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  • Writer's pictureTim Coyne

A Malodorous Metropolis: London's "Great Stink" and the Birth of Modern Sanitation

“Whoso once inhales the stink, can never forget it, and may count himself lucky if he live to remember it.”


Prior to the 19th century, London's sewage system was ill-equipped to handle the rapid increase in population, which had risen from around 1 million in 1800 to over 2.5 million by the mid-19th century. This population boom was due in large part to the Industrial Revolution, which drew many people to the city for work. The outdated sewage system was unable to cope with the increased waste generated by this growing population, and as a result, raw sewage, industrial waste, and other pollutants were dumped directly into the River Thames.


The summer of 1858 was particularly hot, causing water levels in the Thames to drop and the river's contaminants to become more concentrated. The foul smell emanating from the river, which was described as a mix of rotting eggs, sewage, and decaying organic matter, became unbearable for those living and working nearby. The British Houses of Parliament, located right along the banks of the Thames, were directly affected by the stench, making it nearly impossible for the lawmakers to carry out their work.


In an effort to alleviate the odor, the curtains in the House of Commons were soaked in chloride of lime, a powerful disinfectant. However, this was not enough to combat the stench. As a result, parliamentary activities were disrupted, and there was talk of relocating the Parliament to another part of the city. In the end, the Parliament was not formally shut down, but the foul conditions and the constant interruptions to parliamentary activities highlighted the need for urgent action.


The Great Stink eventually led to significant public health reforms and the development of a modern sewage system for London. In response to the crisis, civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned to design a new, more efficient sewage system that would carry waste away from the city center and discharge it downstream into the Thames. The project, which took nearly a decade to complete, revolutionized urban sanitation and greatly improved the health and living conditions of Londoners.


These improvements to Waste Treatment were amazing, but to this day the burden of odor control now resides at the waste plants and their collection systems. Sterling Provides many plants with products such as Endimal™ and ActXone™ that can target these problem areas at the source. Unlike the outdated Chloride of Lime of old or the Odor masking agents of new, these products do not merely conceal the issue. To learn more about these and other odor control chemicals that can prevent an occurrence like the Great Stink in your City, consult a Sterling Water Treatment Specialist.

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