The more observant among you might have seen that recently I’ve been reading The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis by Stephen Halliday. In it the author paints a pretty disgusting picture of London before Mr Bazalgette’s sewers.
The old curmudgeon and diarist Samuel Pepys gave us a flavour, if that is the right word, of life in 17th century London, writing:
. . . and going down into my cellar to look, I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me . . .
Mr Turner, the diarist’s neighbour, had let his ‘house of office’ overflow, presenting Pepys with some poops.
[A]part from the Romans, London it would appear was the trailblazer when it came to defecation aids. The perforated loo roll, it is claimed originated in – ah – Hackney Wick. On White Post Lane there is a blue plaque proudly announcing the birthplace of the modern loo roll, although others dispute this claim.
One indisputable fact is the origins of Andrex. Created in 1942 (I suppose with bombs raining down from above toilet rolls were in demand) gets its name from a Walthamstow street where it was first made – St. Andew’s Road. Originally called Androll (St. Andrew’s made roll); it was later changed to Andrex.
I would have though that most dogs in Victorian London were feral with very few owners going walkies armed with a dog poop bag. At that time the streets weren’t paved with gold or dog poo for that matter. Colloquially known as ‘pure’, collectors would scour the streets for dog do-dah to sell to the leatherworkers in Bermondsey for tanning the hides.
The same can’t be said of human excrement with the banning of cesspits, due to the occurrences that Mr. Pepys experienced, London’s effluent was taken by rudimentary sewers and discharged in the Thames.
The result was that the sludge wasn’t discharged into the sea but merely slopped back and forth causing the Great Stink of 1858 and galvanising MPs to authorise the building of Bazalgette’s sewer system.
Twenty years later the Thames was still being used as a dumping ground, 650 drowned or choked when the Princess Alice collided with the coal-carrying Bywell Castle shortly after 75 million gallons of effluent had been discharged from nearby Barking and Crossness treatment works.
In today’s sanitised world we forget just how big the problem really is. Matt Brown at the Londonist has been busy with his slide rule. He has calculated that a day’s total dump would, if laid end to end, go round the M25 four times.
Photo: Blue Plaque Diamond Geezer (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)