How the River Thames Once Became a Cesspool in the Name of Public Health

How the River Thames Once Became a Cesspool in the Name of Public Health
(AP Photo/Tony Hicks)
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The River Thames has a storied history. Stretching 215 miles from Kemble to Southend, it is the longest river in England. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans were living along its shores in Neolithic times. Around the dawn of the Common Era, ancient Romans navigated its waters and constructed fortifications nearby. Nine hundred years later, Vikings from Scandinavia sailed up the Thames, leaving destruction in their wake. In the 1700s, the river served as a major hub for the thriving British Empire.

Throughout all this time, the Thames remained a fertile fishing ground and surprisingly clean. That wouldn't last, however. In the 1500s onward, cities sprung up along the river and rapidly grew, none moreso than London. According to The Guardian, "between 1714 and 1840, London's population swelled from around 630,000 to nearly 2 million, making it the largest and most powerful city in the world." This was bad news for the Thames, because all these people pooped and peed.

During much of this population explosion, water pollution was surprisingly chastened by a simple solution: cesspits. Almost every building had a sizable, often stone-lined, pit in the basement or outside where waste would be deposited. 'Nightmen' would visit a building every six months or so to empty the fetid contents and take them somewhere far out of sight. This status quo largely spared the River Thames.

That all started to change in the 1820s. Creative plumbers began connecting cesspits to London's sewer system, which at the time was intended only to be used for groundwater, as it emptied straight into the Thames. But by the 1840s, city planners decided to codify these actions as they thought clearing out cesspits would be a boon to public health. The major architect of the plan, civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette proudly reported the plan's "success".

"Within a period of about six years, thirty thousand cesspools were abolished, and all house and street refuse was turned into the river," he wrote.

As a result, the Thames swiftly turned into a giant cesspool.

"In the space of about thirty-five years, the Thames had been transformed from a fishing ground teeming with salmon to one of the most polluted waterways in the world – all in the name of public health," science writer Steven Johnson wrote in his book The Ghost Map.

The move directly resulted in a devastating cholera outbreak between 1848 and 1849. Over 15,000 Londoners died drinking water from the river laced with the bacteriumVibrio cholerae. So much for that benefit to public health...

But officials still had no idea that polluted drinking water was to blame. They though it was "miasma," or bad air. It took many more cholera outbreaks and the Thames' increasingly repulsive smell to convince Londoners that something needed to be done to rehabilitate the river.

Luckily, Bazalgette was able to learn from his prior mistake and redesigned London's sewer system to drain far away from the river. The cholera outbreaks subsided and water quality started to steadily improve.

The river would fall back into ecological ruin again during the mid-20th century. In 1957, the Natural History Museum declared the Thames biologically dead. Revitalization efforts have since returned it to relatively decent health. Citizens of England must remain watchful to ensure that their beloved Thames doesn't become a cesspool once again.

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