The Thames was used as sewage and to drink water
English people employed chamber pots and emptied their trash onto the streets of London during the Elizabethan period. Living in the nineteenth century was hardly any better. By the 1840s, about 150 million tons of waste were dumped into the River Thames annually. Having one of the most bizarre jobs during the Victorian era, “toshers” would mine the fecal dumping ground, going through human feces and other garbage collected across the city to look for valuable objects. They made a nice living at it, too.
As you would suppose, the river and its environs stink awfully in hot weather. Additionally, individuals drank water from the Thames. Then thousands of people died from sickness. So, the British government ultimately decided to intervene to solve the issue when the sickness and stench got too serious. An engineer and his team had to work for nine years to design a sewer system that would divert waste from the River Thames and into the city’s outskirts.
The Thames used as sewage and drinking
As explained here, the River Thames, which flows through London and southern England, was the direct recipient of raw sewage until sewer treatment systems were constructed during the 19th century. Even more repulsive than that on its own was the fact that people drank water from the river, which is even worse. Thus, in addition to drinking water, they were also consuming the excrement and urine of their neighbors.
The “Great Stink”
Londoners survived cholera in 1853 after drinking tainted water from the River Thames, but it was the “Great Stink” of 1858 that finally made the city change its sewage management practices. Sewage essentially cooked and fermented itself in that summer’s heat, and the stench was so awful that the locals could no longer bear to go about their daily lives with it in the air. To tackle the issue, the British government was compelled to appoint a professional engineer.
Before the creation of what is now London’s sewer system by civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette, dwellings had cesspools. Men who worked as day laborers would go around to people’s houses at night and clean their cesspools to get a little more cash. Because venting in a cesspool was extremely unpleasant and deemed “too disturbing” to perform during the day, the legislation mandated that they complete the task at night. So, it was necessary for the “night soil men” to crawl into the cesspools, dig out the waste, deposit it in a wicker basket, and then carry it to a cart.
King Henry VIII signed the “Bill of Sewers” in 1531. He proposed that London be split up into eight sewer districts, each with a commissioner. Every commissioner was responsible for maintaining the cleanliness and functionality of their portions of the sewer system. However, this resulted in a lack of consistent control, and commissioners allowed their issues to become those of their neighbors. This careless approach to sewer treatment was undoubtedly passed down to Londoners in the 19th century, which is possibly why they were frequently consuming water tainted with excrement.
London streets and poop
There were other excrements that 19th-century Londoners had to cope with besides human waste poisoning their rivers. In fact, strolling through the stench-filled and filthy streets of London was also quite a dirty and stinky experience. The “mud” that was spread across the carriageways was shit. Plenty of it. The author of Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, Lee Jackson, writes that
“It was essentially composed of horse dung. There were tens of thousands of working horses in London [with] inevitable consequences for the streets. And the Victorians never really found an effective way of removing that, unfortunately”.
A small intestine infection called cholera claimed the lives of almost 10,000 Londoners in 1853 as a result of people drinking from the raw sewage-filled River Thames. Although the symptoms might vary, watery diarrhea is one of the more typical ones. If left untreated, it results in severe dehydration and other adverse effects like wrinkling of the hands and feet, chilly skin, sunken eyes, and decreased skin elasticity. The skin may occasionally take on a blue tint. But the smell, not the number of deaths, was what spurred London to start planning a sewage treatment system.
Families used to store their sewage and liquid waste in a cesspool at home in the early 19th century. These were usually situated beneath the privy and were composed of brick, measuring roughly six feet deep by four feet wide. They were found in the basements or gardens of most homes. Upon their invention, water closets were built over the cesspool. But the extra water from the water closets contributed to “surges of waste and dump and smell” into the home. At that point, many began to worry that illnesses like cholera and typhoid could spread via the air into their private homes.
“Treasures” in London’s sewers
About 200 “toshers,” sometimes known as “sewer hunters,” would search through the early London sewers for objects that had been dropped into them, including coins, silverware, rope, and bits of metal. They would also look for gems along the Thames River’s coastline. Even though the work was dangerous, toshers made the equivalent of $50 each day, which was quite a bit of money for a working-class person in 19th-century London.
OG-toshers were important because they knew where the best treasure might be hidden in the sewers—inside hidden crevices and deep pockets. Toshers therefore worked in groups of three or four men, under the direction of a leader who would have been in his or her late 60s or early 80s. Toshers were more terrified of being bitten by rats, who brought terrible diseases than they were of explosions and asphyxia.
Toxic gases and fire
In the eighteenth century, London had about 100 sewers constructed. However, cesspits, often known as cesspools, were far more prevalent. The city had 360 sewers and about 200,000 cesspits by 1856. The fact that certain cesspits release extremely combustible gases like methane is one of its issues. Because of this, it was usual for them to catch fire and blow up (occasionally killing people). In other words, cesspits were not only unable to handle the volume of waste that Londoners were creating, but they also posed a risk of death due to poo-related explosions.
Lime chloride to cover the stench
Members of the British government found it difficult to complete their job in Parliament in June 1858 due to the overwhelming stench of the city. The Parliament building’s right-side curtains were sprayed with lime chloride to mask the odor in order to address the problem but it had no effect. Members of Parliament thought about relocating their activities to Oxford or St. Albans because the stench was so bad. Additionally, it is documented that parliamentarians wore handkerchiefs over their noses in order to shield themselves from the foul smell emanating from outside.
The sewer system
The British government engaged engineer Joseph Bazalgette to create a sophisticated sewage system in response to the “Great Stink” of 1858, to improve both the safety and odour of London for its citizens. Alongside the River Thames, Bazalgette and his associates constructed 1,100 miles of street sewers and 82 miles of sewers. £4.2 million, or $5.3 million, was spent on the project. The old sewers were diverted into the new super sewers, which transported waste to treatment facilities outside of the city rather than into the river.