Out and About in South London

Historian feature

By Flora Wilton Tregear, published 11th November 2021

Offspring of the Stink

In an unusual Out and About feature, the Young Historian Local History Senior Prize winner Flora Wilton Tregear shows us what her local area can tell us about the history of public health.

Taking the DLR out from Lewisham you pass through Deptford Bridge station towards Greenwich. Here my father would point out to me the Deptford pumping station down below, ‘the most important building in South East London’. Here, a famous engineer called Bazalgette cleaned London’s water, ridding the city of cholera, and began the movement towards public sanitation through local and state responsibility for the health of the people. For several years I volunteered with the sailing charity, the AHOY centre, from the wharves of Deptford, where River Ravensbourne flows into the Thames. There were days when we found ourselves unable to sail due to the immense smell and danger of the river. When it rains heavily, raw sewage would still be pumped directly into it, to stop the Victorian sewage systems in the surrounding houses overflowing. This was my experience of what once overwhelmed London: the ‘Great Stink’. Every single cesspit, all sewage and industrial debris flowed into the Thames throughout the nineteenth century. The heaving mass of London’s population turned the great river into an effluent morass. The river was described by the Prime Minister, Disraeli, as a ‘stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror’. This stygian pool was London’s water supply. The population was being poisoned....

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