London’s Great Stink of 1858

Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen

Today McLeod Governance looks at something that looked, smelt and was foul.

It was the Great Stink of 1858 in London.

What was the Great Stink you ask?  And perhaps more importantly for the purposes of this site of ours what does it have to do with the management of risk?

Well lets answer the last question first.

The Great Stink was responsible for one of the great engineering feats of modern British time.

Not only did the solution to the Great Stink change the lives of Londoners forever it also showed the importance of foresight in project management.

It is also a story that some projects have unintended consequences.

That being the case – what was the Great Stink?

The Great Stink was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated human waste (yep – first time in McLeod Governance history that we have been able to include that phrase in a sentence .. quite proud of ourselves actually!) was very strong in central London, England.

From 1815 onwards. house waste was permitted to be carried to the Thames via the sewers, so 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 cost the average London citizen then could ill afford. As a result, most cesspits added to the airborne 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 designed originally 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.

During 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 theHouse of Commons (countermeasures included draping curtains soaked in chloride of lime) and the law courts (plans were made to evacuate to Oxford). Heavy rain finally ended the heat and humidity of summer and the immediate crisis ended. However, a House of Commons select committee was appointed to report on the Stink and recommend how to end the problem.

Consolidating several separate local bodies concerned with sewers, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was established; it surveyed London’s antiquated sewerage system and began ridding the capital of its cesspits.

The consolidated Commission was superseded by the Metropolitan Board of Works which, after rejecting many schemes for “merciful abatement of the epidemic that ravaged the Metropolis”, accepted a scheme to implement sewers proposed in 1859 by its chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette. The intention of this very expensive scheme was to resolve the epidemic of cholera by eliminating the stench which was believed to cause it.

Over the next six years the main elements of the London sewerage system were created and the “Great Stink” became a memory. As an unintended consequence the water supply ceased to be contaminated; this resolved the cholera epidemic.

Bazalgette was appointed chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, in 1856 (a post he retained until the MBW was abolished and replaced by the London County Council in 1889). In 1858, the year of the Great Stink, Parliament passed an enabling act, in spite of the colossal expense of the project, and Bazalgette’s proposals to revolutionise London’s sewerage system began to be implemented.

The expectation was that enclosed sewers would eliminate the stink (‘miasma’), and that this would then reduce the incidence of cholera.

At the time, the Thames was little more than an open sewer, devoid of any fish or other wildlife, and an obvious health hazard to Londoners.

Bazalgette’s solution was to construct 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of underground brick main sewers to intercept sewage outflows, and 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of street sewers, to intercept the raw sewage which up until then flowed freely through the streets and thoroughfares of London. The outflows were diverted downstream where they were dumped, untreated, into the Thames. Extensive sewage treatmentfacilities were built only decades later.

The system was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales in 1865, although the whole project was not actually completed for another ten years.

Bazalgette’s foresight may be seen in the diameter of the sewers.

When planning the network he took the densest population, gave every person the most generous allowance of sewage production and came up with a diameter of pipe needed. He then said ‘Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen.’ and doubled the diameter to be used. Every Londoner should be grateful for this foresight as the then unforeseen was the tower block.

If he had used his original, smaller pipe diameter the sewer would have overflowed in the 1960s. As it is they are still in use to this day.

The unintended consequence of the new sewer system was to eliminate cholera not only in places that no longer stank, but wherever water supplies ceased to be contaminated by sewage.

The basic premise of this expensive project was wrong (that cholera was driven by smell and not contaminated water), as so often happens, but the end result was much better than expected, which is a rare occurrence.

The River Thames now contains several smaller varieties of fish, including trout; it is also safe to swim in—for those willing to brave the frigid waters and able to find a stretch without undertow.

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