Victorian London’s ‘Great Stink’ sewer crisis offers lessons about solving climate change

Inside one of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers under Hackney wick, East London. Image: Getty.

In the late 19th century, the irrepressible Mark Twain is reputed to have said in a speech:

Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.

He’s said to have borrowed that quote from a friend, but if Twain were alive today he would no doubt have more to say on the subject. In a time when we are becoming increasingly accustomed to extremes in the climate system, the events of this year have risen above the background noise of political turmoil to dominate the global headlines.

While global leadership in dealing with climate change may be depressingly limited, I can’t help but wonder if 2018 will be the year our global tribe feels threatened enough to act.

Encouragingly, there may be a historical (and largely unknown) precedent for tackling climate change: Victoria London’s handling of the “Great Stink”, where growth had turned the River Thames into an open sewer.

Climate system extremes

This year is breaking all manner of records.

In January, the eastern USA and western Europe fell under persistent frigid Arctic conditions brought about by a weakening of the polar vortex.


Six months later, the north experienced exceptional hemispheric-wide summer warming and drought, most likely amplified by a weakening of Atlantic Ocean circulation – the latter (ironically) being expressed by unusually cool surface ocean waters.

In recent weeks, Florence, Mangkhut and Helene have become the latest household names to mark a succession of storms battering the USA, Asia and Europe this year.

Meanwhile, New South Wales is now suffering a state-wide drought, along with other regions in Australia. Early wildfires and the threat of more to come has resulted in the earliest government total fire ban on record.

As the crisis deepens, it’s worth reflecting on Victorian London’s “Great Stink” sewage problem - where things finally got so bad that authorities were forced to accept evidence, reject sceptics, and act.

A ‘deadly sewer’

In the Victorian age, London’s growth had turned the River Thames into an open sewer. Conditions were so bad they inspired many to write on the risks to public health.

‘The silent highwayman’, an 1858 cartoon from Punch magazine, commenting on the deadly levels of pollution in the River Thames. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Dickens provided a lurid description in Little Dorrit, describing the Thames as a “deadly sewer” while the scientist Michael Faraday wrote to the Times that:

if we neglect this subject, we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we to be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness.

An 1855 cartoon from Punch Magazine in which Michael Faraday gives his card to ‘Father Thames’, commenting on Faraday gauging the river’s ‘degree of opacity’. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1854, medic John Snow demonstrated the source of cholera in the London suburb of Soho was a local water pump. To test his ideas, officials removed the handle on the pump, and the number of cases all but disappeared.

Sewage sceptics

But there was an intransigence about meeting the threat. Ignoring scientific evidence, “sewage sceptics” held the view that poor air quality – so called “miasma”– was the cause of the frequent outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.

They convinced the government to reject the evidence, considering there to be “no reason to adopt this belief”. The scale of the sewage problem in London was considered too large to be solved, possibly encouraged by political pressure from the thriving water industry that delivered direct to those who could afford it. For several more years, this view persisted.

That was until the year of the “Great Stink”.


The ‘Great Stink’ arrives

In the summer heatwave of 1858, the Thames’ sewage turned noses across London. Conditions were so bad, teams of men were employed to shovel lime at the many sewage outlets into the capital’s river in a vain attempt to stop the smell.

Even the national legislators were not spared, with the windows of the Houses of Parliament covered in lime-soaked sack cloths. Serious thought was even given to relocating government outside London, at least until the air had cleared. The conditions created a heady stench that cut through the politically charged rhetoric of the day, and forced a rethink.

Within nine years of the “Great Stink”, the 900-kilometre London Sewage Network was constructed - an engineering marvel of the Victorian age. The politicians at the time weren’t immediately convinced the new infrastructure would help public health, but the disappearance of disease accepted as the norm for the capital convinced even the most ardent of sceptics. No one talks about miasma as a real thing anymore.

The Great Stink of 1858 overturned beliefs founded on misinformation. A challenge considered impossible, was solved.

Our generation’s ‘Great Stink’

Fast forward 160 years and the recent spate of climate headlines is on the back of an increasing trend towards greater extremes, with all the associated human, environmental, and financial costs.

In August of this year, the Actuaries Climate Index – which monitors changes in sea level rise and climate extremes for the North American insurance industry since the 1960s – reported that the five-year moving average reached a new high in 2017. This year promises to continue the trend and is no single outlier.

Will 2018 be the year when the world does something about climate change?

Will 2018 be our generation’s “Great Stink”?

The Conversation

Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Science and Climate Change, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.