Sunday May 10th, 2020 Water Blog

The great stink – a positive from something negative


Cholera from Asia in 1831 provided a powerful incentive to improve sanitation in London. Everyone was vulnerable to the disease – in fact the wealthy were possibly more at risk. Water closets were adopted by the more affluent households of London in the early 19th century. Then, sewers that had been intended to take rain water into the Thames now carried raw sewage. A crisis peaked in the ‘Great Stink’ of London in 1858. Such was the overpowering smell from the Thames.

A bill was rushed through Parliament and became law in 18 days, to provide more money to construct a massive new sewer scheme for London. [1] Charles Dickens wrote in Little Dorrit (1855-57) about the “deadly sewer that ebbed and flowed in the place of a fine fresh river”.


In this time of crisis we now have the opportunity to see how we can correct some of the damage done to our planet. We can see what it is like as we stopped using our cars, the air quality has improved. The pollinating insects are back in the gardens and birds are ground nesting again in vast numbers. We have the capacity now through engineering and digital means to make significant changes that can positively impact the planet. The great stink crisis led to transformational changes in London in the 1800s.  The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 can lead us to do positive things to transform lives and our environment across the globe – with lasting and profound benefits.




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