Creating a stink

In the hot summer of 1858 the Thames stank. Over the past forty years, London’s population had trebled and the capital’s infrastructure was creaking. Sewers had been run by local commissioners and there was little co-ordination between districts. Factories, slaughterhouses and breweries discharged their effluent into the Thames and its tributaries, but new-fangled flush toilets had also been installed in many of London’s smarter homes, and they were now emptying their waste into the capital’s 200,000 cesspits, causing them to overflow into the surface water drains that fed into the river. Day after day London’s temperature reached 90 degrees and no rain fell to flush away the mephitic effluent. Each day, 90 million gallons of sewage poured into the Thames. It was estimated that one fifth of the river’s volume was raw sewage. The smell was unspeakable. In the Houses of Parliament the blinds were coated with chlorine and zinc, and tons of lime were spread upon the Thames foreshore, but MPs and peers were forced to abandon their sessions.

The episode became known as The Great Stink.

For years, MPs had been dithering about the problem. They knew something had to be done but the political will was lacking and the (modest) costs were felt to be too high. MPs from outside London argued that Londoners alone should pay and those who were not affected by the problem paid little attention. Some politicians passed the buck. Lord John Manners, the Commissioner of Works (and therefore responsible for London’s sewers), stated that, “The River Thames was not in his jurisdiction”. A letter to the Times attacked the government’s tardiness. “If it is not technically their business now, they can easily make it so. Parliament is absolute”. (my emphasis).

Cholera epidemics had killed 14,000 Londoners in 1849 and another 11,000 in 1853. Typhoid and cholera were believed to spread through airborne particles (the ‘miasma’), but John Snow, a doctor in Soho, proved that they were the result of sewage leaking into the drinking water supply. And yet still nothing was done.

Finally, the politicians could stand it no more. Within eighteen days a Bill to improve London’s sewers was drafted, debated and passed into law. The cost to Londoners would be 3 pence in the pound for 40 years (that’s a tax of 1.25 percent in today’s money). The brilliant engineer Joseph Bazalgette was appointed to design and build the new network of sewers, which would take effluent down to Barking Creek and out to sea. This included two massive interceptor sewers that were built directly on the Thames foreshore. Above them he built roads and gardens – the Thames embankment that now stretches from Chelsea to Tower Bridge. More importantly, he calculated the size of his sewers by working out a generous daily allowance of sewage for each Londoner – and then doubled it. 260 million baked Staffordshire Blue bricks and the strongest available mortar were used. The overall cost was £3 million, but thousands of lives were saved and the quality of life of millions of Londoner’s improved immeasurably. The water supply ceased to be polluted and cholera and typhoid were virtually eradicated. As a result of this far-sighted investment in bricks and mortar Bazalgette’s sewers are still in use today, 150 years later.

For me, there are several lessons from this episode that are relevant to today’s housing crisis. First, to deal with such a major problem you need a clear vision of how things could be better, and a plan of how to get there. Second, often it is only a few far-sighted individuals who understand the scale of the problem and the solutions that are required, and many naysayers and reactionaries often emerge to argue against them. Third, a crisis on this scale requires a co-ordinated and strategic approach – a piecemeal patchwork of provision is doomed to fail. Finally, investing in high quality bricks and mortar and doing a proper job that will last for generations saves money, and lives, in the long term and adds to the sum of human wellbeing. I know that readers of this blog will understand the analogies I am making.

Bazalgette’s sewers are taken for for granted now, but they only exist because Parliament finally did the right thing and a far-sighted engineer did a sound job. Few people know much about the battles of the past that created our modern world, and some people think that history has stopped, but it never stops. No doubt the mid-Victorians looked back at the seventeenth century with scorn and distaste for its barbarism and corruption, and viewed their own age as enlightened and progressive. But we look back at the mid-Victorians with scorn and distaste for their toleration of disease and poverty. In equal measure, I have no doubt that people in the year 2164 will look back at us with scorn and distaste and wonder how it was possible that one of the richest countries in the world was unable to perform the simple task of properly housing its people.

Our task is to make politicians understand their historical role and to make them comprehend that the housing crisis is made in Westminster. Policy follows politics and politicians are often slow to react to changes in society. The reactionaries and the naysayers often win the day and sometimes politicians will only act when they are personally affected by a problem.

“Parliament is absolute”. Perhaps we need to create another Great Stink to make Parliament do the right thing.


(First published at Inside Housing in June 2014)

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