THE DARKER SIDE OF 19TH CENTURY LONDON – THE GREAT STINK

by Kristine Hughes Patrone

If you’d been watching Season 2, Episode 4 of the PBS Masterpiece series Victoria, you would have seen Prince Albert addressing the problem of the outdated, and stinking, drains at Buckingham Palace. In reality, the problem of outdated and overburdened drains extended far beyond the Palace and permeated through the entire city of London. So prevalent was the problem that it came to be known as The Great Stink, a condition once so grave that it’s remediation has gone down in history as one of the greatest engineering feats of its day.

 The Great Stink actually took place in 1858, but of course London had been stinking for centuries prior. In the first half of the 19th Century, London’s population was 2.5 million, all of whom ultimately discharged their waste directly onto the streets or into the Thames.  Besides people, there were hundreds of thousands of horses, cows, dogs, cats, sheep, etc. adding their daily contributions to the waste problem. John Cadbury, social reformer and candy company founder, wrote:  “Foul odors emanated from more than 200,000 cesspools across London, in alleyways, yards, even the basements of houses. It was not a smell that could be easily washed away.”

Most homes and businesses were built above cesspits, designed to drain to the street by means of a crudely built culvert to a partially open sewer trench in the center of the street. The design was faulty, to say the least. Cesspits often overflowed and waste soaked foundations, walls and floors of living quarters. Culverts typically became blocked and caused sewage to spread under buildings and contaminate shallow wells, cisterns and water ways from which drinking water was drawn. In October 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary: “Going down to my cellar…I put my feet into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr. Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar.

While causing disgust in Pepys and thousands of other Londoners, cesspits gave work to a portion of the population who included night soil men and saltpetre men. Saltpetre is another name for potassium nitrate, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder. It was typically generated by collecting vegetable and animal waste into heaps and mixing it with limestone, mortar, earth and ashes. These heaps were kept moist from time to time with urine or other waste from stables. Digging for ingredients in outbuildings such as dovecotes and stables provided adequate supplies of gunpowder for the navy. Beginning during the reign of Elizabeth I, official saltpetre men were given powers to requisition any suitable deposits they came across. In 1621 James I appointed Lords of the Admiralty as Commissioners for Saltpetre and Gunpowder. They divided the country into districts for collection, and specialised saltpetre men were appointed and given weekly quotas to meet. They were also awarded powers with the right to enter premises to dig for nitrogenous earth.

In addition to saltpetre men, night soil men removed human waste that they then sold as fertilizer for crops. It was filthy job that involved crawling through cesspits and sewers or descending into them from ladders. Henry Mayhew describes them in his London Labour and the London Poor. You can read it here.

By 1810, the city’s one million inhabitants had to be content with 200,000 cesspits. The pressure on these and the haphazard sewer system caused the pits to overflow into street drains designed originally to cope with rainwater, but now also used to carry waste from factories, slaughterhouses and other activities, contaminating the city before emptying into the River Thames, or into the old London streams – the Fleet, the Wandle, the West Bourne, the Ravensbourne, the New, the Holbourne and many others that had been partially covered. WC’s discharged human waste directly into these streams and as most of those on the south side were tide-locked and drained into the Thames only at low tide, the results were catastrophic – much of London’s drinking water was still being extracted from the Thames, often downstream from the sewage discharge points.

 

Whilst the government and various commissioners and officials put forth plans for cleaning up London’s cesspits and sewers, the Duke of Wellington forged ahead with action of his own at the Tower of London – he was Constable of the Tower for 26 years. Centuries before, latrines and been built and desgined to empty directly into the moat set into the outer wall of Edward I’s Brass Mount in the north-eastern corner of the Tower. In addition, the moat connected to the River Thames, which washed its foul and putrid self about the Tower at both high and low tide.  In 1830, the Duke of Wellington ordered the silt from the moat be taken to fertilize market gardens at Battersea, but this was not enough to prevent complaints in 1841 that the banks exposed at low tide were ‘impregnated with putrid animal and excrementitious matter … emitting a most prejudicial smell,’ resulting in 80 men from the garrison being taken to hospital. Wellington ordered the moat to be completely drained and covered over, the work being completed in 1845.

Dire problems with London’s water supply inevitably took their toll on the City’s inhabitants – cholera first struck London in 1832 and again in 1840. In 1854 London physician Dr John Snow discovered that the disease was transmitted by drinking water contaminated by sewage after an epidemic broke out in Soho, but this idea was not widely accepted even by that late date.

The lawyer Edwin Chadwick, secretary to the Poor Law Commision, was one of many to draw attention to London’s unsanitary living conditions. In 1842, he produced an uncompromising and influential paper, ‘The Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain.’ Shocked by the squalor of the slums, he cited ‘atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances,’ ‘damp and filth,’ and ‘close and overcrowded dwellings” as leading inevitably to disease and epidemics. Chadwick enlisted the aid of Charles Dickens, who personally recorded graphic accounts of the terrible state of reeking graveyards from his brother-in-law, Henry Austin, a leading sanitary reformer.

However, attempts at sanitary clean up were slow, as this letter to the editor of The Times – written in 1849 – shows –

TO THE EDITUR OF THE TIMES PAPER

Sur, -May we beg and beeseech your proteckshion and power. We are Sur, as it may be, livin in a Wilderniss, so far as the rest of London knows anything of us, or as the rich and great people care about. We live in muck and filthe. We aint got no privies, no dust bins, no drains, no water splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place. The Suer Company in Greek Street, Soho Square, all great rich and powerful men, take no notice watsotnedever of our complaints. The Stenche of a Gully-hole is disgustin. We all of us suffur, and numbers are ill, and if the Colera comes Lord help us… Teusday, Juley 3, 1849″.

Nearly a decade later, the situation had hardly improved. The year 1858 saw an exceptionally hot summer, over the course of which the Thames and many of its urban tributaries continued to overflow with sewage. Bacteria grew and the miasma of noxious smells increased until even the members of the House of Commons couldn’t ignore it, being driven out of the House by the foul odours. A House of Commons select committee was appointed to report on the Stink and recommend solutions and within 18 days a bill was passed into law that provided the funds necessary for a comprehensive sewer scheme for London, and to build the Embankment along the Thames in order to improve both the flow of water and of traffic.

 

In 1855 the Metropolitan Board of Works which, after rejecting many schemes for “merciful abatement of the epidemic that ravaged the Metropolis”, accepted a scheme to implement sewers proposed in 1859 by its chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette. The intention of this very expensive scheme was to resolve the epidemic of cholera by eliminating the stench which was believed to cause it.

 

Massive sewers were built running along the north and south banks of the river Thames. These captured the waste that would otherwise pour into the river. The sewers gently inclined downwards to the east, resulting in the waste flowing towards the sea. In areas such as Victoria, the muddy foreshore was reclaimed, and sewers and the new underground railway were installed. On the surface, a 30 metre width of landscaped road and pavement was established, providing a modern and elegant
boulevard now known as the Embankment, which also served to guard against flooding. These new sewers terminated at pumping stations east of London in Kent and Essex, where the waste was carried out to sea on the outgoing tide. The Prince of Wales opened the pumping station at Crossness in Kent in 1865.

Work on London’s massive new sewer system continued over the next six years and, eventually the “Great Stink” became but a thing of memory, as did cholera.

Thames Water has produced a film about the construction of the sewer, which you can watch here.

MR. JONES, I BELIEVE?

George Jones, R.A.

George Jones was a Keeper of the Royal Academy and a British painter who specialized in military subjects, himself having been a military man who served with the army of occupation in Paris after the Battle of Waterloo. Afterwards, Jones went on to exhibit five paintings of the Battle at the Royal Academy and six more at the British Institution, thus earning himself the nickname of “Waterloo Jones.” However, the thing he was most proud of was his resemblance to the Duke of Wellington.

The Duke of Wellington

 

Jones used to tell anyone who’d listen that he was often mistaken for Wellington and word of this made it’s way to the man himself. “That’s funny,” Wellington was to have replied, “no one ever mistakes me for Mr. Jones!” But there is anecdotal evidence that this did, in fact, occur on at least one occasion when a man approached the Duke and said, “Mr. Jones, I believe?” In true Wellington fashion, the Duke was purported to have shot back, “If you believe that, you’ll believe anything!”

BONING WELLINGTON BOOTS

 

The Duke of Wellington was 75 when the image above was taken in 1844 by Antoine Claudet, court photographer to Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III. By this time, the Duke’s lumbago, which he had periodically suffered from for decades, was a constant bane, as was the rheumatism in his neck, which caused him to favour one shoulder, giving him a slightly stiff appearance. In addition, a botched ear operation, performed after he’d suffered hearing loss from a canon charge, resulted in his being deaf in one ear. This hearing loss progressed and made his life a misery in later years. Still, if there was one thing sure to set off Wellington’s anger, it was people making him solicitous offers of help or assistance, however kindly they were meant. Wellington would explode and tell anyone who would listen that he remained perfectly capable of taking care of himself, thank you very much, and that he indeed did take care of himself on a daily basis. In one such recorded outburst, Wellington said that he shaved himself daily, bathed himself daily, was perfectly capable of brushing his own hair and, by God, he’d still be boning his own boots if he still had the strength!

Wellington’s Wellington boots

Boning his boots? I’ve been at this research malarkey for thirty years and had never heard the term. What in the world? Turns out that boning boots was a method of treating and shining boot leather using a, er, bone.

 

According to the Top Horse website, “in days gone by, a technique called ‘boning’ was used to give leather boots a mirror finish. This was done by taking the rib bone from a lamb (hence the term), boiling off the flesh and using that to work the polish into the leather.”

Deer bones were also used, as you’ll see in this video which explains the process.

Let’s be honest, not many of us are willing to go to this extreme, unless we’re serving at Horse Guards or riding with the Belvoir Hunt, so here’s a simpler method, again according to Top Horse and written by Claire Uren:

What you will need:

• Kiwi Parade Gloss, black for top boots and brown for jodhpur boots. The Kiwi Parade Gloss ($5.50) is best, other polishes don’t work as well for this technique.

• A bowl of hot water

• An old, soft towel (one that has gone through fabric softener and a tumble drier is ideal)

• Hair dryer

• Methylated spirits

• Elbow grease!

The true secret to a great shine is to fill the pores in the leather which creates a smooth ‘mirror’ surface.

Step 1

Get plenty of Kiwi Parade Gloss on your old towel, dip in the hot water and work into your boots.

Step 2

Take the first boot and using the rest of the old towel, polish both boots until your arms ache….this is where the elbow grease comes in!

Step 3

Repeat step one but DON’T polish the boots.

The Queen
The Queen’s Guards have boot polishing down to a fine art

 

Step 4

Take your hair dryer and using the highest heat setting on the lowest speed, apply heat to the boot so the polish melts into the pores of the leather. If you watch closely you’ll see that the polish where the heat is applied becomes becomes very shiny. You can even repair scuffs or scratches by adding a little extra Parade Gloss and being careful how you melt it.

Step 5

Polish both boots again as much as your arms can stand it…the more the better!

Step 6

Time to ride in your shiny boots!. Some polish may flake off where the leather creases, but just buff with a soft cloth.

The next time you go to polish your boots, clean them with methylated spirits first. This will make the leather appear milky and foggy looking but this is normal. Then repeat the above steps and you’ll be amazed at how much better the boots will look after the second go.

Ready made boot shines are okay, but the Parade Gloss method is more satisfying and is also low maintenance.

Of course, this will only work with leather top boots, don’t try it on your rubber ones! You can shine them up with the help of furniture polish such as Mr Sheen.

If anyone compliments you on your beautifully shiny riding boots, tell them you learned how to do it at Top Horse!

(Please note: This technique is not advised for children to attempt.)

 

LOST COUNTRY HOUSES

Warter Hall/Priory
If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll know that I spend an inordinate amount of time researching anything and everything to do with the Duke of Wellington. Often, this research leads me down unexpected paths, as happened when I found myself stumbling upon Lady Nunburnholme and her home, Warter Hall, on the Lost Heritage website:  The Victorian and Edwardian owners of Warter Hall (or Priory).
Florence Jane Helen Wellesley (1853-1932), Lady Nunburnholme, OBE by Edward Hughes, National Trust, Beningbrough Hall

The Formidable Lady Nunburnholme

“From the purchase of the Warter Estate by her husband in 1878 until its sale over 50 years later, the village of Warter and the lives of the villagers were dominated by Lady Nunburnholme.

“Born in London in 1854 Florence Jane Helen Wellesley was the eldest daughter of Colonel William Henry Charles Wellesley, a nephew of the great Duke of Wellington. She married Charles Wilson in 1871 and they lived at Cottingham, near Hull before moving to Warter Priory in 1878.

“(Local man) George Noble had many stories of Lady Nunburnholme: She was a Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s family. Warter Priory was full of Duke of Wellington’s busts and oil paintings. She used to say “I’ve got the blood and Mr Wilson has the money.” Which he had. … By jove she was a rum un, I’ll tell you that, yes, but when she was alright, she was alright, but by jove she was a goer on as we say… She liked entertaining and she was the boss, and it was no good anybody what worked there telling her off, for she would get his notice just after, you know, pack-up … she would nearly clear him off the place straightaway and pay him up… The butler used to say to me dad, and he was there a long time, and knew ’em all. “Bill”, he used to say “Devil’s abroad, she’s on the warpath … she’s playing devil with me and everybody else she’s come across – if you can find another job, getaway, out of road.”

“The Dowager Lady Nunburnholme died in 1932. The Warter estate had by then been sold by her grandson Charles John, 3rd Baron Nunburnholme. It was bought in 1929 by George Vestey who made Warter Priory his home until his death in 1968. Warter was then sold to the 4th Marquis of Normanby and the Guiness Trust.

“The Marquis bought Warter as a subsidiary shooting lodge and did not intend to live there as his principal family seat was at Musgrave Castle. The contents were auctioned in March 1969, the garden statuary the following September. Attempts were made to find a tenant but when one could not be found it was decided to demolish the house and a final auction of all the remaining furniture and fittings, down the last loo seat, was held in May 1972. Shortly afterwards the house was demolished, the splendid gardens bulldozed and the rubble used to fill in the nearby lake. The 5th Marquis of Normanby sold the Warter estate covering 11,910 acres (4,820 hectares) with 63 houses and cottages to a Hull-born businessman Malcolm Healey in 1998.”

Meeting Lady Nunburnholme thus was pleasantly surprising, but sadly Warter Priory’s fate was all too familiar. Since WWII, nearly 1,000 of Britain’s stately homes have vanished, either fallen to ruin or demolished when changes in social climate and the industrial landscape combined with diminished fortunes and death duties to sound the final bell on a way of life that had become unsustainable.

As we were going to be Derbyshire, I built a stop at Sutton Scarsdale into Number One London’s 2017 Country House Tour, as I wanted to show our guests the state that some of the houses were in when acquired by the National Trust or English Heritage. Sutton Scarsdale is a prime example of the condition so many important houses were allowed to fall in to after the second World War.

In 1724, Nicholas Leke, 4th Earl of Scarsdale commissioned the building of a design by architect Francis Smith, to develop a Georgian mansion with gardens, using parts of an existing structure. The estate was sold to the Arkwright family in 1824 and remained in their possession until 1919, when Major William Arkwright sold the house and grounds at auction. The estate was bought by a group of local businessmen who asset-stripped the house, with some parts of the building being shipped to the United States, where one room’s oak panelling was bought by  William Randolph Hearst, who planned to use it at Hearst Castle. After many years in storage in New York City, Pall Mall films bought the panelling for use as a set in their various 1950s productions. Another set of panels are now resident in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1946, the estate was bought by Sir Osbert Sitwell of Renishaw Hall, with the intention of preserving the remaining shell as a ruin. Scarsdale Hall is now in the care of English Heritage, who are in the process of restoring the structure.

Interior of Sutton Scarsdale, circa 1920

While the efforts of organizations such as English Heritage, the National Trust, the Landmark Trust and myriad local councils and organizations have helped to preserve so much historic property for us to enjoy, it remains heartbreaking to consider all the houses that have gone forever.

You can read the entire Wikipedia entry for Sutton Scarsdale here, and watch a YouTube video that captures the majesty of the property here. Do visit the Lost Heritage website at the link above and take some time to explore their extensive archives. Additionally, there’s a very good Daily Mail article on vanished country houses here.