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Episode 10 - The Great Stink

Uploaded: 25 Feb 2018

Here at Footnotes of History, we like to think we’re all about doing the dirty work of finding the historical details so that you don’t have to. At no point has that been more true than in this episode.

As Tim points out in the episode, the historical radar pinged urgently when he heard a speech by a politician last year lauding the glorious success of the London sewer system. So the team just had to find out the other half of the story.

The Great Stink was the apex of a crisis of nineteenth century London. The smell was one thing - but people were dying in their thousands from disease outbreaks across the city, waste was seeping up through the pavements and the very body of the great river Thames was a foul, dark treacle of industrial run-off, chemical waste and human sewage.

So overwhelmed were London’s sewer systems that it really did need the complete overhaul and millions of pounds spent to fix it. 

But how had this happened in the first place? Why had it been allowed to get in such a state? 

The FOH team hold their noses and investigate.

"The Silent Highwayman" - devastating cartoon in Punch in the year 1858 - when the crisis reached its peak

Further sources:

Most information is readily available online, but a few extra sources are below:

  • P. Ackroyd, Thames Sacred River (2007), find it here:

  • R. Ashton, One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 (2017), find it here:
  • E. Chadwick, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population [‘The Chadwick Report’] (1842), find it here:

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