[This excerpt from Michelle Allen's Cleansing the City (2008) accompanies my review of her valuable study of resistance to sanitary reform and slum clearance. Readers might be interested to lean that toshers play important roles in to recent Neovictoran novels, Charles Palliser's Quinqunx (1997) and Dan Simmons's Drood (2009) — George P. Landow]

A surveyor for the [sewer] commission was able to report satisfactorily that over 290 miles of sewers had been flushed by February of 1849: "From these," he goes on to explain, "about 79,483 cube [sic] yards of deposit have been removed. . . . [This, with few exceptions, has been sent into the River Thames." The sudden and intensive discharge of the city's domestic refuse into the river resulted in the rapid physical deterioration of the Thames. Although it was by no means pristine in the first decades of the century, the condition of the Thames at midcentury was demonstrably worse. The river quickly became notorious for its filth, as reflected in the numerous epithets attached to it: it was "a great tidal sewer," a "cloaca maxima," a "hot-bed of infection and the nursery of epidemics." The nuisance reached a crisis point in the unusually hot summer of 1858, when the stench from the river and its oozy banks was so offensive that the episode became thereafter known as the "Great Stink." . . .

In an article for Household Words from July 1858, Henry Morley . . . notes the glaring deficiency of sewerage: "We get rid of [filth] from about houses, concentrate it in a mass, and then — not knowing what else to do with it — pour it into our water-courses. We have discovered one half of a wholesome principle of drainage; of the other half we are in search." ["Way to Clean Rivers," 80] . . . . The physical deterioration of the Thames surely provided the stimulus for much of the resistance to sewerage. This protest often took the form of an [37]

Public perceptions of the Thames in the mid-nineteenth-centuryl were significantly shaped — if not permanently altered — by events on the river in 1858. In June of that year, high temperatures coupled with a period of drought transformed the filthy river and its foul banks into a stinking pit. The "Great Stink" was the name given to the most notorious pollution crisis in the nineteenth century. Those working in and visiting the neighborhood of the Thames at this time, including dockworkers, steamboat passengers, Templars, members of Parliament, and the queen herself, complained of the sickening effects of the river's stench and feared it as a source of disease. [55]

In the several decades leading up to the Great Stink, the Thames became the depository for an ever-greater volume of waste associated not only with sewerage but also with the accelerated development of commerce, transport, and industry in Victorian London. Industrial pollution, although more severe in the northern manufacturing towns, took its toll on the Thames: paper mills, tanneries, dye-works, and breweries all used the river as both water source and waste basin. Also active on the river and contributing to its degradation were the coal trade, gas works, and passenger steamship companies, which began operating in 1825. On the low-tech side, the reeking by-products of slaughterhouses and cattle yards continued to drain into the Thames, as they had for centuries. And, of course, London's surging population made its messy mark. As Wohl's research indicates, approximately 250 tons of sewage were discharged daily into the river in the 1850s [234]. Because the Thames is a tidal river, most of this mass of refuse remained in London instead of flowing out to sea as had been hoped. The tides also contributed to one of the great scourges of the metropolis — the mudflats. Running along the river's margins, these vast muddy banks measured as much as 700 feet in width at Waterloo Bridge and averaged a depth of six feet. They also harbored deposits of reeking sewage. [58-59]

Metropolitan Main Drainage: Present State of the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, West Ham. Illustrated London News (April 1867)

Related Material


Allen, Michelle. Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographers in Victorian London. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Wohl, Anthony. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Patrick Matthew — a Brief Biography

Last modified 14 May 2019