1800-1900 - The Great Stink

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In 1858 the stench of sewage from the River Thames was so bad that MPs suspended Parliament. The period is referred to as 'The Great Stink'.

Sewage entering the river from over two million Londoners meant drastic measures were required to clean the Thames and improve the capital's sanitation system – leading to the construction of Bazalgette's sewer network.

The first indoor toilet - the water closet - was invented by Harington in the 1590s. This was not widely adopted because there was no supply of running water to flush it.

It was not until the 1700s that Bramah devised a viable flushing toilet.

During the 17th Century the cesspit was developed - a significant advance, although the vast majority were of basic construction and not emptied very often.

Up until 1800 the River Thames had been relatively clean, supporting a large fishing industry, which caught and sold species including lobsters and salmon.


Early sewer systems

By 1805 only 150,000 cesspits had been built to serve one million Londoners and within a decade many householders had begun to illegally connect their overflowing cesspits to surface water drains.

These drains flowed into the River Thames - London's main source of drinking water.

The state of the river became a well-publicised scandal that resulted in the Public Health Act of 1848.

This established the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers.

Metropolitan Commission of Sewers

The new Commission quickly ordered a major survey of London's sewers, which were found to be inadequate and in major need of repair.

Outbreaks of cholera had occurred in 1832 but in 1849 a further outbreak, during which the death toll was estimated at 2,000 people per week, prompted Doctor John Snow and William Farr to conduct a study of the Broad Street Public Well in Golden Square, Soho.

As a result, they realised contaminated water caused cholera and not 'foul vapours' in the air as had been widely believed.

In 1852 the Metropolis Water Act was passed by the Government in an attempt to curb disease.

Several measures were introduced including making the slow-sand filtration of water and the covering of service reservoirs mandatory.

To avoid sewage outfalls, the abstraction of water only took place above Teddington Lock on the River Thames.

Joseph Bazalgette and the Metropolitan Board of Works

In 1854, the cash-strapped Commission of Sewers was replaced by the Metropolitan Board of Works.

Their Chief Engineer, Joseph Bazalgette planned to construct a large intercepting network of sewers to collect flows from the existing river outfalls and convey the waste to East London.

Here it could be stored in lagoons for up to nine hours and released into the river on the ebb tide flow to the sea.

Bazalgette's scheme was initially rejected on the grounds of cost, but in June 1858 the stench from the River Thames became so bad that it became impossible to continue business in the Houses of Parliament and action was demanded.

As a result, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, rushed through an act allowing the Board of Works to raise money for the works by imposing charges on Londoners.

Bazalgette's plans had been so well honed that he was able to start works immediately and by 1874 the system was fully operational.

Following a further outbreak of cholera, the 1871 Metropolis Water Act instituted several additional provisions.

Water supplies were to be constant, regulations relating to domestic plumbing standards were established, and the first 'Water Examiner' was appointed to examine raw and filtered water on a regular basis. London had gained its first water regulator.

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