The Darker Side of 19th Century London - The Great Stink - Part One

Ah, falling in love - isn't it grand? You meet that someone special and in the space of a few moments the whole world changes. It's as though the entire planet tilted just the tiniest bit on its axis and now affords you a whole new look at the world. Being in love colours the things we see and tints everything in a new light. We are dazzled, bewitched and God seems in his heaven. All is right with the world! It's the same with our love affair with historic Britain.

If you were introduced to British history through fiction, your love affair with the 19th century might include visions of

a damsel who needs saving

gorgeous gowns

and dashing heroes

Or perhaps you discovered British history through film or television. In that case, chances are that your visions of England include such images as these:

An outdoor tea party in Cranford

glittering Regency interiors

or a cheeky Royal friend

Once your interest in the 19th century has been piqued, you may be compelled to do further research into the period when, inevitably, you'll discover the darker side of London history. Reader, it stank. Literally. Not romantic or genteel in the least. And enough so that books, both fiction and non, have been written about the condition.

And Thames Water even made a film about it, which you can watch here. The Great Stink took place in London in 1858, but of course London had been stinking for centuries prior. In the first half of the 19th Century, London's population was 2.5 million, all of whom ultimately discharged their waste directly onto the streets or into the Thames.  Besides people, there were hundreds of thousands of horses, cows, dogs, cats, sheep, etc. adding their daily contributions to the waste problem.

John Cadbury, social reformer and candy company founder, wrote:  "Foul odors emanated from more than 200,000 cesspools across London, in alleyways, yards, even the basements of houses. It was not a smell that could be easily washed away."

Most homes and businesses were built above cesspits, designed to drain to the street by means of a crudely built culvert to a partially open sewer trench in the center of the street. The design was faulty, to say the least. Cesspits often overflowed and waste soaked foundations, walls and floors of living quarters. Culverts typically became blocked and caused sewage to spread under buildings and contaminate shallow wells, cisterns and water ways from which drinking water was drawn. In October 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary: "Going down to my cellar...I put my feet into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr. Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar."

While causing disgust in Pepys and thousands of other Londoners, cesspits gave work to a portion of the population who included night soil men and saltpetre men. Saltpetre is another name for potassium nitrate, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder. It was typically generated by collecting vegetable and animal waste into heaps and mixing it with limestone, mortar, earth and ashes. These heaps were kept moist from time to time with urine or other waste from stables. Digging for ingredients in outbuildings such as dovecotes and stables provided adequate supplies of gunpowder for the navy. Beginning during the reign of Elizabeth I, official saltpetre men were given powers to requisition any suitable deposits they came across.

In 1621 James I appointed Lords of the Admiralty as Commissioners for Saltpetre and Gunpowder. They divided the country into districts for collection, and specialised saltpetre men were appointed and given weekly quotas to meet. They were also awarded powers with the right to enter premises to dig for nitrogenous earth.

In addition, an Ordinace was passed in October 1643 entitled `The Ordinance to provide Salt-petre for making Gunpowder' Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, and reads in part " . . . it is held most necessary, that the digging of Salt-petre and the making of Gunpowder shall by all fit Means be encouraged at this Time, when it so much concerns the Public Safety: Nevertheless, to prevent the reviving of those Oppressions and Vexations exercised upon the People, under the colourable Authority of Commissions granted to Salt-petre-men, which Burthen hath been eased since the Sitting of this Parliament, and to the End that there may not be any Pretence to interrupt the Work, it is Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament, That such Persons as shall be nominated and allowed by the said Lords and Commons in Parliament shall have Power and Authority, by this present Ordinance, to search and dig for Salt-petre, in all Pigeon-houses, Stables, and all other Out-houses, Yards, and Places likely to afford that Earth, at fit seasons and Hours, between Sun-rising and Sun-setting (except all Dwelling-houses, Shops, and Milkhouses) . . . "

Part Two Tomorrow!

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