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The Thames Festilence

The Leader

“The Thames Festilence,” The Leader (London), June 19, 1858, 591 – 92.

With at least 2.5 million people in the mid-nineteenth century, London was the largest city in the world. Its population grew rapidly because of industrialization, and the city did not have the infrastructure to support its population. There was no sewage treatment system. There were some sewer pipes, but everything flowed into the Thames River, which flows through the middle of the city. At the same time, Londoners drank water that had come straight out of the same river. In the summer of 1858, London was unusually hot (over 30 degrees Celsius, which is 86 degrees Fahrenheit). This produced what Londoners later called “the Great Stink,” described in this article from a London newspaper in June 1858. It’s not a coincidence that Parliament (whose building is right on the river) passed a law that summer authorizing (and paying for) a massive sewer infrastructure project.



noisome: smelly

contagion: infectious disease

ordure: manure, feces

putrescence: the state of being rotten, rotten garbage

latrinaries: outhouses

deleterious: bad, harmful

profane: using impolite words, foul language

putrefaction: state of rotting

miasma: stink, bad smell. Before germs were discovered, doctors thought that miasma spread diseases.


This source introduces students to a wide variety of synonyms for disgusting phenomena, which should make it fairly interesting. There is a literacy strategy to support English learners and those who read below grade level. Students should grasp the key connection between the processes of industrialization and urbanization and a huge environmental problem. People had been throwing their garbage and draining their sewage into the Thames and other rivers for centuries, but the concentration of population in one place —  due to industrialization — caused environmental crisis. This crisis pushed Parliament to action, and they made a law that authorized and paid for the creation of a government agency responsible for the massive sewage and embankment project shown in the next source. Politicians in favor of the law used the stink wafting into their windows and the pressure from newspaper articles such as this one to urge their colleagues to vote for the measure. The arguments against it — that it would cost too much money, and that it would extend the role of the national government into areas it had not before regulated — are familiar.

A gigantic flood of poison swells daily and nightly in the metropolis. The Mississippi is the Father of Waters — the Thames is the Mother of Stenches. Putrid and noisome, our river rolls the filth of London to within a few miles of the sea; the sea drives it back in an aggravated stage of decomposition, and here the abomination floats between the Thames Tunnel and Battersea, hourly blackening, rotting, and steaming with vast escapes of contagion. Members of Parliament and mudlarks, porters on piers and passengers by steamboats, sicken under the loathsome influence; city physicians and surgeons find the numbers of their patients increased; something only a few degrees removed from cholera makes its appearance, and the Board of Works deliberates upon the necessity of “doing something.” . . . The Thames will still be our main drain — our huge receptacle of dead animals, decayed vegetables, ordure, putrescence and all else that should be carried far from the habitations of men. It will still be a body of murky, cloudy, dense, and stinking liquid. . . . With a hundred fountains, fed by the latrinaries, urinals and other deleterious sources playing into its bed, it will remain the great Plague of London — a perpetual nuisance and pollution. Legislators in the library of the [House of] Commons express themselves with profane emphasis when the gross vapour rises to their nostrils. . . . The summer, which blesses the land, curses the water — at least in the London valley. The slimy putrefaction of the Thames simmers in the heat, and from every bubble breaks a discharge of insufferable miasma.