The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis

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Stephen Halliday describes the writing of this book as “a labour of love”, but it would take a strong stomach to love some of the material he includes about the 19th- century Thames. Two million people poured their sewage directly into the river, “more filth was continuously adding to it,” noted a contemporary, “until the Thames became absolutely pestilential”. In the 1850s the river was black, and in the hot summer of 1858 the stink was so unbearable that the Houses of Parliament were driven from the chamber. But a hero emerges from this smelly mess, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, a Victorian engineer of prodigious energy and foresight, who “turned the Thames from the filthiest to the cleanest metropolitan river in the world, which it remains.” Halliday is indeed a little in love with his subject, Bazalgette, but it is easy to see why.

The construction of the system of sanitation on which London still relies an enormous undertaking, but Bazalgette saw it through with tenacity and a kind of engineering genius. He saved more lives (by freeing the city from cholera) than any single Victorian public official. This book is a small marvel, elegantly written, generously illustrated and a fascinating insight into the guts of London.

By Stephen Halliday (15 Feb 2001)