspool or a putrid drain as have inhaled the air which the noxious gases of the Thames had utterly polluted……. its presence was made manifest by the foulest and filthiest of stenches!”[21]

An editorial in The Times on June 18th, 1858, read:

“What a pity it is that the thermometer fell ten degrees yesterday. Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench. The intense heat had driven our legislators from those portions of their buildings which overlook the river. A few members, bent upon investigating the matter to its very depth, ventured into the library, but they were instantaneously driven to retreat, each man with a handkerchief to his nose.” [22]

Feeling that such a horror inflicted on the ruling classes must inevitably now lead to some remedial action on their part, the newspaper commented wryly that:

“We are heartily glad of it. It is right that our legislators should be made to feel in health and comfort the consequences of their disregard of the public welfare. It is their fault that the River Thames has not long since been purified… As long as the nuisance did not directly affect themselves noble lords and hon. Gentlemen could afford to disregard the safety and comfort of London; but now they are fairly driven from their libraries and committee-rooms – or better still, forced to remain in them, with a putrid atmosphere around them – they may, perhaps, spare a thought for the Londoners.”[23]

A story in The Morning Post, of Friday July 2, 1858 illustrated its continued effect on the politicians, when members were suddenly surprised by:

“… a committee rushing out of one of the rooms in the greatest haste and confusion … a sudden rush from the room took place, foremost amongst them being the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who with a mass of papers in one hand, and with his pocket handkerchief clutched in the other, and applied closely to his nose, with body half bent, hastened in dismay from the pestilential odour, followed by Sir James Graham, who seemed to be attacked by a sudden fit of expectoration; Mr, Gladstone also paid particular attention to his nose, whilst … other members of the committee also precipitously quitted the pestilential apartment…”[24]


The Silent Highway Man, from 'Punch', 1858 (litho) (b/w photo)
The “Silent Highway” Man. Your Money or your Life! Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up, during the Great Stink. Published in Punch 10 July, 1858, the cartoon pointed the finger of blame directly at politicians who had refused to fund sewerage and water purification treatments for the city and river.[25]
 For many Londoners, the River Thames was now viewed as a river of death, from which, according to the miasmatic principles of disease believed at the time, all manner of disease would soon be spread by the noxious vapours emanating from it.

Whilst the new House of Commons shrouded its windows ineffectually in curtains soaked with chloride of lime, and vast quantities of lime were dumped at sewer mouths and along the river banks to little or no effect The Morning Post recorded that:

“…there is an average breadth of 100 feet of the most putrid soil skirting this edge of our great city for some hours during each day … in parts this deposit is 6 feet deep: the whole thickly impregnated with impure matter, and at the opening of such sewers as have not been passed into the river beyond low-water mark, the condition is too bad for description.”[26]

Relocating government to Henley, Oxford or St. Albans was considered and the effect of the stench on the business of the House of Commons was to provide the final impetus in forcing politicians to address the decade long problem of sewage disposal in the city.

On July 17, 1858 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli put forward a plan of action to the House of Commons:

Last night Mr. DISRAELI described the Thames as “a stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and “intolerable horrors”… Mr. DISRAELI comes down to the House of Commons, and modestly asks Parliament to sanction an expenditure which will amount to three millions, which sum, happily, is to be administered in infinitesimal doses of three-pence in the pound to all ratepayers of the metropolis for the next forty years.”[27]

The result was the passing of a bill that charged the Metropolitan Board of Works with creating a new sewer system that would deposit waste outside the metropolitan area, in safety.

Eighteen days after Disraeli’s introduction of the bill, on August 2nd, 1858, it was passed into law and the Metropolitan Board of Works was given leave to borrow £3,000,000 with which to fund the construction of intercepting sewers that would prevent untreated human waste pouring straight into the Thames.

The End of the Great Stink

The Great Stink finally petered out at the end of July, 1858, when the temperature fell and a fall of rain finally washed away the last of the stench.[28]

In 1859 Joseph Bazalgette began work on a scheme to build an extensive new sewage system in London. In the process London would be transformed and the Thames would begin a long and slow return to health.

It was to be a beneficial side effect, that in tackling the causes of the Great Stink of 1858, the measures taken to properly manage sewage disposal would also help to purify London’s drinking water and almost eradicate new epidemics of Cholera, Dysentery and Typhus.

Section of Thames Embankment, Subway and Low Level Sewer, 1865 (engraving)
Section of Joseph Bazalgette’s new Thames Embankment, Subway and Low Level Sewer, 1865 (engraving), English School, (19th century) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images, and – Main Drainage of London, 1865 (engraving), English School, (19th century) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images


Steve Bruce


[1] Dickens, Charles. Ed., Lang, Andrew. The Works of Charles Dickens in Thirty-four Volumes. Little Dorrit. Vol. I. (London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1899), p.35.

[2] Simons, Paul (17 June 2008). “The big stench that saved London”. The Times, p. 26.

[3] Halliday, Stephen. The Great Stink of London. p.71.

[4] A George Jennings Patented Lavatory (engraving), English School, (19th century) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images.

[5] De Mare, E. London’s Riverside; past, present and future. (London, Max Reinhardt, 1958), p.198.

[6] Jones, Henry, Bence. The Life and Letters of Faraday, Volume 2. Vol. II. Second Edition. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1870). p.358

[7] Faraday Giving his Card to Father Thames, from ‘Punch’, 21 July 1855 (engraving), English School, (19th century) / The Royal Institution, London, UK / Bridgeman Images.

[8] The “Black Cloud” in Thames. The Morning Chronicle. (London, England), Monday, June 28, 1858; Issue 28553. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

[9] Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London. (London: Atlantic Books, 2012), p. 224.

[10] Sanitary Condition Of The City. The Times (London, England), Thursday, Jul 08, 1858; pg. 7; Issue 23040. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

[11] Lewis, Jon E. London: the Autobiography. (London: Constable & Robinson, 2008) p.243-244.

[12] Jones, Christopher. The Great Palace: The Story of Parliament. (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1983) p.121.

[13] Ackroyd, Peter. London Under. (London: Chatto & Windus, 2011) p.72.

[14] PESTILENTIAL STATE OF THE THAMES. The Era. (London, England), Sunday, June 20, 1858; Issue 1030. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

[15] OARSMAN. “The State Of The Thames.” The Times [London, England] 15 June 1858: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

[16] The State Of The Thames. T. S. The Times (London, England), Friday, Jun 18, 1858; pg. 12; Issue 23023. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

[17] PESTILENTIAL STATE OF THE THAMES. The Era. (London, England), Sunday, June 20, 1858; Issue 1030. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

[18] JOHN CHALLICE, M.D. “The Thames.” The Times [London, England] 25 June 1858: 9. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

[19] THE STATE OF THE THAMES. The Examiner (London, England), Saturday, June 26, 1858; Issue 2630. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

[20] PESTILENTIAL STATE OF THE THAMES. The Era. (London, England), Sunday, June 20, 1858; Issue 1030. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

[21] The Thames and The House. A HARD-WORKED AND NEARLY-STIFLED M.P. The Times (London, England), Friday, Jul 02, 1858; pg. 5; Issue 23035. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

[22] What a pity it is that the thermometer fell ten. The Times (London, England), Friday, Jun 18, 1858; pg. 9; Issue 23023. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

[23] What a pity it is that the thermometer fell ten. The Times (London, England), Friday, Jun 18, 1858; pg. 9; Issue 23023. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

[24] PANIC IN A COMMITTEE ROOM IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS FROM THE STATE OF THE THAMES. The Morning Post (London Edition), Friday, July 02, 1858; pg. 6; Issue 26367. British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.

[25] The Silent Highway Man, from ‘Punch’, 1858 (litho) (b/w photo), English School, (19th century) / National Maritime Museum, London, UK / Bridgeman Images.

[26] THE PUTRID SHORE AND WATER OF THE THAMES. The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, July 05, 1858; pg. 3; Issue 26369. British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.

[27] Last night Mr. DISRAELI described the Thames as “a stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and “intolerable horrors”. The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, July 16, 1858; pg. 4: Issue 26379. British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.

[28] The Weather. The Times (London, England), Monday, Jul 19, 1858; pg. 12; Issue 23049. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.