London's 'Great Stink': The Sour Smell of Success

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London's 'Great Stink': The Sour Smell of Success

By Professor Martin Daunton

Cholera epidemics, the 'Great Stink' and miasmas combined to create a death rate higher than at any time since the Black Death forcing reformers to face up to the need for an urban planning policy for the first time.
Death In the City

The census of 1851 recorded half of the population of Britain as living in towns - the first society in human history to do so. Over the previous 70 years, the population of Britain had risen at an unprecedented rate, passing the levels reached in earlier period of growth when the population had been decimated by epidemics such as the Black Death in the early 14th century.

But was there any reason for optimism? The towns offered a better chance of work and higher wages than the countryside, where many families were trapped in dire poverty and seasonal employment. On the other hand, the countryside was healthier. A baby born in a large town with a population of more than 100,000 in the 1820s might expect to live to 35; in the 1830s, life expectancy was down to miserable 29. A comparison between a desperately unhealthy large town and a small market town shows the costs of migrating in search of work and prosperity. In 1851, a boy born in inner Liverpool had a life expectancy of only 26 years, compared with a boy born in the small market town of Oakhampton who could expect to live to 57.
Large towns were therefore desperately unhealthy, with levels of death at a level not seen since the Black Death.

New epidemics were stalking the cities: cholera and typhoid were carried by polluted water; lice spread typhus; and 'summer diarrhea' was caused by swarms of flies feeding on horse manure and human waste. The problem was easy to identify and difficult to solve: too little was invested in the urban environment, in sewers, street paving and cleansing, and in pure water and decent housing.

Cities on the Cheap

In the early 19th century, municipal corporations governed many towns, usually 'closed' or self- selecting bodies in the hands of one political faction, with little sense of civic responsibility. Many residents were reluctant to pay taxes to these unaccountable bodies, which therefore had difficulties in investing. Many expanding towns (such as Manchester) lacked even a corporation and relied on a motley collection of bodies. Not surprisingly, the response to urban growth was weak.

Parliament reformed municipal government in 1835, but this did little to help. Corporations were now elected, but the voters were narrow-minded, self- interested owners of small property. In 1855, Charles Dickens imagined an election campaign in the evocatively named town of Cess-cum-Poolton. The candidate rallied the voters: Ratepayers, Cess-cum-Poolton! Rally around your vested interests. Health is enormously expensive. Be filthy and be fat. Cesspools and Constitutional Government! Gases and Glory! No insipid water!!
His satire was well directed, for many towns voted for cheap government, with low spending on drains or water supplies. Attempts by the central government to force laggards to act were soon denounced as a despotic interference in local liberties, an attack on 'constitutional government'. Thus the General Board of Health created by the Public Health Act of 1848 was soon abolished. Other means had to be found of encouraging local authorities and their electors to vote for spending on health and amenities, convincing them that being filthy did not make sense.
Spending on Cities

Matters started to change from about 1860. The conditions of the towns seemed intolerable and a source of danger: being filthy might lead to death for the rich as well as the poor. The power of small property owners was weakened when more people were granted the vote with the second reform act of 1867. Although the outcome varied between towns according to local circumstances, the result could be an alliance between newly enfranchised workers and larger industrialists who realized that higher public spending would make their cities healthier and more efficient. Improvements in the capital market also helped by making it easier for towns to borrow money on favorable terms. From about 1870, there was a massive increase in the level of investment in public health. The most striking example was in Birmingham, where Joseph Chamberlain became mayor, and embarked on a massive program of spending. By the end of the 19th century cities throughout Britain ceased to be built on the cheap, and by 1900 life in the great cities was just as healthy as in the countryside.

At some point, conditions long accepted with fatalistic resignation become intolerable, a problem in need of urgent action. The process of persuasion was crucial to investment in Victorian cities, to the realization that conditions should not be accepted and money should be spent.
The sanitary reformers used the literary techniques of Victorian novelists to create a sense of crisis. Edwin Chadwick, the author of the report on the sanitary conditions of British towns, consulted Dickens over his descriptions of the sanitary conditions of the great towns – and Dickens's himself obtained graphic accounts of the vile conditions of reeking graveyards from his brother in law, a leading sanitary reformer. The imaginative force of their writings made people aware of the need for action.

The 'Great Stink'

The appearance of cholera from Asia in 1831 provided a more immediate incentive. The wealthy were not immune; indeed, they might be more vulnerable. The more affluent households of London adopted water closets in the early nineteenth century, in place of privies and cesspools. As a result, sewers originally intended to take rain water into the

Thames now carried raw sewage - which was then extracted by the water companies to be drunk by their customers. The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers had responsibility, without power to impose sufficient taxes to solve the problem.
The crisis came to a peak in the 'Great Stink' of London in 1858. Such was the overpowering smell from the Thames, that the curtains of the Commons were soaked in chloride of lime in a vain attempt to protect the sensitivities of MPs. It is no surprise that a bill was rushed through parliament and became law in 18 days, to provide more money to construct a massive new sewer scheme for London and to build the Embankment along the Thames in order to improve the flow of water and of traffic.
One of the greatest problems created by the rise of great cities, was: where should the population be housed? The early Victorians spent little and their children died young; later Victorians spent more and experienced longer life. This was not a triumph of medical cures, but of political action and public investment in engineering and preventive medicine.
Slums and suburbs - packing in the people

In the first half of the 19th century, the answer was all- too-often by subdividing existing property and cramming more accommodation into backyards. Cities became more densely packed, creating dead-ends and foul alleys, and damp cellars offered miserable accommodation. In Liverpool, about a quarter of the population lived in courts in the early1840s, and perhaps ten percent lived in cellars. The borough engineer painted a lurid picture of the conditions in the early 1860s, explaining how courts had no through ventilation, and normally contained 'the privy or ash pit common to all the wretched dwellings, with its liquid filth oozing through their walls, and its pestiferous gases flowing into the windows'. Conditions within the houses were no better. In 1854, the commissioners appointed to enquire into the cholera outbreak in Newcastle-upon-Tyne found that about 50 percent of families had only a single room. Most houses did not have an independent water supply or privy, and what was shared was often the responsibility of no one. The low life expectancy of babies born into such conditions is easily explained.

Critical Thinking Questions:

  1. How did historians use demographic information to demonstrate that towns and cities were unhealthier than the countryside?

  1. Why were local governments ineffective in addressing issues of pollution and disease?

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