Atlas Obscura

Solving the Great Stink: London’s Gorgeous Victorian Sewage Cathedrals

Crossness Pumping Station, the Cathedral on the Marsh that helped save London from the Great Stink.

Photo: Amanda Slater/Creative Commons

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The night men of Victorian London had it rough. Tasked with hauling away “night soil”—human waste—under the cover of darkness, night men ventured into the city’s 200,000 cesspits armed with only buckets, rope, and the desire to make money at any cost.

Between midnight and 5 a.m., night men climbed down into the pits of human effluvia, filled their buckets, and hauled the waste into carts. It was dangerous, disgusting work: beyond the appalling stench and hard physical labor, night men risked death by asphyxiation due to the overpowering gases and fumes.

A cartoon by John Leech addressing the Great Stink in the July 3, 1858 issue of the London satire magazine Punch. The three figures emerging from the river represent diphtheria, scropula (a condition involving enlargement of the lymph nodes on the neck), and cholera.

Prior to the installation of the sewer system, London was a city of overflowing cesspits that drained into a putrid Thames. Cholera ran rampant and the air was a miasma of human waste smells, slaughterhouse run-off, and factory emissions.

Conditions were particularly noxious during the summer of 1858, a time known as The Great Stink. The smell of the sewage-filled Thames was so horrid that it affected operations at the Houses of Parliament. A transcript from parliamentary proceedings on June 11, 1858 notes that “Gentlemen sitting in the Committee Rooms and in the Library were utterly unable to remain there in consequence of the stench which arose from the river.” In an attempt to mask the smell, the parliamentary curtains were soaked in chloride of lime. But the distracting odor remained.

The Prince of Wales and a gaggle of gentlemen start the sewer pumps at Crossness Pumping Station in 1865.

Clearly, something had to be done. The solution came in the form of a sewer system designed by Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Construction on six intercepting sewers—which diverted waste from the city to a Thames estuary downstream—began in 1859.

Among the most beautiful components of the new sewer system were the pumping stations at Crossness and Abbey Mills. Designed in Byzantine style with hints of Moorish influence, these ornate cathedrals of waste held steam pumps surrounded by red-brick arches, octagonal cupolas, shiny brass handrails, wrought-iron detailing, and elegant “MBW” monograms—for the Metropolitan Board of Works. At Crossness, the steam pumps were named Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward, and Alexandra, after members of the British royal family.

The Crossness and Abbey Mills pumping stations have been superseded by more advanced systems, but the ornate Victorian buildings remain. Crossness station, located on the south bank in the borough of Bexley, has been restored and is available for hire—the official website recommends you consider it as a location for product launches, viral videos, and Shakespearean theater productions. The Abbey Mills pumping station, situated on the north bank near West Ham, is generally closed to the public, but Thames Water occasionally conducts tours as part of city open house programs.   

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on the Crossness and Abbey Mills pumping stations.

Abbey Mills Pumping Station, completed in 1868.

Photo: Ian Wright/Creative Commons

The “Prince Consort” steam engine, named after Queen Victoria’s husband Albert.

Photo: Steve Cadman/Creative Commons

The octagonal domed ceiling of Abbey Mills Pumping Station.

Photo: Matt Brown/Creative Commons

The C Station Pump House at Abbey Mills.

Photo: Msemmett/Creative Commons

A section of the London sewer at Fleet River near Farringdon.

Photo: Commons