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Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Great Stink

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In the long, hot summer of 1858 Londoners avoided going near the river Thames. The sewage of two and a half million people was flowing into the river and being borne up and down by the tides. Such was the smell that the press called it The Great Stink. They were more worried by the appalling smell than by the fact that some of London’s drinking water was still drawn from the river. It was widely believed that all diseases were caused by a “miasma” – a smell borne on polluted air such as they were breathing. It was not yet understood that microbes, invisible to the naked eye, could be carried in water and thereby transmit dysentery, typhoid and above all cholera, four epidemics of which killed 40,000 people in London alone.

The Great Stink was a blessing, albeit heavily disguised. Parliamentarians had long been dithering over whether to accept, and pay for, a proposal by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette to construct a new system of intercepting sewers which would collect London’s sewage from buildings and streets and conduct it downstream to treatment works well beyond the Metropolis. The mistaken belief that they would be killed by the smells entering the Palace of Westminster from the adjacent river ended the debates and led to them giving Bazalgette the money and the authority to proceed with the greatest civil engineering work of the nineteenth century.

From 1858 to his retirement in 1889 Bazalgette built the system of intercepting sewers that still serves London, together with many other amenities: 3 embankments reclaimed 52 acres from the no longer stinking river; new thoroughfares, bridges and parks enabled Londoners to live in safety and comfort.

Stephen Halliday’s research into Bazalgette’s life and work was the subject of a Ph.D. which he completed as a mature student and has led to several books, articles, radio and TV programmes. He will also offer some ideas, based on his experience, on how to enjoy doing a Ph.D.!

This talk is part of the Pembroke Papers, Pembroke College series.

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