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Victorian Hellscapes and the Birth of the Modern City

LONDON, ENGLAND – Handkerchiefs tightly clenched against the nose and curtains doused with chlorine did little to mask the stench emanating from the Thames river, which had served as the city’s only sewage disposal system since the 1600s, as well as its primary source of drinking water. During the summer of 1858, the scorching sun had brought the water levels down enough to expose the human, animal and industrial waste just below the surface, unleashing odors so toxic and foul that it would be enshrined in historical accounts as “The Great Stink“.

Industrialization and laisse-faire philosophies of governance made the “royal river” the most polluted body of water on the planet by the middle of the 19th century, and had claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Londoners over the previous three decades. Cholera outbreaks were almost commonplace, though contemporary Western medical science continued to attribute the deadly disease to a mysterious “Asiatic”, airborne “miasma”, even after Dr. John Snow – posthumously named the “father of modern epidemiology” –, identified the river’s contaminated waters as the locus of the last outbreak.

The “evil odours” emanating from its main thoroughfare, motivated then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, to fund the first modern sewage disposal infrastructure project by way of the recently-established Metropolitan Board of Works’ (MBW) – an agency plagued by corruption and scandals, which prompted its nickname as the Metropolitan Board of Perks.

Joseph Bazalgette (top right) at the northern outfall sewer being built below London’s Abbey Mills pumping station. Photograph: Otto Herschan/Getty

The MBW’s main purpose as the first centralized urban development agency in England was to facilitate the electrification of the capital of the British empire, which occurred concurrently with the sanitation projects as the wooden poles and latex-covered cables of the London District Telegraph Company and the Universal Private Telegraph Company began crisscrossing the city.

From its inception to its dissolution in 1889, the MBW worked in relative secrecy as it was officially isolated from public oversight. Several of its board members had direct ties to the telegraph companies, including MBW board member Robert Taylor, who simultaneously sat on the board of the London District Telegraph Company as its vice-chairman when its representatives were going around the city’s neighborhoods persuading property owners to let the company install voltaic batteries on their rooftops.

Much like the popular misgivings about the present-day roll out of 5G antennas, nineteenth century Londoners were not too thrilled about having these dangerous metal boxes hovering over their homes. A hundred years-worth of evidence of the harm caused by electricity on the human body had accumulated since its discovery in the 1700s as well as some potential benefits, dividing many in the burgeoning world of Western medical science.

Nevertheless, the British empire was undergoing a momentous transformation from a colonial power to a financial juggernaut, and the explosion of telegraphy – occurring throughout the empire’s far flung territories and beyond – was at the heart of it. The ability to transmit stock price fluctuations and market-related information instantaneously across the world represented a coup for the forces of free trade, which Metternich’s Europe had managed to keep at bay for the previous fifty years.

Raul Diego

Raul Diego

Independent investigative journalist, documentary filmmaker and photojournalist. Contributing Editor of Silicon Icarus

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