Changing Climates, Changing Minds: The Great Stink of London

Effective action for solving Victorian London's sewage crisis was put off for decades, due to chaotic governance, concerns about financing, the interference of vested interests and the complacency and inertia of central government. Once the ill effects appeared underneath the politicians’ noses, a lasting solution was quickly deployed. The modern challenge of finding the political will to deal with climate change is analogous, although there are additional factors that make fixing the climate problem much more difficult.

Richard Alley, in his recent book Earth, the Operator’s Manual, devotes part of Chapter 16, Toilets and the Smart Grid, to a comparison between the infrastructure challenges caused by the sewage problems of Victorian Edinburgh and London and the obstacles we face today in acting to solve the climate crisis. In this essay, I cover some of the same ground as Alley, but use as a main reference the book, The Great Stink of London, Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Capital (GSOL), written by Stephen Halliday in 1999. Here's a link to a pdf of  pages 58-76 of the book.

London’s sanitation before the Victorians

In medieval London, human waste was deposited into household cesspools, some of which spilled into streams and ditches. By the mid-fourteenth century, pollution from sewage was already becoming a serious problem, and at the end of that century—during the time that Richard Whittington was Lord Mayor of London—laws were proclaimed that said:

None shall cast any garbage or filth into ditches, waters or other places within or near any city or town on pain of punishment by the Lord Chancellor… (GSOL, p. 32)

The cesspools and ditches were emptied and cleaned by a brotherhood whose professional specializations went by the colourful names of “rakers”, “toshers”, “mudlarks”, “night-soil haulers” and “gong-fermors”. They carried the waste out of London on horse-drawn carts—it was a small city then, with just 100,000 inhabitants—and sold it to farmers for fertilizer.  Despite the labours of these unenviable men, cesspools frequently overflowed, polluting watercourses and sometimes flowing into neighbours’ properties. Centuries later a famous diarist records:

…going down into my cellar to look I stepped into a great heap of turds by which I found that Mr. Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which do trouble me, but I shall have it helped.

Samuel Pepys’ diary, October 20th, 1660. (via GSOL)

Cesspools were, over the years, dug deeper, sometimes down to a permeable sand and gravel layer, which allowed the liquid fraction of the waste to drain away, leaving less volume for the night-soil haulers to take away but polluting the aquifers from which some Londoners drew their water; eventually contributing to deadly epidemics of cholera and typhoid.

A system of sewers was constructed in the sixteenth century, initiated by Henry VIII’s Bill of Sewers. This drainage system was designed to handle rain water only and there were statutes in place until 1815 that forbade disposing of household waste into it.

The population boom and the flush toilet

In 1800, the population of London was nearly one million and, fifty years later, this figure had more than doubled. The system of cesspools and night-soil haulers, already strained, became overloaded. The growing physical extent of the city made the hauling of the waste more expensive; the supply of ordure was greater than the farmers needed; and the cost of emptying their household cesspools was more than many Londoners could afford. The introduction of South American guano in the 1840’s provided a cheaper and more easily manageable fertilizer that made the economics of human waste removal even worse. A technological solution was urgently required.

A working flush toilet had been invented many years previously by Sir John Harrington, in 1596. The device was improved over time by several plumbers and engineers; including the felicitously named Thomas Crapper, who began selling his fixture in 1861, with the slogan “a certain flush with every pull” (GSOL, p. 42). 

Starting in 1810 and accelerating over following decades, flush toilets were installed throughout London. In 1815, the restrictions on disposing of household waste into the storm sewers were lifted. According to Halliday, this repeal was encouraged by lobbying from private water companies, which recognized that sanitation provided a business opportunity for them to increase their sales (GSOL, p.46). Between 1850 and 1856, the consumption of water in London doubled.

The flush toilet undoubtedly improved conditions in people’s homes but its introduction simply shifted the waste problem into the River Thames, which was still, incredibly, used as a source of drinking water. It is hardly surprising that Londoners in the first half of the nineteenth century were afflicted by successive epidemics of typhoid, diarrhoea and, starting in 1854, cholera. Despite the pioneering epidemiological work of John Snow, which convincingly tied specific cholera outbreaks to contaminated water sources, the prevailing scientific orthodoxy was that these diseases were carried in the air: the miasma theory. This view prevailed even after the discovery of the cholera bacillus by the physician Robert Koch in 1883. The mistaken belief that “all smell is disease” nevertheless did not hinder the search to find a solution to the sewage problem and may even have helped it since, not only was the smell from the river disgusting but people believed that it was also harmful. (Wikipedia

Vested interests and chaotic governance thwart action

It became increasingly obvious to Londoners that the city’s waste disposal systems were not sustainable in the face of a rapidly growing population. In 1839, an attempt was made to unify the governance of London’s sewage systems under a single authority. The plan was thwarted by opposition from the City of London, the small area of central London that is the financial hub of Britain and that guards its autonomy closely, even to this day (see Monbiot, 2011). Until 1848, London’s sewers were managed by seven separate commissions with 1,065 commissioners. The Metropolitan Sewers Act of 1848 created a single body with a mere twenty-three appointed commissioners. The resulting Commissions sat for six sessions from 1848 to 1855 and achieved little. They were underfunded, lacked authority and were rife with competing interests. They evaluated 137 different proposals for improving the sewage system and implemented none of them. The flow of untreated sewage into the River Thames continued to increase.

Used under licence from CartoonStock

The governance of London in the mid-nineteenth century was chaotic, with ninety parishes running an urban area with a population of over two million. One area alone, St Pancras, had:

…about three hundred different boards responsible for paving, drainage and lighting and other amenities, which had been established by over  two hundred and fifty Acts of Parliament, creating some ten thousand commissioners for the purpose. (GSOL, p.60)

Vested interests resisted yielding any of their authority, citing property rights and personal freedoms. John Snow, the cholera researcher, pleaded that the governance be reformed and urged:  “doing away with that form of liberty to which some communities cling, the sacred power to poison to death not only themselves but their neighbours”. (GSOL, p.61)

The Economist wrote in defence of the vested interests and against the reformers in 1848:

Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions; they cannot be got rid of;  and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good. Source 

An effective management body, the Metropolitan Board of Works, was finally established in 1853. It made several recommendations to improve the sewage system but, over the next five years, was granted little political or financial support. 

The Great Stink of 1858

In 1855, the great scientist  Michael Faraday wrote in a letter to The Times [my ellipses]:

I traversed this day by steam-boat the space between London and Hangerford Bridges…The appearance and the smell of the water forced themselves at once on my attention. The whole of the river was an opaque pale brown fluid. In order to test the degree of opacity, I tore up some white cards into pieces, moistened them so as to make them sink easily below the surface, and then dropped some of these pieces into the water at every pier the boat came to; before they had sunk an inch below the surface they were indistinguishable, though the sun shone brightly at the time; and when the pieces fell edgeways the lower part was hidden from sight before the upper part was under wate …Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface, even in water of this kind…

…The condition in which I saw the Thames may perhaps be considered as exceptional, but it ought to be an impossible stat, instead of which I fear it is rapidly becoming the general condition. If we neglect this subject, we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we to be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness. Source (via GSOL) 

From Wikipedia

Three years later, Faraday’s hot season came along and the stench from the river became so bad that the MPs in the newly constructed Parliament building could scarcely tolerate it.

An editorial in The Times  on June 18th, 1858, reads:

What a pity it is that the thermometer fell ten degrees yesterday. Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench. The intense heat had driven our legislators from those portions of their buildings which overlook the river. A few members, bent upon investigating the matter to its very depth, ventured into the library, but they were instantaneously driven to retreat, each man with a handkerchief to his nose. We are heartily glad of it. (GSOL, p. 71)

The Great Stink had the salutary consequence of focussing the minds of Parliamentarians and, on August 2nd, 1858, only eighteen days after the (Conservative) Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, had introduced it, a law was passed that gave the Metropolitan Board of Works the authority to borrow £3,000,000 to construct intercepting sewers to prevent human waste being dumped untreated into the Thames.

Under the direction of the engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, great embankments were built along the Thames. These embankments not only provided for the big intercepting sewers, which are still in use today, but also for parks, roads and sections of the London Underground District and Circle Lines.

What can we learn about the climate crisis from this story?

There are some similarities:

There are big and crucial differences, also:

a)      Carbon dioxide is invisible and odourless; appreciating its effects on the climate requires some cerebral effort. In contrast, we all have daily familiarity and an instinctive, quite literally visceral, reaction to human waste.

b)      The climatic effects of excess CO2 in the atmosphere will not be distributed equally across the world It will adversely affect some countries more than others and the poor more than the rich. In contrast, the stench from the Thames afflicted everyone in central London equally, whether plutocrat or pauper.

c)      The contribution of individuals to the climate crisis varies enormously, with current emissions per person varying by an order of magnitude or more.  Londoners contributed equally on a per capita basis (anatomically incorrect though that unit may be) to the city’s human waste problem.

d)      Victorian Londoners all belonged to one nation, with one language, one religion and one monarch and could be expected to show solidarity in a crisis.

e)      The climate crisis is gradual, with the effects unfolding over generations. The London sewage crisis became noticeably more noxious over the space of years. It’s relatively easy for us today to defer action on climate; most of us won’t live to see the worst consequences.

f)       Once the big intercepting sewers were in place, London’s problems eased. When action is finally taken on climate, the effects will not include a reversal of the adverse effects, but, at best, a stabilization of prevailing conditions. The mean effective lifetime of the fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere is 12-14 thousand years (Archer et al, 2009), the Thames in London is partially flushed twice a day by tides and continually by the flow of the river.

g)      The governance of London at municipal levels was initially chaotic and unequal to the task, but at least there was an over-arching and functioning government in the British Parliament, which was eventually able to create an effective management body, secure capital and raise taxes.  In contrast, The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has not yet, despite seventeen annual Conferences of the Parties, been able to produce an effective plan to resolve the climate crisis.

In his recent book A Perfect Moral Storm, The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, Stephen Gardiner identified three “storms” that come together in a wicked synergy to make the climate crisis an especially intractable problem.

  1. The Global Storm.  The unequal dispersion of cause and effect across the planet. See b), c) and d) above.
  2. The Intergenerational Storm. The effects of our emissions are deferred and will persist essentially for ever on historical timescales. See e) and f) above.
  3. The Theoretical Storm. We currently lack the institutions, conventions and tools—political, moral and economic—needed to tackle the exceptional problems posed by climate change and we are going to have to invent them as we go along. See g) above.

After this analysis it shouldn’t be difficult to appreciate why we’re not doing any better than the Londoners were in 1855. Actually, to quote climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert (pdf):

So far, we’re not doing any better than cyanobacteria.

Changing society’s mind and creating a Big Stink for climate action

No sane resident of a town or city in the developed world would nowadays challenge our sanitary laws and regulations on the grounds that they violate their inalienable right (in epidemiologist John Snow’s words, quoted earlier) “to poison to death not only themselves but their neighbours”. And nobody would claim that the scientific consensus on water-borne pathogens is an elaborate hoax designed to increase the authority and tax-raising power of municipalities. To be sure, there are valid objections as to how sanitary standards are to be set and enforced but no dispute about whether such regulations should exist. Since Victorian times, we have all of us changed our minds on this.

It is tempting to despair that attitudes will never shift quickly enough to drive meaningful action on climate change. But public opinion has changed radically before; sometimes even in favour of minorities and against the vested interests of the powerful and privileged. An example that springs to mind from the time just before the Great Stink of London is the abolition of slavery. More recently, attitudes have changed radically on a range of social issues. When watching a period TV drama such as Mad Men, which strives for historical authenticity, it is surprising to see the extent that societal standards have evolved in just fifty years; previously commonplace attitudes and behaviours have now become unacceptable or illegal.

Political change can be sudden and its relative painlessness can surprise the more pessimistic pundits. Consider the demise of the Soviet Union without the need for a global war, or of apartheid in South Africa, unaccompanied by the bloodbath and chaos that many saw as inevitable. No attitudes are immutable: the President of the United States is a black man.

It was fortuitous that the centre of the Great Stink of London occurred just outside the windows of the British Parliament, spurring complacent lawmakers into overdue action, if only for the sake of their own comfort. But the chances are low that climate change will produce a perfect storm that could cause physical distress to our politicians in their chambers and, even should that happen, it would probably anyway be too late by then. If our leaders are ever to be motivated to timely action on climate change by a Big Stink, then that stink is going to have be raised by us, their electors.

Posted by Andy Skuce on Sunday, 11 March, 2012

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