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Aroma wasn’t built in a day

Rosemary Ashton’s new book brings together Disraeli, Dickens and Darwin in the year of the ‘Great Stink’

27 July, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

Punch’s take on the open sewer that was the Thames

EVERY year has its hot spells. But nothing quite beats June 16, 1858. That’s when the temperature hit 94.5 degrees fahrenheit, in the shade, in London, the hottest recorded day in history at that time, staying diabolically hot for almost two months.

And the result in the then biggest city in the world with a population of two million was that the River Thames, filled with potentially lethal sewage, created what became known as “the Great Stink”.

The Thames had already been described as a “monster soup” of disease in 1827 and two years later a poor Mrs Wennels and her baby had drowned in the toxic waste when the rotten floor of their home privy gave way resulting in them sinking into “the abyss of filth” beneath.

Indeed, when Queen Victoria, accompanied by Prince Albert, attempted a Thames pleasure cruise they were forced back to Buckingham Palace within minutes, and even in Houses of Parliament’s windows were covered with chlorine-soaked curtains to keep out the dreaded pong.

It was finally in the Commons that prime minister-in-waiting Benjamin Disraeli protested that the Thames was “a Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror”.

He showed off his political skills by forcing through the Thames Purification Bill that eventually resulted in the brilliant engineer Joseph Bazalgette, then living in Hamilton Terrace, St John’s Wood, creating the London sewer system and the Thames Embankment.

That eventually brought an end to smelly London, which the journalist George Sala had described as containing “the fumes of the vilest tobacco, of decaying vegetables, of escaping gas, of deceased cats, of ancient fish, of dubious mutton pies, and of unwashed, unkempt, reckless humanity – all these make the night hideous and the heart sick”.

It is against this black backdrop that historian Professor Rosemary Ashton has created a wondrous, illuminating and evocative saga of how 1858 also brought about vital moments in the lives of not only Disraeli but also Charleses Dickens and Darwin.

As a journalist, what has fascinated me about this remarkable book is how Professor Ashton has delved with comprehensive skill into the now-digitised copies of the newspapers of the day to discover the far from fake facts of what was happening on the streets of London and loudly shouted about.

Professor Rosemary Ashton

“What the papers said is vital to the story of the cleansing of the Thames, since newspapers, from The Times to Punch, to The Illustrated London News, to some scurrilous penny papers, kept up a constant noise about the state of London and its river,” she writes.

She delights in revealing, in particular, how the Great Stink was recognised in the pantomimes of the day. The title character of Harlequin Father Thames punned on stage: “My House of Commons are the common Sewers/ With my favour they have great pretence/ As common Sewers produce us common scents.”

It took Rosemary Ashton, Quain Professor of English Language and Literature Emerita and an honorary Fellow of University College, London, three years to carry out her research driven by a love of literature inherited from her headmaster father.

“He would quote passages from the Bible, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, plus historians at length and with gusto, bringing apt quotations to describe whatever our family was doing at the time,” she recalled.

“He was a real wordsmith. So reading and writing and enjoy language and historical facts was part of my childhood.”

She studied English and German at Aberdeen University before doing a PhD at Cambridge, then taught at University College, in Camden, for almost 40 years – and spending her early days in London living in Belsize Park.

The fact that three of the most important and famous Victorians endured a crisis at the same time of the Great Stink provide what she describes as “the riches galore” to add some sublime moments of insight not included in full-scale biographies of the trio of talents in that unique summer.

Dickens, then living in Tavistock House, King’s Cross, was separating from his wife and fending off reports about adultery while becoming estranged from Thackeray in gossip at the Garrick Club she discovered in its archives.

Darwin was shocked to receive a letter from fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace revealing he had come amazingly close to the theory of natural selection, thus galvanising Darwin to complete Origin of the Species, which was published in 1859, and Disraeli, at 53 a truly mistrusted Tory, proving his worth as Leader of the House by forcing through a reluctant Parliament the Thames Purification Act.

These are but the bare basis of Professor Ashton’s fundamental and frivolous findings from the past that will amaze and endure. As to today’s fatal diesel fumes, she insists: “I can only say that every age has its problems – political, social, medical – and we must hope that people today will show the determination and resilience of some of the Victorians I write about – so that solutions are actively sought and, we hope, found.”

Welcome to summer, warm, wet or whatever your passion for fun in the sun!

One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858. By Rosemary Ashton, Yale University Press, £25

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