Take Comfort, New Yorkers, from London's Miserable Summer of 'Great Stink'

It’s been the “Summer of Hell” for New Yorkers just trying to get around the damn city as every element of our public transportation system seemingly breaks down simultaneously. Maybe it’s some small comfort to know there’s historical resonance in our distress, specifically with London’s 1858 “Great Stink,” when a heat wave turned the city’s ongoing sanitation problems into an urgent public crisis.

Rosemary Ashton goes deep on those wretched weeks in One Hot Summer: Dickens, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858. With the heat and the stench as a backdrop, she recounts months that were momentous in the lives of Charles Dickens—who separated from his wife and massively mismanaged their split in the court of public opinion—and Charles Darwin—who learned another naturalist had reached similar conclusions about the origins of species, providing a kick in the pants to produce something publishable—as well as the efforts in Parliament of the great politician Benjamin Disraeli to pass measures that would actually fix the rancid Thames.


Along the way, she covers the ridiculous Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s controversial institutionalization of his wife, Rosina, as well as of the great dudefights of all time—the “Garrick Club affair,” a tiff between William Makepeace Thackeray and another lesser-known writer and also Dickens about journalism and the rules of gentlemen’s clubs. Meanwhile, Queen Victoria occasionally pops in to complain in her diary about the day’s heat. And for those frantically seeking clues for how we can get our elected officials to actually fix our own crisis, she recounts how the stink so inconvenienced Parliament (which of course sits to this day on top of the Thames) that Disraeli finally managed to push through a scheme for fixing the river. Maybe we could trap Cuomo and de Blasio on a F train until they figure out the MTA?

The result feels contemporary and unnervingly familiar—a summer of misery chronicled by prolific newspapers. I spoke to Ashton about this eerily familiar moment in history; our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

1858 isn’t typically thought of as a banner of the Victorian era. Why did you choose to focus so tightly not just on this year, but on the three months of really miserable summer?

I’ve been writing about 19th century—particularly Victorian—literature and culture and history for many years. But what has struck me in the last five to ten years is, there’s always been plenty of material available, but how much more material is now at our fingertips, which then lets you go deeper rather than wider and therefore take a short period of time and dig into the detail. The real reason for that is the digitization and the searchability of so many resources, which we used to have to trek to the archives to look at manually, as it were. We’ve got the British Library’s huge collection of 19th century newspapers, which has been digitized and made searchable. I couldn’t have written this book when I started out 35 years ago, because I would still be sitting in the library looking at the newspapers. But now, online, you can put in your search term, your name or your date, and everything comes up in front of your eyes. There’s still a cornucopia and an awful lot to sift through, but at least the sifting is now possible.


And that’s true with the papers, but it’s also true of the Parliamentary papers, the committee notes of all the committees of Parliament, the debates. It’s also true of the law courts, and a number of journals and letters of major Victorian figures like Darwin.

These events are fairly well known, but they feel much more materially real when you know they’re just sweating all the time, totally hot and miserable. What was it about the conditions of this summer that made the weather such a big deal? They were all aware that they were in the middle of this happening that was “the hot summer.” Was it genuinely that bad? Was it sort of a media creation of new penny newspapers?

Cartoon that appeared in Punch, 1855. Via the Wellcome Library.

It wasn’t made by the media, but the media certainly picked up on it. And it happens—again, it’s just another one of these historical coincidences—that there had been a huge increase in the number of newspapers being published since 1855, because the last taxes on newspapers had been stopped. Before 1855, if you wanted to publish a newspaper, you had to pay a lot in taxes to do so. After 1855, anybody could and many people did charge a shilling, and they would reach an audience of literate working people, the working class, really, and a lot of these newspapers were actually quite radical and quite geared toward the working class. Handily for me, they also write about the lives of working people, so you do get a glimpse in these cheaper newspapers of what it was like for an ordinary person living perhaps in poverty and in a crowded apartment down near the river itself in the heat.


So what you’ve got is comment—a huge amount of comment. From the venerable newspaper the Times, which cost seven pence, so seven times as much, to these radical newspapers and gossipy newspapers—they were all on the case. As well as Punch, the satirical outlet. And they were all on the case of Parliament. 1858 happened to be the hottest summer so far and there were recordings, and the Times published every day the top temperature yesterday in London down by the river, or whatever it was. People were following this scientifically.

The Thames stank not just because it was hot, but because the population of London had doubled in the first half of the 19th century. Two million people were now using water closets instead of putting their waste matter into pits at the back of their houses which were then emptied by night soil men. In a misguided attempt to improve sanitation, the authorities had decided not to use these pits and heaps, but to give people water closets. Now, that’s fine, but the water closets then discharged all the raw human sewage into the rainwater drains, which went into the Thames. They didn’t realize this was what they were doing, but they were sending human feces and so on straight into the Thames. The Thames was a tidal river. It doesn’t get rid of the load. The load just went up and down, ebbing and flowing, and then unfortunately water companies were taking drinking water out of the Thames. So there was real anxiety, quite rightly, about disease, as well as the intolerable stench of this material going up and down.


It had happened in a couple of summers before, and there were various people arguing, including Bazalgette, who brought forward a proposal two years earlier for cleansing the river. But of course it hadn’t been taken up because Parliament said who’s going to pay, how much does it cost, is this the proper method of doing it, and so on. But 1858 just was the last straw. Finally, really it was Disraeli who pushed it through, because Parliament was still standing there with handkerchiefs to their noses—they couldn’t stand the stink but they still wanted to say, who’s going to pay for this, will it be Londoners or will it be the whole of the country and why should my constituents in the north of England pay for cleansing the Thames which we don’t get any benefit from? And so on and so on.

So basically it’s a combination of this being the hottest summer so far, the terrible business of all the raw sewage going into the Thames, the newspapers just tearing, mocking, and pressing, attacking, and Disraeli coming forward and saying okay, we’re going to do something about it.


I enjoyed how the press, when they finally pass this bill to get the ball moving and to cleanse the Thames and to have some sort of a system for dealing with this, didn’t let up. They weren’t like, oh, well, great, they’ve fixed it. They just kept hammering at them even after they passed the bill.

Yes they did, and that’s quite amusing, really, isn’t it? It’s partly political—the press were often political and so there were people who did not approve of the Derby/Disraeli Tory government. And it was partly distrust. Who’s going to trust politicians, you know? They may not get on with it. They may not do what we want them to do. And also, the body that was tasked with arranging this was the Metropolitan Board of Works, which many newspapers had been arguing for years paid people to sit on this committee but they didn’t do anything! There was a sense, is this body of men—all men, of course—is this body of men up to it? Will they actually step up to the plate and do the job? So of course the newspapers thought that it was their job to keep an eye and to keep pressing and to complain if it was going too slowly. And to ask for information. So in a way it’s a very modern story, when you think about the kind of relationship between politics and the press.


I think sometimes there’s a tendency in the American press to be like, well, we’ll be reasonable and well give them a chance. And the press in London in this period is like, no, no chances, you’ve had your chances, we’re not going to shut up until it doesn’t stink.

Yes, that’s absolutely true. There wasn’t much dignity. I mean, the Times was constantly critical as well. They all thought that it was their job to hold the authorities to account and they did so with more or less glee and more or less argumentativeness. But there was a very important factor in this and of course it happens as a researcher, you can now really get into the newspapers of every description, every type, morning papers, afternoon papers, evening papers, weekly papers, conservative, radical, scurrilous gossipy, you name it, all those papers were busy spending at least some of their time keeping an eye on what was going on with the filthy old Thames.


I mean I’m sure they were just as tired of smelling it as everybody else, right?

Absolutely. Yes. And I think also, as now, they thought they were speaking up for the people. For people who were having to live with this. And you would have seen a number of the newspapers—I caught quite a few of them—are rather pleased to be able to say, well, it’s a jolly good thing that the river Thames goes under the noses of the Parliamentarians, because now that they’re trying to do their work with this stink making it almost impossible, now surely at last they will see that they’ve got to do something. And of course they did.

You know this smelled like ripe ass. Via the British Library’s Flickr; originally published in “Some Account of the Great Buildings of London: historical and descriptive ... With thirteen autotype illustrations by F. York”

When you hear this story, it’s often delivered almost as a the punch line—finally Parliament stank so bad they had to fix it or they were going to just die. Is that accurate?


Well, I suppose they wouldn’t have died. Although, actually, that’s an interesting point, because the main belief at the time in the way that infectious diseases like cholera were transmitted from one person to another was the miasma theory, which was that germs were airborne. So there was a fear that the smell itself could kill. Now that’s not true, of course. All these diseases are waterborne and that was being discovered even at the same time, but the discovery that they were waterborne was not quite accepted yet. But even if they were wrong that they weren’t going to drop down dead of the smell, but they might well have dropped down dead if they drank the water. So it comes to the same thing in the end.

And it is absolutely true—there was talk of moving, if Parliament could not sit any longer and pass the bills that it needed to pass before the summer vacation, it would have to move to Oxford, or to Edinburgh. These things were suggested and of course, I think it was the 13th of June, there was the famous occasion in which a committee room with people like Disraeli and his great opponent Gladstone and other important cabinet members and parliamentarians, they were sitting discussing something about the Bank Acts I think it was and they actually couldn’t sit there any longer because of the smell. And so they were seen to be rushing out of their chamber with their handkerchiefs to their noses. And of course the Times and others pick this up and make a big thing about it and say well perhaps at last, at last something will be done!


Sure enough, Disraeli comes back a couple of days later and he’s absolutely brilliant, he tells Parliament we’re going to do this. And people get up on their feet, as ever, and say who’s going to pay? Who’s going to do it? How much will it cost? How long will it take? And he just pushed aside all these tiresome comments and criticisms and reasons to delay and he just railroaded them into accepting that something had to be done. It had to be done now. Londoners would pay but they would pay through a one-penny extra in the year tax over ten years and so on, and he had it all worked it out and they would task the Metropolitan Board of Works and they would make sure that the Metropolitan Board of Works stuck to the task and did it properly, and surely British people could rely upon a group of British men—men, of course, there not being any women in the Parliament or in any positions at that time—surely they could trust them to come up with the goods. That’s how he managed to get it through, after a lot of argumentation which had been going on for years but which really did reach the climax this summer.

That classic mixture of strong-arming and flattery.

Absolutely. He flattered them, you see—oh the great British, this is the greatest river, London is the greatest capital city in the world, how shameful that our river is disgraceful in this way, we must do something about it and we can do something about it because we’ve got the best engineers. Which is true, actually, because Bazalgette was a wonderfully innovative engineer and his method of getting rid of the effluent was astonishing, taking it through intercepting sewers out of the river altogether, and taking the sewers along the north bank and the south bank out of London, into outfalls in the countryside in Essex and at the same time embanking the river with those great stone embankments that we still have, rather than having the muddy foreshore. Chelsea is now a very posh expensive area to live in. It was not at that time because it is right down by the river and of course there was no embankment, it was just muddy, smelly, filthy, rubbishy shore. And it was a very unhealthy place to live. London was made more beautiful.


One of the things I enjoyed that you pointed out—the stereotypical image of this time was women in these giant skirts, and assume that hoop skirts were miserable. But honestly, it sounds like if you were stuck in this summer, the best possible thing you could be wearing is one of those big cage crinolines with just air underneath.

That’s right! I was very pleased to discover that, through reading what Darwin’s daughter in later life she told her niece—I think it was that, we were very lucky because we did get air through. You didn’t have great hanging skirts sticking to your legs. Dresses had been getting wider and wider all the way from the Regency period, from about 1820 really, but the cage hadn’t been invented so what people were doing was just wearing more and more petticoats. But more and more petticoats got more and more heavy and more and more hot. And so as it happens, people were experimenting with steel hoops and the steel hoop petticoat came just year before, 1857. So by the time 1858 came along, dresses could be wider than ever, but they were also oddly enough extremely comfortable and airy because you just had this cage hoop underneath. One of the funny things I noted from one of these newspapers is that the crinoline came in very useful for one particular woman, who put a whole lot of stolen stuff inside.


Dickens melts down this summer and makes a series of really severe misjudgments. Not only does he separate from his wife of 22 years, but he also publicly announces it in both the Times and his own paper, Household Words, and even urges the public not to believe any rumors they might have heard about his affairs—thereby encouraging the spread of rumors about his affair with a young actress and leaving him wide open to discussion of his private affairs.

When you’re looking at an event like that as a historian, when you’re thinking about why he’s doing this and what’s happening, how much are you factoring in something like this miserable heat wave? Can we look back and attribute some of the irascibility of everyone that summer to the fact that they were so hot and miserable? Or is that too much of a leap to make?


I mean, I do factor it in. You do have to be rather careful, because in a sense when I talk about “hot heads” and “hot-headedness” and Dickens “losing his head” and so on, obviously I’m using the metaphor of heat there. But I’m doing it deliberately because you do see people being more irascible, not being able to cope with conditions. You see people in law courts, the barristers, asking the judge if they can take their wigs off because it’s all far too hot and so on. That kind of thing wouldn’t happen, you see, if it weren’t really extreme and people didn’t find themselves really at the edge of whatever mood they were likely to be in.

So I think Dickens really lost his head. Now, he might have lost his head anyway, even if it hadn’t been a hot summer, because of course we know that he had fallen in love with an actress the same age as one of his daughters, that he had decided he was going to, he was unhappy with his wife. But it may well be that the way that he set about the PR disaster that he brought on himself by setting out to publicize in the Times and in his own weekly newspaper Household Words that he was separating from his wife—although of course he told lies by saying this statement that it was all amicable and there was nobody else involved—because as soon as he said that, all the newspapers got onto this and said, “Oh? What are these rumors that are going around that he says are not true?” And of course they all got the club gossip and the gossip at the racecourse or the gossip at the Royal Academy exhibitions and so on, the way people in London were gossiping around, and everybody picked up on this story. So Dickens foolishly as well as dishonestly really brought a lot of disfavor on himself. And he did panic. And I think you are more likely to panic when you’re physically uncomfortable. I wouldn’t claim that it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the hot summer. I just think it’s interesting that he lost the plot so completely.

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