The river that was saved by its stench: Author reveals how a heatwave caused ‘The Great Stink’ of 1858 across the Thames Estuary
- Caroline Crampton explores the history of the Thames Estuary in a new tome
- The Government ignored the river’s stench until a heatwave in 1858
- Engineers created pump houses and narrowed the river for a scouring effect
- EU regulations put a stop to the dumping sludge in the Estuary in 1998
- Author says the river may carry off our mistakes, but it doesn’t let us forget them
THE WAY TO THE SEA
by Caroline Crampton (Granta £16.99, 336 pp)
Here’s a fact to boggle your mind next time you watch the waterbirds jabbing their beaks into the sludge of the Thames Estuary: one square metre of that mud can contain as much energy as eight Mars bars. That energy comes in the invertebrates and bacteria that also sustain more than 100 species of fish. It’s a remarkable abundance of life for a river that was declared ‘biologically dead’ in 1957.
Caroline Crampton’s gently meandering new book about the Thames reminds us that the Industrial Revolution generated appalling pollution, with sewage a particular problem, but it wasn’t until a heatwave caused ‘The Great Stink’ of 1858 that Parliament was forced to act. The Government couldn’t possibly ignore the stench that came wafting through their debating chamber.
Great Victorian engineers such as Sir Joseph Bazalgette created elegant pump houses and narrowed the river to speed its flow and create a scouring effect. But these reforms saved only the upper sections of the Thames.
Caroline Crampton explores the history of the Thames Estuary in a gripping new book, she says ‘The river may carry off our mistakes as it flows on, but it will never let us forget them’
On September 3, 1878, an estimated 650 people died at Greenwich when a passenger steamer collided with a coalship, an hour after the high tide had dumped 75 gallons of human waste into the river.
The bacteria made the corpses swell to such a size, undertakers had to order extra-large coffins. The response was simply to ship the sewage further out to sea, in vessels nicknamed Bovril boats after the dark stains on their hulls.
‘Astonishingly,’ writes Crampton, ‘it wasn’t until 1998 that EU regulations put a stop to the practice of dumping sludge into the Estuary.’
Today, she notes, many of the working-class communities who live by the river are not grateful to the EU for water in which they can now observe harbour seals playing.
Rather, some resent the political elite that bulldozed their old homes to make way for the Docklands development.
After spending much of her childhood next to the Thames, Crampton struggles with the private walkways that now prevent pedestrians from walking its length.
THE WAY TO THE SEA by Caroline Crampton (Granta £16.99, 336 pp)
But, though her physical path may sometimes be blocked, the river allows her thoughts to drift freely. She takes readers on a terrific journey through the literature of the Thames, quoting from Dickens, Defoe and T. S. Eliot, who sighed: ‘Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song / Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long / But at my back in a cold blast I hear / The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.’
Today, we’re more likely to hear the rattle of plastic bottles. In 2015, 75 per cent of the flounders tested in the Thames had plastic fibres in their guts. Each year, 300 tonnes of rubbish is removed from the river, with wet wipes forming soggy islands at slow bends.
We urgently need to stop throwing these things away. For, as Crampton concludes: ‘The river may carry off our mistakes as it flows on, but it will never let us forget them.’
Source: Read Full Article