Cholera – the mysterious killer

ONE thing we all take for granted today is clean, fresh water and – barring the next Thames Water hosepipe ban – plenty of it.
But until just a century ago, East Enders were more likely to be killed by their water than revived by it.
In the 1800s, as Tower Hamlets multiplied in size with the influx of immigrants from the countryside and abroad, cholera became a chronic threat to human health.
Look left out of the train window as you travel from Bromley-by-Bow to West Ham and you will see the distinctive rococco form of Abbey Mills pumping station.
It may look like something from a horror film but, in its day, it made the East End a safe place to live and work, as it carried sewage out to the Thames.
London had a problem getting rid of its rubbish for centuries, and for a long time the East End benefited. There was no mains drainage in the middle ages – instead excrement would be stored in cesspits under the houses.
This ‘nightsoil’ would then be carted away to ‘laystalls’, and then from there to the new market gardens around the Essex villages of Stepney, Bethnal Green and Bow.

If that sounds unsanitary, it was an improvement on the earlier system in the City, where a gulley down the middle of the street would be awash with rubbish and human excrement.
The lack of concern of Londoners was shown by Samuel Pepys observation in his famous Diary, recording how his wife “stooped down in the street to do her business”.
The Tower Hamlets market gardens may have flourished, but by the mid-1800s they had been buried under bricks and mortar, and cholera epidemics were sweeping the borough.
In desperation, the newly- formed Metropolitan Commis-sion of Sewers decreed in 1847 that cesspits were now banned.
The move was a disaster, as the main sewers and underground streams now discharged their filth straight into the Thames. A decade before, salmon had still been seen jumping in the river at Wapping. By the 1850s nothing could live in what had become a huge, stinking open sewer.
The matter came to a head in the long, hot summer of 1858. Wapping windows had to be draped with lime chloride soaked curtains, and tons of chalk and carbolic acid were tipped into the Thames.
But nothing could mask ‘The Great Stink’ as it became known. Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli himself described the river as “a Stygian Pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror”.
It was the last straw, and in that year a Bill for the purification of the Thames was passed – but the first step was to find an answer to the removal of the human waste of three million Londoners.
One plan was proposed by the painter John ‘Mad’ Martin. Rather unfairly named, his plan was to pipe the filth out to Essex to propagate land – pretty much what the East Enders had previously done for their farmland.
But the task eventually fell to the great engineer Joseph Bazalgette. He constructed a huge system of sewers running east from London Bridge for a distance of eleven miles, assisted by pumping stations such as Abbey Mills.
When Bazalgette was finished, London boasted 1,300 miles of sewers, along with the London Underground, one of the great engineering marvels of his age.
And as with the Under-ground, many of the same tunnels are still serving East Enders today. Others, like that beneath Stratford’s Greenway, have now gone out of service.
But all were part of the hidden network that saved the East End from the cholera-ridden hell it was a century ago.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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