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How Bad Was “The Great Stink of 1858”?

The Great Stink of 1858 was an assault on the senses, a summer where London's Thames River reeked of untreated sewage, overwhelming residents and Parliament alike. It spurred vital changes in waste management. Imagine a stench so powerful it halted government work! How did this pivotal moment reshape a city? Join us as we uncover the impact of this olfactory ordeal.

In recent years, the River Thames has been hailed as one of the most beautiful rivers in Europe. While the river currently draws thousands of sightseers each day, you wouldn't have wanted to look at it – or smell it – in the mid-19th century.

The waterway that passes through London was once considered something of a public toilet, with everything from human and animal waste to industrial garbage dumped into it. And as the city's population doubled between 1800 and 1850, so did the stench rising from the river. In 1858, the so-called "Great Stink" got so bad that politicians considered fleeing Parliament, fearing not just for their noses but for their very lives, as the toxic river was deemed a big carrier of disease and death.

London’s sewer system was built after the “Great Stink of 1858,” which threatened to close Parliament.
London’s sewer system was built after the “Great Stink of 1858,” which threatened to close Parliament.

Finally, under the direction of engineer Joseph Bazalgette, the city undertook one of the greatest construction projects in history: the creation of a massive sewer system, which included hundreds of miles of tunnels and huge, cutting-edge pumping stations. The sewer system was officially opened to great success in 1865, although the entire project took 10 more years to complete. Amazingly, much of it is still in use today.

Thames trivia:

  • The River Thames is 215 miles (346 km) long and its accompanying river walk, the Thames Path, is Europe's longest, at 184 miles (296 km).

  • More than 200 bridges cross the Thames, including some built by the ancient Romans.

  • The Thames is home to at least 125 fish species, as well as porpoises, seals, and, for a brief time in 2006, a northern bottlenose whale.

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    • London’s sewer system was built after the “Great Stink of 1858,” which threatened to close Parliament.
      By: Amanda Slater
      London’s sewer system was built after the “Great Stink of 1858,” which threatened to close Parliament.