Sewage and Science

The famous ‘Great Stink’ of the summer of 1858, arising from the amount of sewage pouring untreated into the Thames, gave rise to measures such as draping curtains soaked in chloride of lime over the windows and doors of the House of Commons, and to plans to relocate Parliament to Hampton Court, and the Law Courts to Oxford or St Albans. The immediate crisis passed when the summer ended in heavy rains, but in order to prevent a recurrence, the decision was taken to build an enormous linked sewage system under the streets of London. This had the welcome side-effect of eliminating cholera and typhoid in many areas where sewage was polluting the local water supply, even though the belief at the time was that it was a ‘miasma’ from the sewage which gave rise to the epidemics.

It was fascinating to read in the second volume of The Life and Letters of Faraday of the great scientist’s experiment as he travelled in a steamboat on the Thames in 1855: ‘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, and then 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 undistinguishable . . . the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface . . . The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water . . . 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 season give us sad proofs of the folly of our carelessness.’ (Letter to The Times, 7 July 1855.)

It is appropriate that a statue of Faraday now stands in Savoy Place, overlooking the (much cleaner) Thames, in front of the Institute of Engineering and Technology.

Caroline

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One Response to Sewage and Science

  1. Pingback: ‘The First and Greatest of English Geographers’ | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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