Day 794: London, 1858 – Awash In A Fecal Funk

originally published March 4, 2014

It was only a matter of time before this illustrious project, which had launched itself with such promise and potential, devolved into a dignity-free river of steaming poo. We can blame the natural progression of time and the tenuous maturity of an overgrown teenager at the keyboard’s helm, or perhaps we can simply point our accusing finger in the general direction of England. For it is to London that Ms. Wiki, our guide to the absurd, has taken us. To the unfortunate brown smear upon the city’s great history. To the Great Stink.

I’m certain that every city in existence prior to the advent of the sanitation practices we now take for granted has gone through some caca crisis. As a species, we had not yet been introduced to the germs and bacteria that lug diseases on their slimy backs to deposit in our innards. No one had perfected the sewage process until relatively recently in history, and no doubt the very stank of any 19th-century burg would grind our modern olfactories into dust.

In fact, given the state of personal hygiene, laundry and civic sanitation back then, I imagine our world as being in a perpetual state of putrid. This is never addressed in historical dramas or time-travel movies, but that’s missing an opportunity. I don’t think we could handle it. Just imagine parking your DeLorean in the heart of London during the Great Stink of 1858.

In the early 1800’s, Londoners received their drinking water either from shallow wells, from the Thames river or from one of its tributaries. There were no water treatment plants, so you’d simply have to block out the knowledge that the stuff you’d be gulping down with lunch was from the same water source in which drunken folks would urinate. You know there’s pee in there – you probably added some of your own last weekend after a few too many pints at the ol’ Hog ‘n Sputum. When you were sober, your human waste would usually get dumped into an underground cesspit.

As London grew – and junior high social studies students all know London’s population exploded once the Industrial Revolution had hung out its shingle – more and more waste was getting plunked into the ground. Emptying a cesspit cost a shilling, and a shilling was a lot of money to the average struggling resident. Thus the city’s stench grew. Then came the sewer system – a godsend for homeowners. Unless they stopped to consider precisely where that sewer was taking their post-digestion defecation.

For seven years, sewage was funneled right into the very water that was then channeled back into homes for human consumption and cleaning. Then along came the advent of the flush toilet era, which initially funnelled into a home’s underground cesspit. This meant the cesspits would overflow more frequently, spilling into street drains and parading its fecal contents throughout the neighborhood for all to enjoy.

Adding to this was the overflow outfall from factories and slaughterhouses – liquid pollutants which would shimmy through the narrow street drains. You’re getting an idea of just how bad that city must have reeked. Then came the summer of 1858 – it was sweltering hot, and as anyone who has spent any time near the Port-A-Potties at an outdoor summer festival venue (we call them “poo-saunas”) will attest, the stench became horrendous. And it was everywhere.

Around this time, London was dealing with a massive outbreak of cholera. An Italian named Filippo Pacini had identified the bacterium responsible for the disease in 1854, but no one really paid much attention until a few decades later when the theory of germs became common knowledge. In 1858, during that horrendous period known as The Great Stink, Londoners believed the cholera was due to an airborne miasma – a noxious ‘air’ that wafted up from decaying organic matter. Even when a doctor determined that an 1854 Soho epidemic was due to sewage-infested drinking water, the people in charge weren’t listening.

This all led to the rapidly-constructed bones of what would evolve into London’s modern sewer system. The deciding factor was probably when the House of Commons and law courts were so overwhelmed by the Great Stink that they almost shut down and relocated downwind. It took a crisis of the grotesque to propel the city into a more sanitary future.

Of course, a great sewer system is not always the happy conclusion of a city’s waste worries. Because sometimes those fuckers explode.

The streets ran brown with poo on the afternoon of May 29, 1929 in Ottawa. No one knows why it happened – some now suspect it had to do with gas stations and mechanics’ shops negligently dumping their waste oils into the sewer lines. The first explosion occurred in the Golden Triangle area, just south of City Hall. Over the ensuing 25 minutes, a cavalcade of blasts erupted along the main sewer line, firing manhole covers into the air, ripping apart the less sturdy lines that connected houses to the sewer line, and killing one person.

What a way to go. Taken down by a blast of poop. There were a number of injuries and a massive rebuilding job after the explosion. This wasn’t the first time that a North American sewage system required some major civic changes. A few decades earlier, Chicago had to adjust their very altitude.

Chicago’s drainage system was hampered by the presence of Lake Michigan, which had the nasty habit of rising every so often, thus flooding the streets with all that grotesquery that residents were hoping to shoo away. The cholera epidemic that swatted this city in 1854 killed a whopping six percent of its population. A thorough sewage system wouldn’t necessarily help fix this flooding problem, and there was no way to forcibly lower the water level of a lake that large. So they did the next best thing – they raised the city.

It began with a four-story building on the corner of Dearborn and Randolph Streets. It was hoisted on two hundred jackscrews to be 6 feet, 2 inches taller than it used to be. This all occurred in 1858, the same year London was coming to realize that they were in danger of drowning in their own stink. Chicagoans raised more than fifty large buildings that year alone. Eventually all of central Chicago was jacked up, with the new sewer and drainage system plunked underneath. The city was saved, and it probably smelled a lot better.

Kind of makes you want to step outside and take a big, poop-free breath of air, doesn’t it? Even with the carbon monoxide and the general airborne gunk of the city today, it’s got to smell better than the poop-embalmed London of The Great Stink.

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