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June 23, 2024 40 mins

Every city has its drawbacks -- parking, for example, or crime, or the price of a decent pizza slice -- but in the 1800s London faced a particularly unusual and disgusting problem: the city literally stank. And this wasn't an occasional whiff of urine or hot garbage from an alleyway, oh no. Instead, a pervasive stench permeated the area, an odor so strong that it disrupted Parliament, forcing the government to take action (and eventually rewriting our understanding of disease in the process).

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Ooh, that smell. This is a classic episode ridiculous historians.
Thank you for joining us. Have you ever been to London, folks?
I think you and I I'm Ben, we've both been
to London and we had a pretty great time.

Speaker 2 (00:15):
You know, I haven't been in London since I was
a very small child. My mom used to tell me
that I pooped my pants on every heath in the
city of London Town. That's the way she tells that story.
I can neither confirm nor deny that. But there was
a time in London where it smelled as though everyone
had pooped their pants all the time.

Speaker 1 (00:35):
Yeah, the city smelled so so bad, and it wasn't
It wasn't like walking in New York today. New York
has a cavalcade of amazing and terrible smells right block
by block.

Speaker 2 (00:48):
That's right, and he kind of kind of comes and goes.
You catch it in little waves. The Great Stink of
London was so absolutely stinky that essentially it was due
to we'll get into it in the episode, but it
was due to a lack of the kinds of things
that many of us take for granted today, like things
like sanitation, things like sewage you know, infrastructure, et cetera.

But they were all kinds of theories as to what
was causing the stink and what was it doing to people,
everything from the miasma theory, which I really like, you know,
this idea of like it was this this disease cloud.
I guess that was what it was. Actually. Also the
water was poison because it had lots of poopin bodies

to dead bodies. Think of money, Python, bring out your dead,
you know, just piles of I mean, this is a
little bit of a different era, but this is the
eighteen hundred in London and they had a problem, and
boy did they need someone to help them solve it.
Check out the hook while the DJ revolves it.

Speaker 1 (01:52):
Let's get a whiff of London in the eighteen hundreds.
Oh yeah, ridiculous history. The production of iHeartRadio. Ladies and gentlemen,

welcome to the show. I've got to say right now,
my co hosts and I are you know, we're dressed
pretty well, we're dressed comfortably, and we're sitting in a
studio that has some great air conditioning.

Speaker 2 (02:41):
My name is Ben, Ben, my name is Noah, which
you know, and well, what's that what's that stank? What's that?

Speaker 1 (02:49):
Do we put some stink on it?

Speaker 2 (02:50):
I don't know. I mean you mentioned the air conditioning,
but it's feeling a little stagnant in here today, and
I'm wondering it was it you?

Speaker 1 (03:00):
No, it wasn't It wasn't me. But we do share
this studio with other people.

Speaker 2 (03:04):
Perhaps it is I who have dealt it before, I
have smelled it.

Speaker 1 (03:08):
This is something that has very little to do with
today's episode, but it's an interesting question.

Speaker 2 (03:13):
It's got as much to do as today's episode as anything.

Speaker 1 (03:15):
No, no, no, no, what I'm about to bring up.
Have you noticed, perhaps you know or you our super
producer Casey Pegram Ladies and gentlemen, have you, guys ever
noticed when you walk into a room, you'll sense a
smell and it may be very good, it may be
very bad, but then within a matter of a few
seconds or minutes, it sort of dissipates and you don't

notice it. Does that happen to you?

Speaker 2 (03:40):
You know? It's true if I have, like, for example,
let's say I haven't done laundry in a couple of days,
and I have the laundry basket in my room. It's
sort of you know, becomes the base level of the
smell of the room. But if I've stayed overnight somewhere else,
hubba hubba, and then I come back the next day,
I'm like, ho, laundry days?

Speaker 1 (04:00):
What unfresh?

Speaker 2 (04:01):
L is this?

Speaker 1 (04:02):
Right? So we know that this is a phenomenon that
a lot of us have experienced. But the fact remains
that some smells are so strong that you you don't
forget them now, or you can't you can't teach your
nose to ignore them. And today's episode is about a
stink that was far beyond what you would normally consider smelling.

Speaker 2 (04:26):
What either I or ben hath dealt previously, that's up
for debates.

Speaker 1 (04:31):
And likely far beyond what we have smelled. Indeed, what
what what we're talking about here is something called the
Great Stink of London.

Speaker 2 (04:42):
So someone got upset about something. Is that what you're saying?
They made a fuss?

Speaker 1 (04:47):
Oh, if only there were fusses involved, right, there were,
There were fusses involved, and the city was in crisis.
But also literally was a stink, a stench a reek.

Speaker 2 (05:02):
And the asthma. Oh, here we go of feces, cooking smells,
think of think of city smells, you know New York City,
for example, Think of the way it smells walking down
the street, the way you can pass through so many
different aromas as you travel, right, Like one corner might
smell like boil peanuts, and then you get hot dogs,
and then you get dog crap, and then you know

urine and stale beer. Well think about that, but combined
with stagnant, rotting feces buried in open pits.

Speaker 1 (05:35):
And also livestock corpses right from the butchery, possibly dead
bodies due to disease outbreaks, the cholera right, like we
covered in our previous episode on London's Train for the Dead,
they were literally piling bodies upon one another because there
was not room in the you know, in the conventional

cemeteries or morgues. So what we're saying, with all due
respect to the great city of London, is that it
used to be filthy.

Speaker 2 (06:06):
Yeah, I mean, those delightful little street urchins in Oliver.
You know, there's no way they could have done those
sweet dance moves, you know, with that funk in the air.
They would have fallen over dead from just pure hyperventilating exhaustion.
And we're talking about the eighteen hundreds. But this all
kind of came to a head, didn't it, Ben in

a particular summer of stank.

Speaker 1 (06:31):
Yes, yes, you're absolutely right, Nol. In the infamous and
stench ridden summer of eighteen fifty eight, London was I
don't want to say paralyzed, but maybe traumatized as a
fair word, by a pervasive smell that was flooding the

streets and wasn't moving from the town. The temperature was
around ninety degrees fahrenheit or thirty two degrees celsius. And
what people noticed was that this smell was not class based.
It didn't matter if you were wealthy or if you

were poor, or if you lived in a particular neighborhood.
Anything near, especially anything near the Thames, was going to stink,
and there wasn't much you could do about it. And
part of the problem goes into the skyrocketing urban growth
at the.

Speaker 2 (07:31):
Time, absolutely, and the lack of a municipal sewer system. Yeah,
I mean, as we're saying, they did have sort of
storm drain type situations that would essentially drain rain runoff
back out into the river. But with that overflow of
human bodies, live ones that poop that was all becoming waste,

human waste, right, instead of brainwater, it was wastewater because
you know, some people, the wealthier people had you know,
privies or there were even flush toilets. We'll get into
that a little later. And poor people especially, you know,
it wasn't even into poor people rich people divide. They
didn't have a sewer system, so that waste had to

go somewhere, and that somewhere were these cesspits, of which
there were in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand in
London alone. London is a sprawling metropolis.

Speaker 1 (08:33):
Yes, yeah, it's sprawling and at this point dirty metropolis.
In an article called Solving the Great Stink, which we
will not read the full headline yet because it contains spoilers, right,
so from now it's just the article named Solving the
Great Stink by Ella Morton, and in this Morton introduces
readers to one of the coolest names you and I

have found in the course of our research, right, because
these these cesspits are filling up with fecal matter, right,
and there's only so much room in your average cess pit.

Speaker 2 (09:07):
Six feet six feet in case that.

Speaker 1 (09:09):
Comes up on your next blind.

Speaker 2 (09:11):
Day, six feet of pooh potential there that.

Speaker 1 (09:14):
Might be important to your tender conversation. Yeah, so there's
a definitive amount, there's a threshold, and at some point
these pits need to be emptied out. It's literally a
dirty job and someone has to do it. And that's
where we learn about the Nightmen. Oh, yes, yes, we

are always sunny in Philadelphia fans here, Casey, are you
a fan of that show? Yeah, Oh we got a
definitive nod. Yeah, that was emphatic. That was one of
his phoned in nods. But these Nightmen were real people
who had a very demanding job. They had to go
into these cess pits, working under the cover of darkness

and empty these things physically. So this is hard, physical labor.
And the stinch isn't just inconvenient at this point, it's dangerous.

Speaker 2 (10:08):
Yeah, and these Nightmen armed with nothing but buckets, rope
and go get her attitude. I guess, would you know
and enter these pits and yeah, that smell was actually
physically damaging. It could give you cough, It could actually

cause you know, burning your eyes, you know, watering of
the eyes, like all kinds of you get infections, you know.
I mean it was really really bad. It was just
and especially when they're kind of down in it like that,
you know, this was not a job for the faint
of heart. These were kind of heroes in a way.

Speaker 1 (10:48):
They were heroes, and they were also working against nigh
impossible odds. No matter how assiduously or regularly they empty
these cesspits, what was happening is there were just too
many people adding to the waste and they could barely
contain it. And let's say they weren't able to empty

all the sesspits completely, right, very likely at this time.
And what happens is that these cesspits start baking under
the high summer temperatures.

Speaker 2 (11:21):
Yeah, that's right, and the sun would get up to
around one hundred and eighteen degrees during the summer, which
is like West coast desert temperatures, you know, And you
think about that baking putrefying cesspit, not to mention that
it would leach into the soil, into the groundwater or

whatever and then make its way into the Thames, which
was London's primary supply of drinking water.

Speaker 1 (11:51):
Yes, I'm so glad you mentioned that, because we found
something that surprised us I don't want to speak for
both of us, but I was surprised that surprised us
when it came to the history of medicine at the time,
because you know, we mentioned briefly in our episode on

London's Train for the Dead that there were outbreaks of
cholera in London, but we'd like to give you a
little more detail there to set the stage, because this
wasn't just an occasional one person is sick and one
neighborhood thing, right.

Speaker 2 (12:27):
No, No, Around forty thousand people died of cholera in
London alone between eighteen thirty one and eighteen sixty six.
And the thing was nobody knew. Not only did they
not know what caused it, they had absolutely no idea
how to treat it. And the prevailing theory of the
time was this thing called miasma, theory that even you know,

medical luminaries like Florence Nightingale were all about. Yeah, and
this was the notion that you got cholera from the
funk alone.

Speaker 1 (12:58):
The smell, like, if you can smell it, that means
that you are in an invisible cloud of disease known
as miasma. He smelled it, he felt it right, there
you go, there you go.

Speaker 2 (13:09):
But that was not true.

Speaker 1 (13:10):
That was clearly now that we have the benefit of
looking back in time, it was clearly not the case,
but it was widely believed by luminaries of the age.
There was a fellow named Edwin Chadwick who wrote a
report on the sanitary condition of the laboring population of
Great Britain in eighteen forty two, and he argued exactly this.

He argued that noxious smells were responsible for disease and
the real problem, he said, with cholera and these other outbreaks,
was a matter of ventilation. And he said in a
parliamentary committee meetiing in eighteen forty six, all smell is
if it be intense, immediate, acute disease, and eventually we

may say that by depressing the system and rendering it
suceptible to the action of other causes, all smell is disease,
which is a pretty pretty bold and definitive statement, especially
considering that it's you know, not true.

Speaker 2 (14:12):
No, it's not true. And like I said, they didn't
know how to treat it either. So treatments ranged from
opiates to things like blood letting, bleeding, people burning their
skin I'm getting some of these facts from a really
cool article called ten Amazing Facts about the Cholera and
the Great Stink of London from five Minute History. And

then there are some more gentle cures, some more homeopathic
things like using camphor or a syrup of tomato. Some
of these came from a book called TJ. Ritter's Mother's Remedies,
and those were more like folkloric kind of homeopathic remedies.
But now none of this stuff work. The opiate's probably
made you feel better, I guess sure, because you're super high.

Speaker 1 (14:57):
But I guess Jen might do the same thing for people.

Speaker 2 (14:59):
This is very true. And the thing I want to
mention here to jump off what you said about that
if you contain the smell, you can contain the spread
of the contamination. That couldn't be farther from the truth,
especially in the way that they were trying to contain
the smell by dumping all of this waste into their
water supply, right, they were trying to get it out

of their vicinity, but it was coming back to them
in the way that was actually infecting them. Because cholera
it's water borne.

Speaker 1 (15:28):
Yes, yeah, And also just pollution in general, one very
important thing about putting waste into the Thames is that
it is tidal, which means, for instance, if you took
the corpse of a horse that you had for some reason,
and you threw it in the Thames right as the
tide's going out, then tide comes back in and the

water remains contaminated. But because they were so focused on
the idea that smell was the cause and the indicator
of this, you know, this epidemic and this outbreak, they
did not focus on a point that Noel just raised there,
which is the drinking water. We've mentioned this a couple
times already, and we are not alone. There's a character,

a real person, sorry, an anesthesiologist of the time named
John Snow spelled the same way. It's the game of thrones.

Speaker 2 (16:23):
Guy, did he know nothing?

Speaker 1 (16:25):
It turns out he knew at least one thing.

Speaker 2 (16:27):
What was that one thing?

Speaker 1 (16:28):
It was one thing? Is that he is, according to
death and Miasma and Victorian London, an obstinate belief.

Speaker 2 (16:35):
You could see the idea there by a.

Speaker 1 (16:37):
Lecturer named Stephen Holliday Snow had a very important contribution.
He argued that polluted water, rather than air, was the
principal cause of cholera epidemics, and no other experts believed
him for some time. He got their version of the
cool story bro treatment. So snow wasn't just you know,

holding a glass of water to the light and looking
at it and saying, hey, I think that's a turd
in there or something. What he was doing was mapping
out pollution free water sites, polluted water sites, and the
spread of disease, specifically cholera. In eighteen fifty seven he
showed that the number of deaths from cholera among customers

at the Southwark Water Company was six times higher than
among customers of the Lambeth Water Company, and he attributed
this difference to the fact that the Lambeth Company drew
its water from Tim's Ditton above the Teddington Lock where
there was no danger from sewage in the tideway. So
because they were drinking you know, non sewage riddled water, yeah,

they were less likely to get colera.

Speaker 2 (17:54):
Genius. No, I mean, I'm kidding, But at the time
it was a mystery.

Speaker 1 (18:00):
It was still ignored, but all was not lost because
there was progress in terms of sanitation. Right Like earlier
you had mentioned that not everybody was just I don't know,
squatting by the roadside.

Speaker 2 (18:15):
Yeah, no, there were definitely different calibers of restroom facilities.
In fact, it wasn't until doing the research for this
episode that I discovered many of you may already know this,
that flush toilets were a thing in this period in
Victorian England. They were quite ornate. In fact, I found
some images of flush toilets in that article I mentioned

from five Minute History, and they look more like like
fine China than something you would squat on to relieve yourself.
And they had those nice pull handles on the chain,
you know, that are up top. All that technology was
around because it was actually invented by a guy named
Sir John Harrington. He came up with the original design

for the flush toilet, and I'm looking at it right
here on HISTORICUK dot com in an article called the
Throne of Sir John Harrington by Ellencastelo, and the illustration
of his design is very very much similar to what
we still have today. It's got that p trap at
the bottom so that water doesn't stagnate or you.

Speaker 1 (19:22):
Know, the smell doesn't go smell.

Speaker 2 (19:24):
Yeah, that's what it is. That it creates a layer
of water in that crook because that's what guards against
the smell. And it has sort of a bobber kind
of situation, very similar, a little more crude. But the
middle class loved these things. They still do.

Speaker 1 (19:40):
Yeah, I'm pretty pro sanitation myself.

Speaker 2 (19:43):
Yeah. Now the new thing is the Japanese toilets. They
haven't improved on the flush part. Now, it's just the
stuff that it does to your butt.

Speaker 1 (19:49):
It's like a whole experience though it's not just a
bidet function. It'll play music for you, you know.

Speaker 2 (19:54):
And can choose the direction of rotation of the water temperature.
Oh yeah, I know about the temperature. Yeah. No, I've
had the privilege of sitting upon a quite delightful one.
And yeah, you can go clockwise counterclockwise. It's more like
a massage chair than it is a lavatory. But I digress.

So the flush toilet was huge among the middle class
who could afford it. And you know, in middle class,
they you know, weren't megal wealthy.

Speaker 1 (20:23):
But they were like merchants.

Speaker 2 (20:24):
Were merchants owned proper. You could afford the finer things,
you know, ish because you know, the gap between rich
and poor was quite wide. The fact, there was a
middle class at all. You know, they were head and
tails above the very poor people. So even that gap
was massive, sure, but the gap in the middle class
and the aristocracy also massive. But these toilets were flushing

practically into the streets or like into these pits, right, yeah,
because there was no sewer system.

Speaker 1 (20:55):
It's kind of like having a phone that doesn't connect
to a network, except instead of the sounds of your
voice through a phone line, you know, it's it's excrement.

Speaker 2 (21:07):
See in eighteen forty six, Parliament past this law called
the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act, which also went
by the Cholera Bill, and it encouraged people to keep
their homes as spotlessly clean as possible to help get
rid of the smell. So the idea of this flush
toilet was that it would carry the waste away from

your home, you know, like we know, it went somewhere,
and it actually made things way worse.

Speaker 1 (21:37):
Right because there was still not a there was still
not a decent transit system, there was not a purification
system of any sort. And as we mentioned before, since
the Thames's title, what goes around comes back, you know,
not pet semeentary style, but still in a very disturbing way.

I feel like I'm always just trying to work pets
cemeterian to references.

Speaker 2 (22:01):
You know that movie ruined me, right, Ben, I know.

Speaker 1 (22:04):
I'm sorry, Man, I promise I at least won't do
the accent. But perhaps I'm being unfair because they did
have something like a transit system for this sort of
a proto sewer, but it just went to the river, right.

Speaker 2 (22:21):
Yeah, Like I said, it was kind of more designed
to deal with the overflow from rain storm water, right,
and that was and then it would just bring it
back out to the river, But it was not designed
to deal with six feet of human stank. Yeah, exactly.
And the thing is, because of that colera Bille and

the notion that if we carry the stink away were
less likely to get this fatal disease, people flushed their
toilets way more than they should, and they flushed out
that proto sewer way more than they should, which led
to much more sewage going out into the river and

then back in to the drink.

Speaker 1 (23:03):
Yeah, so gross. So this this also comes to a head.
We've got cholera, we've got other diseases, We've got increasingly
panic public sectors, and this comes to a head in
Parliament where in eighteen fifty eight, in this time, they
are so affected by the smell that they cannot stay

in the building and they're taking these desperate mcguiver like
measures to try to keep the smell out.

Speaker 2 (23:34):
What they use a.

Speaker 1 (23:36):
Lime chloride or a chloride of lime and apply it
to the curtains by the windows.

Speaker 2 (23:41):
Like soak the curtains and the stuff.

Speaker 1 (23:43):
No dice, No, it didn't work. It didn't work. No,
didn't work well.

Speaker 2 (23:47):
Poop rose by any other name still smells like poop ben. Yes.

Speaker 1 (23:50):
Yeah. And they said we cannot We have no idea
what we can do here. They could rarely gather their
wits enough to hold a meeting. And there are anecdotes
you can see where one of the people who's in
charge of cleanliness in the building says that he can

no longer be responsible for what's happening.

Speaker 2 (24:15):
Now. How could you be expected to pontificate when you
know your nostrils are filled with this overwhelming foul smell.
I want to add one little thing to you. Mentioned
John Snow figuring out that the cholera was waterborn. There
was another dude that had an interesting role to play.
A little scientist by the name of Michael Faraday, who

you may know from the TV.

Speaker 1 (24:40):
Show Lost Right or the Faraday Case.

Speaker 2 (24:44):
That more. No spoilers though for Lost on Ridiculous History.
I wouldn't do that.

Speaker 1 (24:49):
We burned that bridge on our other show.

Speaker 2 (24:51):
It's true. But Faraday, there's a great quote from him
from that five minute history article where he did some tests.
He took some samples, and he described the situation as such,
near the bridges, the feculence rolled up in clouds so
dense they were visible at the surface. The whole river

was for the time a real sewer. Michael Faraday.

Speaker 1 (25:17):
Feculence. God, that's a beautiful word. Really a horrific thing.
So Parliament realized that they could not ignore this. They
couldn't keep the stereotypical stiff upper lip of the aristocracy.
They had to fix this problem.

Speaker 2 (25:34):
It was affecting them directly. I mean, you could argue
this is the kind of thing that's easy for politicians
to get behind ay because this there's nothing controversial about
wanting to get rid of this problem. This is affecting everyone.
People are dying by the thousands, and the Prince had
to cancel his pleasure cruise on the Deames. What's the

young monarch to do? Oh boy, things got serious, Ben, Yes, yes.

Speaker 1 (26:00):
You're absolutely correct, my friends, because there had been plans
in place for a comprehensive sewage system or sewer edge system.
We have to say it that way, right, kiloage.

Speaker 2 (26:14):
We absolutely have to say it that way.

Speaker 1 (26:16):
Yes, yes, with that accident, this plan had been proposed
by a fellow named Joseph Basilget, and he had been
pitching this for a little while, but finally, due to
the great stink, Parliament approved a bill to combat this
and it took them less than eighteen days, which is
actually pretty fast.

Speaker 2 (26:36):
For imagine that though. I mean, if you're gonna get
something done quick, let's stop the feces from flowing through
our streets freely.

Speaker 1 (26:44):
Yeah, we have to emphasize. It stank the entire time,
and you know it's it's like one long fart joke.

Speaker 2 (26:50):
Yeah, oh yeah, that's kind of what this episode is.
This guy's basil Get was a civil engineer, right right.

Speaker 1 (26:57):
He was a civil engineer who played a vital role
in honestly saving the city. That's not hyperbole for us
to describe it this way in an article called Construction
of London's Victorian Sewers. The vital role of Joseph Basilget,
an alter name GC Cook gives us a brief introduction.

So Joseph Basilget was born in eighteen nineteen. At the
time he was the chief Municipal Engineer to the Metropolitan
Board of Works or MBW. And when Parliament was passing
the blame or trying to pass the buck to see
who they could scapegoat for this or who they could
blame for it, members of Parliament directly said, you know,

this is the job of the Metropolitan Board of Works,
not us, these guys. And so he finally got some
attention to his elaborate planned sewerage system. It had three
objectives one waste disposal, two land draining and three introduction

of a safe water supply system. And that made it
a you know, that was a big difference in comparison
to earlier plans or existing infrastructure.

Speaker 2 (28:10):
And this van was a wizard because he actually added
a fourth thing, which was beautification. Who'd have thought that
putting in a sewer would actually make London like look prettier.
There were a lot of things that came from this
job that added a lot of wow factor to the city,
like the embankments on the sides of the Thames.

Speaker 1 (28:32):
So let's set this scene. Before Basilgat's projects, the embankments
were disgusting. There's mudd and poop everywhere, filthy, dead bodies
caked with.

Speaker 2 (28:45):
Awful O f f al exactly. So what happened, Well,
what happened, Ben, is that basil Gat employed four hundred
draftsmen to draw up the plans for his sewer system.
This is a huge, huge project and in that five
minute history article, which I really recommend you checking out it,

so it's fantastic. We've pulled some things from it, but
a lot of stuff we have not mentioned. Basilget was
quoted as saying, well, we're only going to do this once,
and there's always the unforeseen. So he doubled his measurements
for the sizes the pipes should be based on the
calculations he had done. And wow, what do you know,
in the sixties, if he had done it based on
his original calculations, the sewer would have overflowed.

Speaker 1 (29:30):
Oh wow, yeah, smart guy.

Speaker 2 (29:32):
Very smart guy, very exacting. Let's just set the scene
for what the scope of this project was for hundred
draftsmen to just lay out the plans. It was eighty
two miles long of the main part the main sewer system,
eleven hundred miles of street I guess runoff areas. And
then there were these massive ornate pumping stations and these

are beautiful.

Speaker 1 (29:56):
These these look like religious structure.

Speaker 2 (30:00):
And then they had water treatment centered as well. But yeah, dude,
the pumping stations are a thing to behold. And there
are two that you can still see today, one at
Crossness and they had steam pumps that were named after
they had really fancy names. My note here says fancy
pants pump names which were Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward

and Alexandria, which were all members of the British royal
family at the time. And then there's another one called
Abbey Mills, and both of them have these ornate Byzantine
architecture designs. They look like some sort of temple or something.
It's insane. And apparently one of them you can rent
out today, the Crossness station, which is on the South

Bank in Bexley.

Speaker 1 (30:49):
Oh yeah, it is for what it is for product launches.
That's one of the uses.

Speaker 2 (30:53):
Right, there's an official website for this, and they recommend
that you give it a shot for product launches, experience
theater productions, or making viral videos.

Speaker 1 (31:05):
That's the one that surprised me as well. Who sets
out and says, all right, we're going to make this
viral video. It's time to time to book the location.

Speaker 2 (31:16):
It'd be cool for a music video, you know, Like
I said, it's gorgeous.

Speaker 1 (31:19):
It'd be a great setting for an action film or
a thriller.

Speaker 2 (31:23):
Yeah, because you know, you don't you don't even see
what the original intent was. They're just these insanely huge
structures because the pumps themselves were underneath the floor of
the building itself. So when you go in, it's like
just this gorgeous space and very high, very high ceilings,
a lot of intricate marble, I want to say, and
like tile work and stuff, and you don't really see

the guts of what it's actually doing.

Speaker 1 (31:50):
And we would love to hear from you if you
have visited here. Now. The problem wasn't solved automatically because
I think you can tell friends and neighbors from the
scope of this operation. It took several years for this
to be completed, right, So you know, Rome was not
built in a day, neither was Basilgat's dream system. But

as they were building this system, they noticed that there
were advantages to populations and neighborhoods that were hooked up
to it, and they started to pay more attention to
John Snow's previously dismissed belief about contamination in water. And
when we say years, we mean what was it nearly

a decade?

Speaker 2 (32:38):
Was over a decade, over a decade, over a decade
they opened it officially, unofficially, I don't know. In eighteen
sixty five, Edward, Prince of Wales had a like a
ribbon cutting ceremony, but it wasn't going to be finished
for ten more years from that point, right exactly.

Speaker 1 (32:53):
And as this construction was occurring, there were people in
parts of London that were not part of the system
that were still drinking contaminated water, encountering disease, encountering cholera,
And in eighteen sixty six London had another cholera epidemic.
But people noticed this epidemic occurred in an area that

was not yet protected by Basaga's sewerage system, in the
East End. Spot on, and this caught the attention of
someone named William Farr, who noted that the eighteen sixty
six epidemic was confined to a small area of Whitechapel

and said that his inquiries showed the East London Water
Company's reservoirs have been contaminated, and he wrote, only a
very robust scientific witness would have dared to drink a
glass of water of the river. The element influencing mortality
which has undergone the greatest change in recent times is

the system of drainage. So finally Baslgat begins to get
as due as does your man John Snow.

Speaker 2 (34:04):
Oh, basil Gat definitely got his due. He was knighted
for his efforts in eighteen seventy five. And there's a
great quote from John Dosat, who is an author and historian.
It says basil Gat probably did more good and saved
more lives than any single Victorian official. And based on
what we're seeing here, that seems to be very likely,

entirely true.

Speaker 1 (34:32):
And there's one other fascinating note that we would like
to end today's show on, which is that although the
experts were arguing in favor for years about this concept,
of miasma. It sounds like the common public and especially
the satirist and cartoonists of the time, we're on board

with the idea of water contamination way earlier than the
you know, those stiff collars up in Parliament. We see,
especially in Punch cartoons of the time, that there's a
clear association with health and contamination of water.

Speaker 2 (35:11):
That's right. There was a really popular satirical magazine called
Punch or the London Shahravari that came out starting in
eighteen forty one and was hugely influential for its political cartoons,
and it does an incredible job of a chronicling this
whole situation over the years, with a fictional deity by

the name of Old Father Thames, Yes, the Spirit of
the River, the spirit of the River and pre stink.
He is portrayed as this very stately, typically nude, bearded
Zeus like figure. As it turns out, there's a lot
of archaeological evidence that there were river worshippers in the area.

There were a lot of Bronze Age artifacts covered from
the river pre Christian times that were seen as being
offerings to some sort of river deity. In eighteen fifty seven,
there was this kind of shield that was pulled up
and there was like horned helmets that were found in
a lot of these things are on display in the

British Museum. But this idea of Father Thames, he was
sort of this bearded, usually nude zeus like figure surrounded
by sea creatures, almost like a king Triton from The
Little Mermaid or something like that, but you know, but
with no pants.

Speaker 1 (36:37):
And this began to change as the river became increasingly contaminated.

Speaker 2 (36:42):
Boy did it ever, Father Thames that started being portrayed
much more as some sort of terrifying David Lynchian hobo.
There's one that keeps popping up, this comic called Father
TEMs introducing his offspring to the fair City of London,

and it has this horrifying creature with matted, black tar
covered beard and hair emerging from the river, with this
kind of shriveled, emaciated mermaid creature and a very skinny,
malnourished child and like a zombie kind of thing coming

crawling out of the water. So it was it was
really this is not really funny satire. It's much more
disturbing than that. And that continued, but here's a happy
ending for Father Thames when all came around, when the
sewer system was fully in place. There's a comic from
eighteen eighty four that shows Father Thames as a dapper,

upscale gentleman with a top hat and a coat, holding
a trident and doffing his cap to a gentleman with
swans bathing in the background, and the caption as Father
Thames is himself again.

Speaker 1 (38:03):
Which is a beautiful note to end the story of
London's Great Stink and the innovations that arose from this crisis.
We do also want to mention, of course, that the
problem of river pollution across the planet has not, by
any means been solved. Unfortunately, you can see various instances

of incredibly vital river sources being incredibly and some might
even add irredeemably polluted, such as the Ganja Gandhis in India,
the Mississippi River here in the United States, and on
and on. The good news is, however, that nowadays, thanks

in large part to the efforts of people like John Snow,
people like basilgat and Moore, we as a species are
aware of the supreme importance of sanitation, and hopefully if
you are lucky enough to live near a river. Lessons
learned from this strange episode of history have been applied

to keep your river safe and clean. That's going to
wrap it up for us today, folks. As always, we
would like to thank our super producer Casey Pegram, and
we'd like to thank Alex Williams for composing our soundtrack.

Speaker 2 (39:24):
And we'd also like to thank regular contributor Candice Gibson,
who wrote The Great Stink of London for How Stuff Works.
But most importantly, we'd like to.

Speaker 1 (39:33):
Thank you and you can contact us directly via Instagram.
The friend signal I started at friends side note. I
probably should run that past Casey, but he seems okay
with it.

Speaker 2 (39:44):
The social media team is going to have a fit.

Speaker 1 (39:48):
Yes, yes they will have a fit, but check out
our friends turn now.

Speaker 2 (39:52):
They're still dogging us to make that Pinterest and I
told them no, dice.

Speaker 1 (39:56):
You can also find us, of course on Twitter and
fa if I didn't mention that earlier. But what do
you do if you say I have a great idea
for an episode, I'd like to tell you about my
experience living near a river, but I don't want to
go for all that Hoopla and brew haha. Of the
social media communication route, we have another way for you

to reach us directly.

Speaker 2 (40:20):
Yeah, it's called an email and it's ridiculous at HowStuffWorks
dot com and we hope that you come back and
hang with us next time for another episode of ridiculous history.
For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts,

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