London Stinks

If you read attentively enough in Chaucer and in Shakespeare and in Pepys, Swift, and Dickens, you’ll soon discover that those writers, along with everyone else, are exquisitely aware of a fact that one supposes might be hidden from the majority of us:  for most of its history, the city of London has stunk to high heaven.

Rosemary Ashton’s new book, One Hot Summer:  Dickens, Darwin and Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858, reviewed by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, focuses on the summer of the year in which the problem became perhaps the most acute, but it’s also fair to say that that particular year is focused upon also because the painfully-slow advances in medical science and engineering converged to the extent that a city-wide solution to the problem of waste management became possible.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, actually.  When you’ve read enough tales of Londoners crying, “Gardy-loo” out their windows before they dump the previous night’s contents of their chamber pots onto the streets below, and when you know something of the plague, as reported by Boccaccio and Chaucer, you begin to realize that, as I did long ago, the development of the London sewer system was simply one of the greatest achievements of western civilization.  The glories of Shakespeare’s language, and of Dickens’ and Trollope’s for that matter, often disguise for us the truth that London was never a completely healthy place to live.  It was dirty, grimy, and gritty.  It took guts–literally and figuratively–to live there, especially in the matter of dodging the effluence descending from above, the muck (both human and animal) in the streets, and the foul liquids of the gutters.  English literature is, to some extent, a record of all this filth, but it is also a centuries-long effort to educate ourselves to think and behave in a different sort of way.  Whether it’s through the lyric poetry that invites us to contemplate flowers in the field even as we pass by a dung heap, or through the corrosive satire of a Jonathan Swift, we’ve been trying for hundreds of years to create places of lasting beauty, both real and imagined, amid our squalor.   The Chinese have made similar efforts which are even more pointed, posting signs and fining their citizens in an attempt not only to prevent the fouling of their streets and countryside but also to get people to think about human and animal refuse in a more “civilized” way.

The old logic was that the Thames would simply carry away to the sea whatever garbage Londoners threw into it.  That kind of thinking persisted into the twentieth century, manifesting itself in the naive belief that the ocean itself could dilute even the most severe oil spills without ecological consequences, a train of thought that wasn’t broken until the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters.  If we could have asked any of the personages of Ashton’s book, he or she would have told us that, by 1858, everybody, rich and poor alike, knew that the Thames could no longer serve as London’s common sewer.  Water has weight; so does every other liquid imaginable.  Superimposed indiscriminately upon one another, liquids and waste aren’t going anywhere without a significant push.  They’ll stay where they are, and become the breeding ground for all sorts of diseases.

Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, is the hero of Ashton’s story, quite apart from the other, more colorful men and women she uses to draw us into the tale.  It was Bazalgette who designed the sewer lines and the pumping stations that drew the enormous daily flow of garbage and excrement downriver on the Thames, away from the heavily-populated city center.  Other sewers north of Thames bore some of the load, as well, to take pressure off the main line.  Although the system as it was in 1858 was never meant to handle the population of present-day London, the solution, with its various additions and modifications along the way, has worked remarkably well for the last 150 years.

The betterment of Londoners’ health resulting from an improved sewer system has had profound consequences.  Longer life spans have been only the most obvious consequence.  Less obvious but perhaps even more profound has been the change in social attitudes among the extraordinary mix of London’s population.  To put it simply, if you’re not constantly living in filth, you tend over time to discard your old belief that humans themselves are inherently filthy, physically or spiritually.  The sewer system helped carry away the old idea that human beings were utterly corrupt, and made the inculcation of that message a much harder sell from the London pulpit.  Freshness and cleanliness had a profound impact on people’s ideas about themselves and others, just as the development of undergarments for men and women provided not only warmth and protection to their wearers but also called attention in subtle but unmistakable ways to the individuality and the inviolability of the human body itself.  These smaller changes often have as much of an influence on human affairs as the great projects that take years to complete.


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