[This passage has been excerpted from Dale H. Porter's The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London, which is reviewed eleswhere in the Victorian WebGPL.]

decorative initial O xford, in 1850, was the largest town on the upper Thames, with a population of about 25,000. Already the railway and gasworks along the river were spoiling the view of ancient Oxford Castle. The town's residential water supply was piped, by a private company, from a nearby artificial lake to many of the wealthier citizens. Workers and the indigent tended to move around too much to keep up water service. They lived mostly in the lower, marshy ground where the River Cherwell ran down to the Thames from the north, and where factories and workshops were situated. (The word "slum," first used in the 1820s, derives from the older "slump," meaning a wet mire.) Like most cities of its time, Oxford was only partly sewered. Working-class districts were usually difficult to drain. In any case, the poor were not trusted to maintain the water closets, which were company owned. They made do with neighborhood privies and leaking cesspits that contaminated the surrounding soil. But the household sewage from higher up was discharged through outfalls, some within the municipal boundaries, and factories poured their wastes directly into the river. Mill owners who required clean water for processing fabrics joined the chorus of complaints raised by university dons and landowners with fishing rights. Scientists testified that Oxford's sewage ought to be fully diluted and oxidized before it reached London, but this hypothesis, even if correct, was no comfort to the 800,000 inhabitants of the towns in between.


Porter, Dale H. The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1998.

Last modified 1999