The Great Stink and cold homes: lessons from the Victorians

In 19th century London epidemics of Cholera were common. 10,738 victims fell victim to the disease in 1853-54 alone and there was no known cure. It was spread by contaminated water, although at the time it was believed to be transmitted by breathing in ‘miasma’ – foul air.

The city also had a huge sanitation problem. Sewers poured into the Thames, polluting drinking water with human, animal and industrial waste and posing a massive public health risk. In the summer of 1858 temperatures soared and the stench from the effluent on the riverbank became so unbearable that parliamentary business was halted. Tons of lime was spread on the shore of the Thames and near the mouth of sewers to try and dissolve the toxic waste but it had little effect on halting what became known as The Great Stink.

Fearing disease, parliament decided to act, and sanctioned the creation of an ambitious new sanitation system. The project was led by Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) who along with his team set about building 82 miles of intercepting sewers parallel to the River Thames, 1,100 miles of street sewers, four pumping stations and new embankments. They worked on the premise that they were ‘only doing it once’ and so doubled the capacity beyond what was needed at the time.

The benefits were immense. The new system virtually eliminated Cholera and incidences of Diptheria and Typhoid were greatly reduced. There were wider benefits too – the embankments housed new roads, parks and underground lines. And because of Bazalgette’s foresight and commitment to doing things properly a system built in a city with a population of 2 million people is still serving a population of 8 million almost 200 years later.

So what’s my point?

Like the fetid Thames, cold homes are a huge public health risk. Instead of sustaining us and helping us thrive, they are causing or worsening serious illnesses, killing thousands of people each year.

With the huge financial burden that CV-19 is placing on households, and the threat of a second wave this winter, this may well be our Great Stink Moment. We can continue to chuck metaphorical lime at the problem and try to smother that bad smell with short term policy interventions, but it’s really not going to solve the root cause. Wouldn’t it be so much better to tackle the source of the problem with an infrastructure programme to bring warm homes for all?  As well as the health benefits we could meet low carbon goals, create new jobs, and bring increased spending into the local economy – all of which are very much needed right now.

In its 2019 Manifesto, the Government committed to delivering £6.3 billion of heating and insulation upgrades in social and private tenure homes. It’s time to realise that ambition.

If the Victorians can do it, so can we.

Sarah Wright

Head of Communications and Campaigns

NEA is a leading member of the Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group (EEIG), a collaboration of leading industry and trade bodies, charities, consumer groups, think tanks, environmental NGOs and major engineering, energy, construction and insulation businesses. The EEIG has recently launched a report highlighting energy efficiency’s offer for a net zero compatible stimulus and recovery. For more information visit:

[Sources: The Guardian ; The Science Museum; Museum of London ]

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