How the “Great Stink” of 1858 revealed the injustice of the Victorian class system
I n the summer of 1858, the putrid smell of the once-beloved River Thames became too much for members of the British Parliament to bear.
The thick summer heat combined with the cesspool known as “Father Thames” drifted into the House of Commons, prompting lawmakers to (finally) take action.
The River Thames — a long stretch of water that passes through Oxford and drains Greater London — had been accumulating human waste, and other unpleasant objects, for centuries.
Before the seventeenth century, low-paid workers called “night soil collectors” walked around London, shoveling piles of waste from the streets and placing them into the river. They didn’t have gloves or hazmat suits, inevitably leading to all kinds of illnesses common in Victorian England.
Deprived of the modern toilets and sewage systems we so often take for granted, Londoners during the nineteenth century therefore flushed their waste into the river.
Murder victims and even executed pirates were also dumped into the Thames, contributing to an even more ghastly smell.
The development of the sewage system in the River Thames was also disastrous.
An 1850 labor periodical advocating for the fair treatment of workers described the construction of a new sewer running into the River Thames, which unfortunately resulted in the injury of a young boy and the death of two men:
Two men were drowned. One boy was driven by the force of the water to the mouth of the shaft leading into the sewer. He was taken out almost exhausted and conveyed to the hospital, but no fatal injury is apprehended.
In both its construction and use as a toxic sewer running through the poorest parts of the district, the River Thames highlighted the jarring gap between rich and poor.
The stench of the River Thames had been a problem long before politicians finally decided to act.
Most members of parliament lived far from the filth and noise of so-called “semi-criminal” Victorian London: the areas of the city where the poor were forced to abide.