John Glyn Society Lecture: The Great Stink

Colfe’s was delighted to welcome Mike Jones from the Crossness Engines Trust to give the latest in the John Glyn Scholars’ Society Lecture series.

Mr Jones gave a talk on the Victorians’ transformation of London’s sewage system precipitated by the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858 and the realisation that water-borne pollution was responsible for the deadly outbreaks of cholera. For centuries the Thames was used as a dumping ground for the capital’s industrial, animal and human waste, bringing fatal outbreaks of cholera and dysentery, and as the population grew, so did the problem. The hot summer of 1858 elevated the stench to an unbearable level, resulting in an episode known as ‘The Great Stink’, prompting Joseph Bazalgette’s underground sewage system and transformation of the banks of the Thames in a masterpiece of engineering.

Zeke, Y7, reviewed the talk:

“In the lecture presented by the Crossness Engines Trust, we were introduced to the fascinating history of the evolution of sewage disposal, and how it has changed over the last few centuries in London. The lecture shed light on the unsanitary conditions of olden-day London, where waste was stored in cesspits and dumped in the Thames or near water sources, causing the easy spread of diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

The story behind the Broad Street pump was particularly intriguing. During a severe outbreak of cholera, Dr John Snow was able to pinpoint the pump as the source and thereby prove that cholera was a waterborne disease, thanks to his mapping of the cases.

I also enjoyed learning about modern innovations, such as the Tideway tunnel, which is currently being built to cope with the ever-growing volume of waste produced by London. Waste is still very much a problem!”

Crossness is a Grade I listed industrial heritage site housing magnificently restored examples of the wonders of Victorian engineering, including the Pumping Station, Engine House and Railway, along with a fascinating archive collection. Open to visitors, Crossness is situated on the banks of the Thames just outside Abbey Wood and less than ten miles from Colfe’s.


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