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They emptied and filled in the cesspools, and installed water closets, restoring the inhabitants to good health. Does he really consider it so great a triumph to have cleansed an Augean stable in Westminster of cartloads of refuse and corruption? What has Mr. Chadwick done with his cartloads of filth? Has he sent them to fertilize the fields of Kent or Essex? No; he has sent them into the river, that the whole metropolis may share his favours, and that the poison which is ejected from Westminster may circulate with freedom throughout Lambeth and Southwark.
In all that Mr. Chadwick has done he has simply relieved one locality at the expense of others. Shortly after that was published, the MCS was dissolved and reconstructed without Chadwick, but the new regime apparently agreed with his view that dumping sewage into the Thames was a lesser evil than leaving it in cesspools and sewers.
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Through the s, the MCS employed teams of men who, for a modest fee, would pump out cesspools, and transfer the contents to the river. The transition to water closets—a true technological revolution—can be seen in two statistics. Between and , the number of London houses with running water increased from , to , And in the same period, the average usage per house rose from to gallons per day. Many houses, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, still had no running water, but those that did were using much more, and the increased water flow was carrying dirt and excrement into sewers and the Thames.
The concentrated refuse of some millions of people are daily poured into the Thames in the immediate vicinity of their habitations. This refuse consists of waste and effete material of all kinds, including solid excrements and urine, compounded of a variety of noxious and hurtful substances. Again, this refuse, bad and offensive as it is originally, is not poured at once and directly into the Thames, but is first discharged into the sewers, where it accumulates, festering and rotting, and by its decomposition gives rise to the generation of various additional hurtful or poisonous compounds; and it is in this foul state that it is conveyed to the river, where, mingled with water, it undergoes further corruption….
To such an extent has the river been polluted with sewage this year, that the water for miles, from Chelsea in the one direction, to Blackwall in the other, has become almost black, and has, in fact, presented the appearance of sewage itself, so that, without the least exaggeration, the river may be said to be transformed into one vast uncovered sewer, reeking with noxious and pestiferous abominations.
The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water; it was the same as that which now comes from the gullyholes [sewer grates] in the street. When the MCS was dissolved and reformed in , the balance of its membership shifted away from local politicians and reformers toward engineers who viewed sewage as a technical problem, rather than one of health or social justice. But anyone who expected them to act more expeditiously than the Chadwick-dominated MCS was soon disillusioned. For six years, the engineers debated and discussed possible ways of diverting sewage from the Thames.
The government dissolved and reconstituted the commission four more times, before replacing it entirely in December with a new Metropolitan Board of Works MBW , which was elected by the various local governments in London. Although it was given an explicit mandate to get the sewage out of London, its endless discussions and debates quickly earned it the derisive label Metropolitan Board of Words.
The Commissions could not raise money without government approval, and not even the return of cholera in —54 loosened the political purse strings. While the rich still feared the disease, most of the 11, Londoners who died in that outbreak lived in poor districts on the south bank, so the rich, most of whom lived north of the river, did not feel directly threatened. By the beginning of , efforts to design a new sewer system were at a stalemate. June was the hottest month in living memory. People who lived or worked near the river complained of nausea, vomiting, and fainting.
The queen cut short a river cruise after 10 minutes. Barges spread over tons of deodorizing chemicals a day on the river banks near sewer outlets, with little effect. Parliament itself was disrupted, and committee meetings had to be cancelled because it was too hot to have the windows closed, and too disgusting to leave them open. The engineer responsible for ventilation in the Parliament buildings had cloths soaked in lime-chloride hung by windows on the river side, but warned that he could not protect the health of MPs.
The result we all know. Stench so foul, we may well believe, had never before ascended to pollute this lower air. Never before, at least, had a stink risen to the height of an historic event. For people who believed that all smell was disease, this was a frightening event—a powerful miasma that threatened new epidemics. Newspapers and magazines were filled with articles on the possible deadly effects of the Great Stink.
If Parliament can only be made to interfere by its own decimation we must make up our minds to the dreadful sacrifice. Disease did not produce action, but fear of disease did. There had never before been a construction project so large and complex. Thousands of workers, many working far below the most densely inhabited parts of the city, built three brick-lined tunnels north of the river and two on the south. The Victoria, Albert, and Chelsea embankments—54 acres of new land—were built to enclose the sewers that were built beneath the river bed on either side.
Their vertical granite-faced walls replaced low muddy banks, forcing the narrowed river to flow faster, scouring the bottom, and moving sewage from upstream more quickly through London. Twice a day, just after high tide, the reservoirs were emptied into the Thames.
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It pours daily 96,, gallons of crude sewage into the near reaches of the Thames, and pretends to think bad smells and putrid shoals are the simple phantasms of morbid fancy or malicious prejudice. When the MBW was finally ordered to act, it simply relocated the problem again. Beginning in , the company used chemicals to separate liquids from solids—the liquids went into the Thames, while 3, tons of sludge a day was loaded onto barges and dumped fifteen miles offshore.
In the s and s, the campaign for sanitary reform promoted what might be called proto-ecological ideas, ecological thinking before the concept existed. Most common was the view that humanity was breaking the circle of life by not returning its excrement to the soil. The mere removal of the decomposing mass is but a shifting of the mischief. The great cycle of life, decay and reproduction must be completed, and so long as the elements of reproduction are not employed for good, they will work for evil.
In Nature everything moves in a circle—perpetually changing, and yet ever returning to the point whence it started. That which supports respiration in us produces putrefaction in them. What our lungs throw off, their lungs absorb—what our bodies reject, their roots imbibe…. In every well-regulated State, therefore, an effective and rapid means for carrying off the ordure of the people to a locality where it may be fruitful instead of destructive, becomes a most important consideration. Both the health and the wealth of the nation depend upon it.