Victorian London - Health and Hygiene - Sewers and Sanitation - Condition of the Thames


HAVING warmly taken up the Cold-Water Cure, for the benefit of its deluded advocates and disciples, in furtherance of the objects of the "Cold-Water Curing Society" (reported in our last) we proceed to give some account of the great river which forms the materia medica used in the modern practice of physic followed by the Hydropathists.
    As the author of a work from which we borrow the above title observes, the Thames is the most important member of the fluvial - or more properly effluvial - system of Great Britain. The peculiarity and variety of its effluvia, arising from the various tributaries that feed it during its course, chemical analyses of which have been already given in PUNCH.* (see our "LIONS OF LONDON and 1st Number).  The earliest and most considerable of these consists of decomposed vegetation supplied to Old Father Thames by the Berkshire and Surrey marshes; and that this vegetable confluent may be agreeably mixed with animal matter, a large number of drowned kittens daily added by the inhabitants of both banks of the river.
    But it is just below Richmond that the most considerable tributaries of the Thames commence their supplies. The Soap Works at Brentford send in their emollient streams, and help to give to Thames-water that peculiar softness so favourable to those industrious classes who take in washing. Indeed Brentford may be looked upon as the most important feeder of the Thames above bridge. Fell-mongers, gut and gin spinners, brewers, and gas-makers here abound, and Unite their energies and their offal to enrich the consistency of the water. As it passes Chiswick, the fluid is improved by large additions from the Ale Brewery; and a little lower, so thick and strong is it rendered by the confluence of the Hammersmith drains - so materially is its specific gravity increased by the powerful ingredients they supply - that it possesses the astonishing capability of holding the iron bridge in suspension.
    When these tributaries have been properly amalgamated and stirred up by the piles of Putney and Battersea bridges, the water is considered in a fit state to be supplied to the public, and for this purpose the Chelsea Water-works were established.
    Vauxhall contributes lime, Lambeth pours forth a rich amalgam from the yards of knackers and bone-grinders, Horseferry liberally gives up all its dead dogs, Westminster empties its treasures into the mighty stream by means of a common sewer of uncommon dimensions, the Fleet-ditch bears in its inky current the concentrated essences of Clerkenwell, Field- lane, Smithfield, Cow-cross-and is, by means of its innumerable branches,. augmented by the potent ingredients of St. Giles's, Somers-town Barbican, St. Luke's, and the surrounding districts. The fluids of the Whitechapel slaughter-houses call in their transit through the Minories for the contributions of Houndsditch, Ratcliffe Highway, Bevis Marks, and Goodman's-fields, and thus richly laden pour their delicious slime into the Thames by means of the Tower-ditch. Finally, the Surrey side yields the refuse of tar-works and tan-yards, and it is allowed by all, that the people of Deptford, Woolwich, and those situated in the lower course of the stream, get the Thames water (which here sustains six different characters) in the highest perfection.
    With this account of the Thames and its tributaries, we for the present take leave of the hydropathists, and beg to add that, should the editor of Priessnitz's work apply to us for leave to reprint this article in his second edition, we shall have no objection to grant him permission.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1842

Victorian London - Publications - Humour - Punch - cartoon 52 - Dirty Father Thames


Filthy river, filthy river,
Foul from London to the Nore,
What art thou but one vast gutter,
One tremendous common shore?
All beside thy sludgy waters,
All beside thy reeking ooze,
Christian folks inhale mephitis,
Which thy bubbly bosom brews.
All her foul abominations
Into thee the City throws;
These pollutions, ever churning,
To and fro thy current flows.
And from thee is brew'd our porter -
Thee, thou guilty, puddle, sink!
Thou, vile cesspool, art the liquour
Whence is made the beer we drink!
Thou, too, hast a Conservator,
He who fills the civic chair;
Well does he conserve thee, truly,
Does not, my good LORD MAYOR?

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1848


Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1850


It is alarming to contemplate how many inhabitants of London are annually drinking themselves to death by imbibing the water of the Thames. We have given to a certain spirit the name of aqua vitae, and in distinction we should bestow on the river the title of aqua mortis for not even aqua fortis is of a more destructive nature than the stuff which flows through our cisterns into our urns which might properly be termed funereal urns from their devotion to deadly purposes. There are many more who find a watery grave than those who come to their end by drowning. We have heard that water will always find its level but if the Thames water found its proper level it would be banished from all decent society. Let any one who delights in Rambles by Rivers, take a stroll along the banks of the Thames between Limehouse and Battersea. He would, after going a yard or two, find himself up to his knees in slush - the sort  of Black Death which we are daily drinking - and though every step would add mud there would be nothing to admire. Let him watch the juvenile bathers on the banks, and he will fancy himself just arrived on a foreign shore, whose natives are negroes up to their knees, while from the legs upwards they belong to a white population.
    If we did net happen to know the source of the Thames, we should imagine it was an arm of the Black Sea, or a leg of the Niger, or a black eye of old father NEPTUNE. It is said that every one, on an average, eats in his lifetime a peck of dirt, but we are convinced that every one who drinks Thames water consumes his peck of dirt in a week or two.
    It does not require much knowledge of chemistry to analyse the contents of the river for a mere glance of the eye will satisfy the casual observer that the Thames holds in solution a considerable of dead canine, as well as feline, and other animal matter, together with a strong infusion of cabbage-leaves and miscellaneous vegetable refuse, with the volutary contributions of the various sewers of the metropolis. Now that the eyes of the public are opened to the state of the Thames,  we wonder that their mouths are not peremptorily shut against it.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1850


A CHEMICAL work of small size and great importance has been lately published. The production alluded to is FARADAY on the Thames; a title which means even more than it appears to mean; for it not only expresses PROFESSOR FARADAY'S views of the composition of the river, but also describes the sensations experienced by him during a period of brief transit upon its surface. A piece of white card, according to the professor, becomes invisible at a very small degree of submersion in the Thames water· which is of a peculiar colour-  "opaque pale brown" - drab - quakerish - and a not very peculiar smell, because it partakes of that of the sink-holes; and may e described as odoriferous but not fragrant. We have often had great pleasure in hearing FARADAY explain the composition of water, pure and simple; but we rejoice much more that he has enabled the public to form a correct idea of the constituents of that of the Thames; which consists of something more than Oxygen and Hydrogen. Because we are losing brave men by war, it is rather the more desirable than otherwise that we should not, also lose useful citizens by pestilence, as we certainly shall if the Thames continues much longer to be an open sewer. We hope that PROFESSOR FARADAY's publication, which takes the shape of a concise letter to the Times, will effect a saving of human life still greater than that which has resulted from his predecessor's safety-lamp. DAVY's invention prevents carburetted hydrogen from blowing up miners; may FARADAY'S epistle avert cholera and typhus, by stirring up senatorial and municipal persons to prevent sulphuretted hydrogen from being disengaged.

Punch, July 21, 1855



(A Design for a Fresco in the New Houses of Parliament)

Punch, July 3, 1858


"Your MONEY or your LIFE!"

Punch, July 10, 1858



Punch, June 18, 1859


ALL London bullying me
All London sullying me,
Insult to injury adding thereby;
Steamers up-churning me,
Quick-lime up-burning me- 
Never was river so ill-used as I.

Sewage and slaughter-lvmpbs
Kill off my water-nymphs,
All between Teddington Lock and the Nore
Swans growing dim in me,
No more will swim in me - 
Birds--save the mud-lark--abandon my shore.

Sewage-stained sedges all,
Sewage-clad ledges all,
Sewage-filled urn upon which I recline 
Sewage-crammed eyes and nose- 
Blind eyes and pisoned nose- 
Stink, steam, and swelter these sighings of mine!

Rouse near and far lament
Breathe into Parliament,
Poison each Vestry and stink out, each Board 
Creep in each water-main,- 
Make white-bait dinners a nuisance abhorred.

Fill the low fever-nests,
Huddled like beaver-nests,
Under my level, soaked green with my slime; 
Flavour for Bumbledom,
Fat pies of Humbledom,
For laches that s murder, neglect that is crime.

Never did preacher preach,
Never did teacher teach,
Sermon so wakening, or lesson so deep, 
As the whiff from my waters,
That tells in high quarters
Facts ignored till my stink roused nob's noses from sleep.

Cinders and stone-heaps,
Churchyards and bone-heaps,
Sewers and cesspools,  have sermons to preach; 
Vain, though, their urgin',
Till Thames, a la SPURGEON,
'Gins, through their noses, the million to teach.

Thanks to Apollo,
Good's sure to follow
When the hot summer sets Thames in a blaze, 
In strong effervescence
Freeing the essence
Of wisdom deep stored in my silent highways.

Odours less vagrant,
Breathings more fragrant,
Ne'er would scare BUMBLE, or stink out M P.; 
Lesser stinks come
To humble back-slum,
Leave the great folks and fine houses to me!

Punch, July 23, 1859

And this leads us to speak, though briefly, of the state of the Thames. Last summer its condition was found to be frightful. It so still; and when the hot weather arrives, this will be evident. It is to be hoped no one drinks of it. If any do, we would shout with Buckstone, in "The Unequal Match," - Rash man, forbear! -it's beastly!" For years past the deterioration of the river has been noticed; and from time to time endeavours have been made to direct attention to the subject as one of great public interest. Every day increases the evil. Without taking into consideration the immense annual growth of London, it must be borne in mind that other large districts give their refuse to the river. There are also gas-works, most unwholesome manufactories, slaughter-houses, cow- sheds, stables, breweries, and the drainage of thickly-filled graveyards, to aid the mischief; and yet intelligent men can be found to maintain the salubrity of the Thames. The health of thousands must be affected by it, and what may occur cannot be calmly contemplated.
    Whilst examining in the summer the north shore of the Thames from the Houses of Parliament to London-bridge (a most unpleasant task), we made a rough measurement at about the time of low water, and are disposed to think that there is an average breadth of 100 feet of the most putrid soil skirting this edge of our great city for some hours during each day. We were told by several persons who are employed in this neighbourhood, that in parts the deposit is more than six feet deep : the whole of this is thickly impregnated with impure matter, and at the opening of such sewers as have not been passed into the river beyond low-water mark, the condition is too bad for description.
    Many of our readers may have noticed the black, offensive, and dangerous matter which is taken from choked drains in the neighbourhood of cesspools. There are many thousands of tons of equally poisonous stuff on the shore of the Thames. A considerable quantity of such matter is kept in solution by the action of the tide and the steam-vessels, which adds materially to the bad state of the water.
    While wandering along this putrid shore, which is both a shame and a wonder in the nineteenth century, thoughts arise, in spite of some overpowering feelings, of other days, of processions of stately barges, full of the influential citizens in whose hands the protection of Father Thames was placed. This body found the stream clean and wholesome; the apprentices and citizens came from long distances to avail themselves of the water-supply. For years festive bands of citizens, at stated intervals, mingling pleasure with business, went forth to survey the important charge, which was in a healthy condition, intrusted to their care : now Father Thames has become such a castaway that the Lord Mayor has declared that he cannot again venture on a visit. The days of "swan-hopping" and river perambulation are at an end.
    One Sunday evening last summer, just after low water, we passed along the shore. And all who would have an idea of the extent to which the Thames is used, should visit the landing-place at Hunger ford-bridge on a fine Sunday evening. The day had been cooler than some days previously ; nevertheless, the stench at the different points was frightful, and produced a sickness which lasted till the next morning. Bad as was the state of affairs at the time referred to, the watermen at the landing-places said the air w as "lavender" to what it had been. Early in the morning, they continued, when the first steam-packets begin to move about, the smell is enough to strike down strong men. During a few hours of the night, when there is but little traffic, the heavy matter sinks, and the renewed agitation in the morning causes the escape of pungent gases, of a most poisonous description. Even the dipping of the oars, at early hours, produces a sickening sensation. The weight of the impure portion of Thames water is a peculiarity which formerly caused the water to be held in much favour by sailors for long foreign voyages. Large establishments were formed for the purpose of filtering it; but even so lately as 1840 and 1841, many ships took it without this process from the outside of the docks. A person who has sailed from the Thames, but who is now a waterman, described how that he had been twelve months and upwards on board ship with Thames water, obtained in the manner just mentioned, and that it remained good all the time: the heavy earthy matters settled firmly to the bottom of the casks; but on the bung being started, it was necessary to give the water "a wide berth," for the smell was almost unbearable - sometimes the force of the gas had burst out the bungs with a report like that of a pistol. A similar process, on a large scale, is going on daily on the Thames. The soil, put in motion by the action of the water, is now more considerable than formerly; and the amount of poisonous gases which is thrown off is proportionate to the increase of the sewage which is passed into the stream. Fifteen or sixteen years ago the Thames water was not so bad, and persons on the river did not hesitate at dipping in a vessel and drinking the contents. Such a thing now would be like an act of insanity; and yet we are told, on good authority, that in a part of Rotherhithe a number of poor persons, who have no proper water-supply, are obliged to use, for drinking and other purposes, the Thames water in its present abominable condition, unfiltered. This is a matter which should receive immediate attention.
    In order to form a proper notion of the condition of the Thames shore, it is necessary not to restrict the examination to the landing- places alone-for care is taken at these points to remove the slimy matter as much as possible ; but even here, as we found at one place by an excavation, there is a depth of more than four feet of poisonous soil; and it is certain that a large portion of this is cesspool refuse.
    In considering the effect of the condition of the Thames on the health of the metropolis, it must be borne in mind that the actual number of those who dwell on the shore is small in comparison with those who merely remain all day in the neighbourhood. Thousands are employed during the day only, in the docks, the canals, and in the large manufactories, warehouses, and other establishments which line the river; most of these workmen travel long distances to closer neighbourhoods after the labours of the day are ended, so that there may be a difficulty in clearly tracing the amount of mischief which is actually caused by the pestilential condition of the Thames. The docks especially are a fertile source of disease.
    When in this district, we glanced at the basin and other parts of the Regent's Canal, and found that a large quantity of water is daily passed from this important work into the river. The water was very cloudy, and of a brownish colour; but, compared with that of the Thames, its purity looked remarkable, and there is not a large amount of animal refuse in this tributary. Complaints are, however, made of certain offensive manufactures which drain into one of the branches. " But, in order to show you that we do good rather than harm," said a superintendent on duty, "please to look here, where the Thames is just beginning to flow into the entrance-lock of the canal." And truly the effect was a startling one. The stream of the Thames, of a sable hue, " thick and slab," could be seen meeting and invading the canal, presenting such an appearance as might be expected by the bursting close by of several hogsheads of Warren's blacking,-a much more obvious and less gratifying difference, we need not say, than is observable where the Rhine meets the Moselle. 

"Like the two lives that are blended
When the loneliness is ended,
The loneliness each heart hath known so well;
Like the sun and moon together,
In a sky of splendid weather,
Is the marriage of the Rhine and the Moselle,"-

writes Mr. Arnold; and although it will not apply to the marriage of the Thames and the Regent's Canal, it will serve to sweeten a dirty subject. The sketch (p. 54) does not exaggerate the contrast. The sides and bottoms of boats become covered with solid matter; objects are not visible at even an inch below the surface; the reflection of ships is very faint, but shadows almost as strong as those on land are thrown on the face of the water by the sunshine. When gravely pondering these things, De Foe's description of the neglected condition of London at the time of the visit of the Great Plague of 1665 comes to mind; and we think, with Byron, of "ships rotting, sailorless," and other uncomfortable associations.
    In passing along the foul shore, we came to one of the Thames tributaries, and the scene so clearly illustrates an existing evil, that we have drawn it for the benefit of the public (p. 55). This place is a creek which extends some distance inland, similar to that which has been so much complained of near Blackfriars-bridge. At the north end is a large sewer, which drains Bow-common, and all buildings in that direction. The mouth is partly covered by a loose iron flap, which, when the tide is out, allows the sewage-water to flow in a rapid stream. Dwelling-houses are built on the sewer wall, and around it. The people living about here have, in most instances, sickly children, who in a measure resemble the poor plants observable in some of the windows about. Everything around is bad. The bank, when. the tide goes out, is covered with filth; and when the number of the similar tributaries which flow to Father Thames, both night and day, is recollected, his state is not to be wondered at.
    Both Houses of Parliament were loud last session in their condemnation of the existing state of things. They have the evil at their own door -a retribution, - for it is certain that the present conditions are in a great measure the result of want of forethought and consideration of the subject. And let our provincial cities and towns take warning in time, and avoid the transformation of their rivers into reeking sewers and decomposing cess-banks, which act upon health, and degrade character.
    During the discussion of the mode to be adopted in draining London, the assertion that sewage-matter is washed backwards and forwards by the tide, and is long before it gets out to sea, was derided. The fact, however, is unquestionable. Look at the next sketch. It shows the way in which a dead dog, under our own eyes, travelled. We thought he would get away: however, after a time, and after whirling and resting amongst the posts and barges, the dead dog came again in sight, moving against the tide, but much nearer to the shore; he turns off again towards the sea, and returns this time much sooner than the last ; and after describing various circles, as shown by the arrows in the sketch, he is deposited in the slime, together with other specimens of his own and allied families.
    An artist living on the banks of the Thames, near Lambeth, says, "I like to look out at the beautiful river, for in an artist's eye it is still beautiful at many times of the day, and often my pleasure has been marred by dogs and cats: I have seen a dog one morning floating past-he has come back again with the next tide, and for several days I had only to look at my clock in order to know the position of my visitor ; he was larger each visit, and at last disappeared. 

George Godwin, Town Swamps and Social Bridges, 1859

Rivers Purification Association, Limited, 232, Gresham House, E.C. - The objects of this association are to assist towns and sanitary authorities to comply with the requirements of the Rivers Pollution Prevention Act [1876, ed.], and to undertake the work of sewage purification for town and sanitary authorities.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881

see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here