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[Transcribed and added by Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, The Victorian Web; Professor, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario]

It is an old experience, public as well as private, that the longer a right thing is allowed to remain undone the more difficult it becomes to do it. The great question of the purification — or rather of the non-pollution — of the Thames is the newest and most flagrant example of this ancient truth. Error has been permitted to accumulate upon error, neglect upon neglect, and wrong upon wrong, until the evil consequences, strengthened and complicated by the lapse of time, have become so unmanageable that action or inaction is equally dangerous. The Thames, which, fifty years ago, ran through London in a clear and limpid stream, over whose current it was a pleasure to be rowed, in whose waves it was delightful to bathe, and of whose pure waters it was wholesome to drink, has, by sheer neglect on the part both of the people and the Government, become a foul sewer, a river of pollution, a Stream of Death, festering and reeking with all abominable smells, and threatening three millions of people with pestilence as the penalty of their ignorance and apathy. It was the duty as well as the interest of London to keep its noble river, the source of all its wealth and much of its beauty, as clear as Nature gave it. But the initial difficulty in the case was that there was no London that could undertake the work. There was an old and small city, with rights and powers of self-government, surrounded by a congeries of towns, boroughs, and villages, larger than itself, and growing larger every day, all of which were equally interested in this great achievement, but none of which had the means of taking a step for the furtherance of the common design. The city or municipality of London — the mere nucleus of that mightier conglomeration of cities which form the actual metropolis of the British Empire — was not likely to tax the dwellers within its own narrow and defined area with the cost of the sewerage of the whole metropolis; and it had no power to levy a shilling for the purpose on the people of Westminster, Finsbury, Marylebone, or any other outlying borough. The metropolitans, as distinguished from the mere Londoners of the City proper, had not the spirit or the common sense to perceive that they were as much entitled to a municipal organisation as any other assemblage of British subjects living in towns and boroughs. A few persons may have urged the necessity of reforming the old and corrupt Municipality, which dated from the days of the Plantagenets and Tudors, and including within its amended jurisdiction the whole mighty metropolis of the days of Victoria; but their efforts met with no adequate support; and the Imperial Government, that never does anything except on compulsion, looked on and said nothing. If successive Governments had any feeling at all upon the subject it was one of satisfaction at the apathy which the people displayed; for Home Secretaries, and Foreign Secretaries, and the whole posse of public functionaries in Downing-street and Whitehall, entertain a stupid and we might call it unconstitutional jealousy of the power that might be exercised by so great a Municipality; and fear that the Lord Mayors of London in the nineteenth century may become as formidable to the kingly and aristocratic power as their predecessors were in the time of Richard II. and III. Many evils have resulted from this state of things; — evils of omission and of commission, of jurisdiction and of no jurisdiction, of bad government and of no government, of ill draining and of no drainage. Year after year these evils have gone on augmenting; and, after the true British fashion, would have gone on augmenting for half a century longer, or for some unaccountable period [71/72] had not the terror of the Pestilence to be borne in the foul bosom of the Thames startled both people and Government into the necessity of "doing something."

The Editorial in The Illustrated London News.

[Click n thumbnail for larger image.]

The "something" to be done is the conveyance of the sewage of a population — amounting in the year 1858 to three millions and a half, and which in the year 1878 may, and in all probability will, amount to five or six millions of people — to some place far down the river, where its daily transmission to the sea, by the force of the tides and the current, will be a matter of certainty. But the something to be done requires somebody to do it. The Government declines the responsibility; but as the case is urgent, and Parliament cannot sit in its own house without fear of being poisoned, it has relieved itself of the task by shifting the it upon a body called the "Metropolitan Board of Works," to whom it proposes to give the power of taxing the whole metropolis for this special purpose, for the term of forty years, and to whom it proposes to guarantee the sum of £3,000,000 on the security of such taxation. The questions immediately arise — Who are the Metropolitan Board of Works? Who elect them? Whom do they represent? What is their plan? And what security have the public, provided the plan be an efficient one, that it can be carried out for the sum specified, or even for twice or thrice the amount? We cannot say that there is a satisfactory answer to any of these very natural inquiries. The Metropolitan Board of Works is not a popular body. Its members are either unknown, or known only for the aptitude for petty parochial business. They are not elected by the people at large, but by the vestries of parishes [of the Church of England]. They do not directly represent the tax-paying community. Their plan may be good or bad; but it is one on which engineers differ, and will continue to differ as long as there is the remotest chance of superseding it by any other. In addition to all these reasons for distrust, they give no valid security that they can carry out their project for three times three millions of pounds sterling, or that by the time they shall have completed their work the natural increase of the population will not have rendered it inadequate.

And here the matter rests. The bill giving this anomalous and unpopular Board the power to tax the metropolis, and to set to work upon its project, has been twice read in the Commons and gone into Committee. The Government has "done something" in a hurry. Parliament has helped it in a hurry; and in some broiling summer of 1860 or 1861 the people, in another hurry, caused by a Pestilence, will perhaps discover that the three millions of pounds have been utterly wasted.

The scheme of the Board — backed by the opinion of all the scientific men who hope to make something by it, and attacked by all the scientific men who know they never can gain a farthing by it — is to collect the sewage of the north side of the Thames at some place on the River Lea, in a reservoir about twenty feet below flood tide, to pump it thence by steam machinery, and discharge it into another reservoir at Barking Creek, a mile below Woolwich, on the Essex shore, where it is to be deodorised. The solid portions, valueless as manure, are to be carried away to the Essex marshes, and the fluid portion is to be discharged into the river, when it is never more to return towards London.

Not being engineers — and being very much bewildered and perplexed, if not obfuscated, by what engineers say and unsay, affirm and deny, on this subject — we can presume to offer no opinion upon the excellence or the feasibility of the project. We can only hope that out of the darkness light will ultimately come, and that it is not yet too late for more rational deliberation than Parliament has yet given to the matter. Simple-minded men, unconnected with engineers and their squabbles; — men who like a right thing to be done in a right manner, and who do not begrudge a guinea for a good purpose, but protest against the contribution of a penny for a bad one; — are somewhat alarmed at the complex nature of the scheme; at the reservoir here and the reservoir there; at the pumping up and the pumping down; at the deodorising of this, and at the carting of that; and at the final discharge of the deodorised but possibly very injurious and poisonous liquid into a place so near London as Barking [i. e., nine miles east of Charing Cross in central London]. The British people, who have made and paid for so many thousands of miles of railways in their own and other countries, will not be frightened at the cost of making a subterranean canal to Brighton [a seaside resort on the English Channel] or to the Nore, or to any other point of the sea, if it should prove after all that the sea and not the river is the proper place for the reception of the sewage which the Cloaca Maxima [Greatest Sewer] of London is to pour into it. [The Illustrated London News 24 July 1858, p. 71-72]

[On the 3rd of July 1858, the article entitled "Out-door Amusements" noted that the temperature "in the shade" (3) was 84 degrees Fahrenheit, and a magistrate was reported in another column wrangling with the barristers before him about the desirability of removing his wig. The heat wave set the stage for "The Great Stink" which so overpowered London and its environs that, continues the editorialist, "Parliament cannot sit in its own house without the fear of being poisoned" (72). Another story on the same page pointed to a more durable solution to the problems attendant upon the overpopulation of the metropolis: "Free and Assisted Immigration to the Cape" [i. e., Cape Colony, South Africa] mentions the government's sponsoring some 129 emigrants, complementing the Australian emigration schemes promoted by private societies, such as Mrs. Caroline Chisholm's Family Colonisation Loan Society, since 1850.]

Related Material


Allen, Michelle. Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographers in Victorian London. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008. [Review in VW]

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1871.

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. Illustrated by Marcus Stone. Volume 14 of the Authentic Edition. London: Chapman and Hall; New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1901.

"Great Stink." Wikipedia. 28 February 2011. Accessed 07/04/2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Stink

Morley, Henry. "A Way to Clean Rivers." Household Words, 18 (10 July 1858): 79-82.

"The Purification of the Thames." The Illustrated London News. No. 928 — Vol. 33 (24 July 1858): 71-72.

Simons, Paul."The Big Stench that Saved London." The Times. London. 17 June 2008. Accessed 07/04/ 2001. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_ contributors/article4152023

Last modified 16 April 2011