“The Silent Highwayman” (1858). Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up.
The Great Stink was an event in central London in July and August 1858 during which the hot weather exacerbated the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent that was present on the banks of the River Thames. The problem had been mounting for some years, with an ageing and inadequate sewer system that emptied directly into the Thames. The miasma from the effluent was thought to transmit contagious diseases, and three outbreaks of cholera before the Great Stink were blamed on the ongoing problems with the river.
The smell, and fears of its possible effects, prompted action from the local and national administrators who had been considering possible solutions for the problem. The authorities accepted a proposal from the civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette to move the effluent eastwards along a series of interconnecting sewers that sloped towards outfalls beyond the metropolitan area. Work on high-, mid- and low-level systems for the new Northern and Southern Outfall Sewers started at the beginning of 1859 and lasted until 1875. To aid the drainage, pumping stations were placed to lift the sewage from lower levels into higher pipes. Two of the more ornate stations, Abbey Mills in Stratford and Crossness on the Erith Marshes, are listed for protection by English Heritage. Bazalgette’s plan introduced the three embankments to London in which the sewers ran—the Victoria, Chelsea and Albert Embankments.
The civic infrastructure overseeing the management of London’s sewers had gone through several changes in the 19th century. In 1848 the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers (MCS) was established at the urging of the social reformer Edwin Chadwick and a Royal Commission.[c]
The Commission superseded seven of the eight authorities that had managed London’s sewers since the time of Henry VIII;[d] it was the first time that a unitary power had full control over the capital’s sanitation facilities. The Building Act 1844 had ensured that all new buildings had to be connected to a sewer, not a cesspool, and the commission set about connecting cesspools to sewers, or removing them altogether.