An article from the Illustrated London News from the year 1858 eloquently describes the former state of the River Thames as a crystal-clear, gurgling stream that many people enjoyed bathing in and spending time around. People even rowed boats on the Thames’ inviting waters, while others spent time with family and friends on its lush banks. The author contrasts this older, idyllic state of the Thames with its current condition: “a foul sewer, a river of pollution, a Stream of Death, festering and reeking with all abominable smells, and threatening three millions of people with pestilence.” By 1858, the Thames was seen as a threat to the health and prosperity of the city of London.
As London’s population grew rapidly in the 19th century, public health became a problem that the government had to address. Parliament used public health officials to keep detailed accounts of illnesses plaguing the city. Designated Medical Officers of Health (MOH), these men produced annual reports detailing sickness and death in each London borough. Medical Officer of Health reports from the second half of the 19th century portray the Thames as a foul, festering cesspool that repulsed most Londoners, and caused disease and death. These MOH reports provide deeper insights into the causes of the Thames’ pollution and perceptions of the River during the rapid development of the British economy in the mid-19th century.
The Great Stink of 1858 marked the pinnacle of the Thames’ pollution. By this time, the river was the city’s economic lifeline. Commerce, transport, and industry heavily relied on the Thames for survival (Allen). Unsurprisingly, flourishing industrial towns north of the country’s capital were the main cause of the river’s rapid qualitative degradation. Michelle Allen notes the several industries that effectively destroyed the Thames, “paper mills, tanneries, dye-works, and breweries all used the river as both water source and water basin,” (Allen). Businesses and factories like these in conjunction with coal-powered passenger steamships created a swirling mix of fossil fuel and chemical pollution in the water.
The Medical Officer of Health reports present many accounts of the causes and subsequent effects of the river’s pollution. Nearly all of the reports about the water quality of the river share a common thread: the inadequate sewer system. In order to handle the sheer size of the city, London needed a sewer system that could accommodate vast amounts of human and industrial waste. A report from the borough of Croydon in 1894 elucidates the underlying cause of pollution in the Thames, the sewer system. London’s sewer system design was unable to effectively transport the large amounts of waste the city produced. The ineffective sewer system affected both land and water quality. The report from Croydon explains that, “the solids pass on to the land, and are there deposited, where they interfere completely with the action of the soil as a rapid filtering medium.” Thus by dumping waste into the Thames, London’s commercial industry essentially destroyed the riverbed’s natural ability to filter the water. The inability of the river to naturally clean itself and the continuous industrial dumping compounded the intense degradation of water quality.
In turn, the river quickly became a public health nightmare. The city of London was unable to confine the pollution to just the Thames’ waters. Old sewer drains collected putrid, stagnant water and waste. Just when many thought the environmental disaster known as the River Thames could not get any worse, the trapped waste began to emit toxic fumes. A MOH report from Mile End in 1875 explains that the septic gaseous fumes significantly contributed to atmospheric pollution. London was now fighting an environmental war on two fronts: water and air. The quality of life in London swiftly declined, as the river became a source of infectious disease. Remarkably, many people still relied on the Thames as a source of drinking water. Human fecal matter contaminated the water. Without proper sanitation techniques, many Londoners contracted diseases, and epidemics quickly spread throughout the city and surrounding towns. Cholera was an unforgiving murderer—taking the lives of countless individuals simply because they took advantage of their only source of drinking water.
Pollution of the Thames was as much a social and political problem as it was an environmental one. The Thames’ pollution quickly became a large problem for local government. Unable to handle the river’s rapid degradation, local governmental officials and sanitation workers were quickly swamped with an unsolvable problem. A report from Battersea written in 1893 places blame on the Sanitary Authorities for not taking responsibility of the Thames’ pollution. Local governmental agencies like the Sanitary Authorities lacked the organization and resources to clean the river. The same MOH report argues that sanitation workers were only concerned with pollution when it affected their individual districts. By refusing to address the pollution, sanitation workers made the river a social problem. Now, only those living in districts able to afford sanitation workers were able to have access to clean(er) parts of the river. People living in boroughs lacking the political and bureaucratic organization cleaning the river required were subject to the river’s dreadfulness day in and day out.
This illustration is titled “The London Bathing Season.” It depicts a masculine figure known as Father Thames attempting to lure a child to swim in the river’s nastiness. It is important to note the numerous dead animals floating in the water. The original caption for Father Thames reads, “Come, my dear! Come to old Thames, and have a nice bath!” Drawings like these contribute to the commentary on the pollution of the river. The Thames became an entity that Londoners clearly feared and remarked upon as old and disgusting.
By Preston Melchert
Allen, Michelle. Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographers in Victorian London. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008.
Illustrated London News. “The London Bathing Season.” 1839. The Victorian Web, Internet Archives, University of Toronto Library (London, UK), June 18, 1859.