Chicken and Chips, the start of sewage treatment

A little known outcome of the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park held from 1 May to 15 October 1851 was the gestation and birth of sewage treatment.  At the Exhibition, well known sanitation engineer and potter, George Jennings installed his Monkey Closets in the Retiring Rooms of The Crystal Palace. This was, for the Victorian public, their 1st exposure to a communal convenience.  And it caused quite a stir. During the exhibition, 827,280 visitors paid one penny to use them and for that penny they got a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine. “To spend a penny” became a euphemism for using the toilet.

When the exhibition ended and moved to Sydenham, the toilets were to be closed down. However, Jennings persuaded the organisers to keep them open, and the toilet went on to earn over £1,000 a year. Jennings said that “the civilisation of a people can be measured by their domestic and sanitary appliances”.

The Monkey – used in a Monkey Closet

Little did the public know that their appetite for home installed Monkey Closets would create a cascade of problems.  At the time, waste water of any description, was simply thrown into the street.  However, water was needed to rinse and clean the Monkey. The demand for water would rise and the concomitant problem of disposal started to raise it’s head.  The usual waste water disposal method was employed, although increasingly in larger volumes.  As there were no dedicated foul sewer pipelines, the waste water meandered along until it reached a low point and this was usually the Thames River.

By 1858, the volume of sewage flowing into the Thames was reaching epidemic proportions.  Combined with a severe heat wave, the stench was unbearable.  In those days the water level in the Thames fluctuated with the tides.  At low tide extended sections of embankment would expose rivulets of sewage.  It was the response of dignitaries on a Royal Cruise that paved the way for parliamentary (and budgetary) intervention.  Ten years later, the wonderful London sewer was fully functional and the crisis was averted.  Interestingly it was the intense smell that motivated action.  Although a public health menace, the potential danger of sewage was not fully appreciated.

Sewage treatment done ala Thames

“The Silent Highwayman” (1858). Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up.

Charles Dickens, in his novel Little Dorrit, wrote that the Thames was “a deadly sewer … in the place of a fine, fresh river”.  In a letter to a friend, Dickens said: “I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature”