Think we have had a long hot summer? Be thankful for your flushing toilet and fridge!!
Up until 1800 the River Thames had been relatively clean, supporting a large fishing industry, which caught and sold species including lobsters and salmon.
But in June 1858, a heat wave hit London so bad that it baked the river into a fetid mess.
Londoners may feel hot this summer, but historian Rosemary Ashton says it’s nothing compared to what the city endured in 1858. “The hottest recorded day up to that point in history was the 16th of June 1858, when the temperature reached 94.5 degrees Fahrenheit, in the shade,” she says. That was the year of “The Great Stink” – when the Thames River, hot and filled with sewage, made life miserable for the residents of the city.
Great Britain had urbanized quickly in the 19th century, with half the population living in towns by 1851. In the mid-14th century the population of London had been about 100,000, in 1800 the population was nearly one million and in 1850 more than two million. Sadly, urban planning didn’t keep up. Modern toilets appeared on the scene before modern infrastructure, turning the Thames into an open sewer.
The first indoor toilet – the water closet – was invented by Harington in the 1590s. This was not widely adopted because there was no supply of running water to flush it. During the 17th Century the cesspit was developed – a significant advance, although the clear majority were of basic construction and not emptied very often.
According to a website which examines the Thames and cholera, “all the sewage in the Thames began to ferment in the scorching sun-centuries of waste was literally cooking in the monstrous heat. The result was a smell as offensive and disgusting as can ever be imagined. “Gentility of speech is at an end – it stinks; and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it,” complained the City Press. Parliament moved upstream, and everyone who could afford it left town.
Maybe this wasn’t the hottest weather in English history, but it probably is the most spectacularly revolting weather event on record. The period is referred to as ‘The Great Stink’.