Hello! This is the 6th of 8 guest posts I’m making as part of the T2T blog tour. As an ex-professor and writer of historical fiction, my theme is Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Victorians. Yesterday, I talked about Cadavers and Childbirth at Chick Lit Teens. Today, my subject is the Great Stink of 1858, which forms the backdrop of my novel.
First things first: yes, it really was called the Great Stink, and its name was in no way an exaggeration. Here’s how it came about. All through the history of the River Thames, Londoners dumped their garbage into it: food scraps, human waste, anything they didn’t want to deal with… it all went into the river. It’s a big river, though, and this was basically okay. They also used it as a source of water for cooking and bathing. Again, it was mostly tolerable. And then came the 1840s, and the invention of the flush toilet. Guess where they all flushed into? That’s right. Straight. Into. The Thames.
It wasn’t long before the river smelled bad. Made you feel queasy on summer days. Became the basis of jokes and cartoons. But the spring of 1858 was unusually warm, and the river was increasingly polluted. The stench became absolutely unbearable – and this is in a city with a high tolerance for industrial pollution. There was even a report of future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli running out of the House of Commons with a handkerchief over his nose, so nauseous was the stink. Londoners worried, mostly because (as I explained yesterday) the germ theory of disease wasn’t widely accepted. Instead, most people thought that bad smells made you sick – and living that close to the river was surely asking to be stricken down.
The good news is that the stink was so bad that citizens began to campaign for the clean-up of the river. This was a huge project that involved fixing and redesigning London’s ancient sewer system (something that comes up in the third Mary Quinn novel, The Traitor and the Tunnel). It was a project that would take years to complete. In the meantime, people still lived and worked beside the river; thousands walked across its bridges each day, and there were still ferrymen who ran water-taxis along its length. The royal family once took a pleasure-cruise along the river!
Although I’ve researched it, I still find the Great Stink hard to believe. As hygiene-obsessed 21st-century types, we have a low tolerance for bad smells. We shower constantly, flood our homes with air fresheners, and have best-by dates on all our food to minimize our chances of coming across something that smells iffy. I’m not saying that I want to experience the Great Stink firsthand – I think I’m properly modern in my queasiness.
But isn’t it compelling to imagine?