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London Literally Stank In The Summer Of 1858 — Just Ask Dickens And Darwin

Londoners may feel hot this summer, but historian Rosemary Ashton says it's nothing compared to what the city endured in 1858. That was the year of "The Great Stink" — when the Thames River, hot and filled with sewage, made life miserable for the residents of the city.

"It was continuously hot for two to three months with temperatures up into the 90s quite often," Ashton says. "The hottest recorded day up to that point in history was the 16th of June, 1858, when the temperature reached 94.5 degrees Fahrenheit, in the shade."

Ashton tracks three famous Victorians during the steamy months of May through August, in her book One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858. That year, marital mores and public sanitation were the talk of the town. In a city confronting an inescapable environmental disaster, it was a time of disregard for good science.

London was on a knife's edge between modernity and medieval Britain. The world's largest ocean liner had been built, but no ports were big enough for it. Darwin was about to publish his theory of evolution, but was afraid of the reaction from religious groups. A few years earlier, physician John Snow had discovered that waterborne germs could cause cholera, but many doubted his findings. He died in 1858.

The future was on the horizon, but London was still stuck in the past — and Ashton says that's why she chose to focus so specifically on the summer of 1858.

Interview Highlights

On the smell coming from the Thames

At that time, unfortunately, as a matter of sanitary reform, the effluent of the two million inhabitants of London was being directly pitched into the Thames through the rainwater drains. And the Thames flowed up and down, back and forth, and never got rid of its toxic load. Meanwhile, drinking water was being hauled out of the Thames at the other end. And so of course disease was rife, the smell was impossible, and something had to be done. The newspapers in particular really got on the case of Parliament.

On the stench being the unintended result of an effort to install toilets around London

Beforehand everything had been collected by night soil men, who then took the stuff out to the countryside and gave it to the farmers to put on their fields. But the population of London had doubled in 50 years ... so it all became quite impossible.

But finally, in the summer of 1858, Parliament got its act together and passed the Thames Purification Bill which then let the rather wonderful, innovative engineer Joseph Bazalgette take the sewage in intercepting sewers right out of London.

On why divorce, adultery and marital discord were in the papers at the time

The previous year, 1857, Parliament had, after many years of trying, passed a divorce act which made divorce somewhat easier than it had been before. Divorce before the 1857 act was well nigh impossible unless you had a great deal of time and money on your side. And, of course for women, it was actually not possible at all. It was during our hot summer that some of the most interesting and difficult cases came to the court to the new divorce court and of course this was avidly followed by the reading public. ...

Dickens feared for half a moment in that summer that his wife might try to divorce him on the grounds of adultery with her sister. ... He escaped the heat — in both senses — in July, August 1858 and went off on a very successful reading tour.

On the smell reaching the Parliament

There's the famous moment ... when, on the 30th of June, a valiant committee of MPs, members of Parliament, had to rush from its committee room with handkerchiefs pressed to their noses. Because of course the Thames was washing to and fro along the walls of the houses of Parliament. And of course the newspapers [said] with glee: Serves them right! ... They finally have to do something because they can't do their job with this stink going on underneath their collective nose.

On naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace writing Darwin a letter from the field, revealing he'd also found evidence of evolution by natural selection

Darwin had been working on [his theory] for 20 years, but was very anxious to keep on getting more and more evidence and not to rush into publication — partly because he knew that religious figures would get upset, and his wife was devout and he was very anxious not to upset her. But what it did do was it galvanized him — because instead of him taking another four to five years and writing a book four or five times as long as [On the] Origin of Species he was fortunately forced into getting on with it and finishing it in one fairly brief volume and publishing it in 1859. So 1858 really is a kind of cradle for that.

James Delahoussaye, Lee Mengistu and Emily Kopp produced and edited the audio of this interview. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.