10 Amazing Facts About Cholera and The Great Stink of London

Sometimes, kicking up a great stink about an important issue is the only way to get something done about it.

In 1858, it was “Old Father Thames”, London’s very own River God, who was raising a stink. His river was literally choking on raw sewage. A toxic cocktail of human excreta, slaughterhouse waste, and industrial chemicals poured freely into the River Thames, turning it into an open sewer.

Old Father Thames from the book London: A Pilgrimage. With illustrations by Gustave Dore, 1872
Old Father Thames from the book London: A Pilgrimage. With illustrations by Gustave Dore, 1872
A Drop of Thames Water, by Punch, 1850
“A Drop of Thames Water” by Punch, 1850

For decades, Londoners had been dying of waterborne disease because the sewage contaminated the water supply.

By the summer of 1858, the smell from the river was so bad, they called it “The Great Stink”.

Just one drop of Thames river water, laden with all manner of pathogens, was all it took to suffer an agonizing death, sometimes in a matter of hours.

Here are 10 amazing facts about Cholera and the Great Stink of London.

1. By the summer of 1858, The Great Stink had become intolerable

Queen Victoria with a clothes peg on her nose
Queen Victoria with a clothes peg on her nose

London was experiencing a heatwave. Temperatures in the sun were 118°F. It was as hot as the Arizona desert. As the water level dropped, layer upon layer of fecal matter—six feet deep in places—had washed up on the muddy shores and was fermenting in the heat.

The situation was so dire that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had to cancel a pleasure cruise on the Thames because of the smell.

And the stink bothered the politicians in the newly rebuilt Parliament buildings. They couldn’t bare to breathe without a handkerchief over their noses. They even had the curtains soaked in chloride of lime (industrial-strength bleach) to try to alleviate the smell.

The press labeled it The Great Stink and led with articles complaining about the abominable stench.

Gentility of speech is at an end—it stinks, and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it. —City Press
A pestiferous and typhus breeding abomination … the amount of poisonous gasses which is thrown off is proportionate to the increase of the sewage which is passed into the stream —The Standard
We can colonise the remotest ends of the earth; we can conquer India; we can pay the interest of the most enormous debt ever contracted; we can spread our name, and our fame, and our fructifying wealth to every part of the world; but we cannot clean the River Thames —Illustrated London News

Funny how something gets done when the problem is on our own doorstep. With the Houses of Parliament virtually on top of the Thames cesspool, it’s no wonder that new laws were enacted in just 18 days to provide the funding for a massive new sewer scheme.

2. 40,000 people died of Cholera in London alone

Father Thames Introducing His Offspring to the Fair City of London by John Leech, 1858
Father Thames Introducing His Offspring to the Fair City of London by John Leech, 1858

During the first half of the 19th century, the death rate in Britain’s cities was higher than at any time since the Black Death.

Between 1831 and 1866, approximately 40,000 people died from cholera in London alone.

London’s first major cholera outbreak struck in 1831 when the disease claimed 6,536 lives. A second epidemic killed 14,136 between 1848–49. The third outbreak from 1853–54 took 10,738 lives. The final epidemic killed 5,596 in 1866 and was restricted to the East End of London—an area not yet connected to the new sewer system.

During the 1830s, infant mortality rate was around 50%, with parents expecting to lose half their children before they were 5 years old.

3. Victorians had no known cure for Cholera and didn’t understand how it spread

A cholera patient experimenting with remedies. Credit Wellcome Images
A cholera patient experimenting with remedies. Credit Wellcome Images

Of all the theories of how cholera was transmitted—including bad weather, foul smells, electromagnetism and divine vengeance—it was the misguided idea that disease spreads through the air via bad smells that held the most sway.

Called the “miasma theory”, it had been accepted since ancient times in Europe, India, and China, and was firmly believed by 19th-century luminaries such as Florence Nightingale.

Even after it was proven in 1891 that cholera was a product of contaminated water, Florence Nightingale remained a firm believer in miasma theory until her death.

Doctors were basically clueless about cholera but tried various remedies known to have worked for other diseases.  Ranging from the merciful prescribing of opiates to extremes such as bleeding or burning the skin, such remedies were largely worthless.

Claims for cholera remedies existed in folklore. In the 1854–1855 outbreak in Naples homeopathic Camphor was used. Tomato syrup was a popular home remedy in North America, as mentioned in T. J. Ritter’s “Mother’s Remedies” book, and Elecampane—from the sunflower family of plants—was recommended in the United Kingdom.

4. The flushing toilet was a major contributor to the Great Stink

In 1846, Parliament passed The Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act, also known as The Cholera Bill. Its purpose was to encourage property owners to clean their dwellings and connect them to sewers.

Increasingly popular among the middle classes was the flush toilet, which helped keep homes clean and fresh.

All sounds good, doesn’t it? But the Cholera Bill was fatally flawed. It relied on the “miasma theory” which held that diseases such as cholera were caused by noxious fumes emanating from rotting organic matter. So the belief was that getting rid of the smell was helping to rid the city of Cholera, except that it wasn’t—it was making matters worse.

Victorian Flush Toilets
Victorian Flush Toilets

As we now know, cholera is waterborne, so flushing toilets among London’s middle classes only added to the volumes of sewage reaching the River Thames.

And because of the fear that the miasma from the sewers would cause the spread of disease, they were regularly flushed through, a policy that resulted in even more sewage being discharged into the Thames.

Rather than creating a sweeter smelling city, it caused the Great Stink.

5. Despite warnings by experts, nothing was done until the Great Stink

Michael Faraday delivering a lecture at the Royal Institution
Michael Faraday delivering a lecture at the Royal Institution

Two eminent figures from the scientific community had gone to great lengths to explain the dangers of such high levels of pollution in the River Thames but were largely ignored.

Michael Faraday, best known for his groundbreaking work on electromagnetism, was one of the most influential scientists in history. Shocked at the state of the River Thames, he wrote a letter to The Times newspaper in July 1855 describing a simple experiment that everyone could understand. He dropped pieces of white paper into the river to “test the degree of opacity”.

Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface … the whole river was for the time a real sewer —Michael Faraday

But it was Sir John Snow, a London-based physician who is credited with correctly identifying the waterborne nature of cholera transmission.

Nine years before the Great Stink, he published a paper, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, but little attention was paid to it.

Following the third cholera outbreak in 1854, Snow published an update with observations based on studies of a water pump in Soho. He documented the effects of removing the pump’s handle as resulting in a fall in the death rate because people were denied access to contaminated water.

Sadly, John Snow would not live to see a cleaner Thames River and his waterborne theory wasn’t fully accepted until 1866—8 years after his death.

6. Joseph Bazalgette “probably saved more lives, than any single Victorian official”

Joseph Bazalgette, civil engineer
Joseph Bazalgette, civil engineer

A knight in shining armor, or more specifically, a white lab coat, civil engineer Sir Joseph William Bazalgette came charging at full speed to put his experience in the massive railway industry to use on a new sewer network for London.

Bazalgette was knighted for his efforts in 1875—and not without good reason.

Praise for Sir Joseph Bazalgette:

Bazalgette probably did more good, and saved more lives, than any single Victorian official —John Doxat, historian and author 
Bazalgette’s two great titles to fame are that he beautified London and drained it —The Illustrated London News
Bazalgette’s work will ever remain as monuments to his skill and professional ability —Sir John Coode, president of the Institute of Civil Engineers
When the New Zealander comes to London a thousand years hence … the magnificent solidity and the faultless symmetry of the great granite blocks which form the wall of the Thames-embankment will still remain …  and the great sewer that runs beneath Londoners … has added some 20 years to their chance of life—The Times of London
With John Nash and Christopher Wren, Bazalgette enters the pantheon of London heroes —Peter Ackroyd CBE, historian

7. Bazalgette constructs 82 miles (132km) of main sewers, 1100 miles of street sewers, four pumping stations, two treatment works, and three embankments

Bazalgette as the 'Sewer Snake', Punch, 1883
Bazalgette as the ‘Sewer Snake’, Punch, 1883

It’s difficult to do justice to the sheer scale of Bazalgette’s undertaking.

Over the next 16 years, Bazalgette constructs 82 miles (132km) of main intercepting sewers, 1100 miles of street sewers, four pumping stations, two treatment works, and three embankments—the Victoria, Chelsea, and Albert Embankments.

Four hundred draftsmen worked on the detailed plans and sectional views for the first phase of the building process.

When planning the sewer network, Bazalgette showed almost soothsayer-like foresight. He calculated the diameter required for the pipes, then doubled it to account for the “unforeseen”. If he’d stuck with his original calculations, the London sewer would have overflowed in the 1960s, but it still does the job today.

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

The new sewers succeeded in virtually eliminating the disease by removing the contamination. Bazalgette’s sewers also decreased the incidence of typhus and typhoid epidemics.

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

8. It took 318 million bricks and 880,000 cubic yards of concrete

Portland cement in its modern form is used throughout the world as the standard ingredient of concrete, mortar, and stucco.

Its specification can be largely attributed to the quality control system introduced by Joseph Bazalgette when working with cement manufacturers to produce the right mix for his new sewer system.

The main drainage of the Metropolis - sectional view of sewerage tunnels from Wick Lane, near Old Ford, Bow, looking westward. Credit Wellcome Images
The main drainage of the Metropolis – sectional view of sewerage tunnels from Wick Lane, near Old Ford, Bow, looking westward. Credit Wellcome Images

Running alongside the banks of the Thames and building up walls on the foreshore, Bazalgette ran the sewer pipes inside and filled around them with concrete.

the most expensive and wonderful work of modern times —The Observer, 1861
Section of the Thames Embankment, 1867
Section of the Thames Embankment, 1867

9. Pumping stations became protected buildings of historical significance

Built in a Romanesque style, the Crossness Pumping Station is a superb example of the intricate and decorative cast ironwork of the Victorian period.

Lauded by the English Heritage trust organization as historically important, this and Bazalgette’s other pumping stations were used to lift sewage from low-lying areas to higher ground so that it could then fall under the pull of gravity over long distances out to sea, or to remote processing plants, as is the common practice today.

The power came from four massive beam engines, named Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward and Alexandra, which were manufactured by James Watt and Co.

Opened in 1865 by the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), the ceremony at Crossness was attended by other members of royalty, MPs, the Lord Mayor of London and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and was followed by a dinner for 500 within the station.

Crossness Pumping Station
Crossness Pumping Station

10. Bazalgette’s embankments had as much impact on beautifying London as Sir Christopher Wren’s rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1666

The embankments claimed over 52 acres of land from the Thames, with the Victoria Embankment relieving congestion on roads between Westminster and the City of London.

Today, London is one of the greenest capitals in the world, partly because of “The Great Stink”. Under the miasma theory that disease was carried in the air, rather than the water, it was believed that parks would act as “lungs” for towns and cities.

The Embankment project was seen as being nationally important and, with the Queen unable to attend because of illness, the Victoria Embankment was opened by the Prince of Wales in July 1870. The Albert Embankment had been completed in November 1869, while the Chelsea Embankment was opened in July 1874.

The Embankment by John O'Connor, 1874
The Embankment by John O’Connor, 1874
The Thames by James Tissot, 1876
The Thames by James Tissot, 1876
The Thames Embankment, c. 1895
The Thames Embankment, c. 1895
Click to see the Thames Embankment as it looks in the present

Concepts and Methods in Infectious Disease Surveillance edited by Nkuchia M. M’ikanatha, John Iskander
The Lesser Writings of Samuel Hahnemann
Pamela K. Gilbert, “On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England”