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Earth closets and Great Stinks

The science of Victorian sewage

Philip Strange 8 August 2010

Testing the waters: detail from Punch, July 1855

It sometimes takes a system breakdown to force politicians to act

In the summer of 1855, the great Victorian scientist Michael Faraday took a boat trip on the Thames in London – but his was no pleasure cruise. He wrote to the Times describing his experience: “the whole of the river was an opaque, pale brown fluid”; “the smell was very bad”; and “near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds”. During the trip, he dropped pieces of white card into the river, which became invisible at depths greater than a few centimetres. His experiment was immortalised in a Punch cartoon, “Faraday giving his card to Father Thames”. He also predicted severe problems in a future “hot season”.

Three years later, Faraday’s concern was justified when Londoners’ nostrils were assaulted by the “Great Stink”. The hottest summer on record converted the Thames into a mass of rotting, putrid sewage. Parliament was badly affected, and curtains soaked in chloride of lime were hung over the windows to suppress the “noxious stench”. Queen Victoria and her family even abandoned a boat trip on the Thames.

It sometimes takes a system breakdown to force politicians to act: the “Great Stink” finally stimulated construction of a proper sewer network in London and other towns leading to a major improvement in the quality of life and health. Let’s look at the background to these events and imagine what life was like in the mid-19th century. A hundred and fifty years ago, the cesspool – deep pits in which excrement was collected – was an important means for dealing with human excrement. The movement of people into towns, living in close proximity, necessitated large numbers of cesspools. Sometimes these were located directly beneath houses, with their smells permeating upwards. Sometimes they leaked, polluting the water supply. In towns, cesspools were often emptied by “night soil” men. These men performed an essential service but it must have been an appalling occupation.

With the further concentration of people in towns and with the rise in popularity of flushing water closets, there was intense pressure on cesspools, and sewage disposal began to be directed into nearby rivers. The Thames in London was much polluted in this way, leading to pollution of drinking water derived from it. Polluted drinking water in turn contributed to the spread of diseases such as typhoid and cholera.

Although it may seem obvious to us that polluted drinking water leads to spread of diseases like cholera, this was not at all obvious to the Victorians. Europe was ravaged by four waves of cholera in the 19th century and tens of thousands died. Fear of the deadly disease, in the absence of knowledge, led to intense speculation about its origin. Outlandish ideas circulated; many influential people subscribed to the “miasma” theory whereby disease was spread by an infected atmosphere and associated foul smells. Florence Nightingale was a fervent believer in this theory as was Edwin Chadwick, the social and sanitary reformer. Belief in this theory among MPs led to panic in the House of Commons when faced by the “Great Stink” and this may have helped spur them in to action. Although the London anaesthetist, John Snow, provided epidemiological evidence that polluted water was the source of cholera infection in 1854, it took another 15 years before his theory began to be taken seriously. The important sanitary advance at the time, however, was the construction of better sewers, which could be justified on the basis of either miasma or polluted water.

In rural Dorset, far away from London, problems with sewage led to different solutions that could have changed the practice of sewage disposal. In 1829, Henry Moule became vicar of Fordington, a parish then on the outskirts of Dorchester in Dorset. Fordington at the time was a place of concentrated housing and deprivation and was described by Thomas Hardy in his novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, as “the hiding place of those who were in distress, and in debt, and in trouble of every kind”. Moule was a man of great purpose and set about improving life for the residents of Fordington. In 1849 and 1854, however, Fordington suffered outbreaks of cholera. Many died but Moule worked tirelessly to help the people of his parish and did not himself succumb to the disease. During the outbreaks, he became convinced that inadequate sanitation and contaminated water supplies contributed to the rapid spread of cholera. He was particularly concerned about cesspools which he termed “an unnatural abomination”.

In 1859 he tried the experiment of mixing his own excreta with dry earth, and was surprised that within 3-4 weeks the mixture seemed to be fully broken down and odourless, presumably under the influence of aerobic soil bacteria. He felt that the disposal of excrement in cesspools was a loss of potential fertiliser and tested his ideas with the help of a local farmer. One half of a field was fertilised with earth used five times to decompose excreta and the other, with an equal weight of superphosphate. Swedes grown in the earth-manured side grew one third bigger than those growing in the superphosphate-treated side. He designed and patented his “earth closet” in 1860. This device had a handle that, when turned, delivered a measured amount of earth on to the human excrement. For a time the earth closet was very popular and competed with the water closet as a sanitary device. Indeed, Queen Victoria had an earth closet installed at Windsor Castle. Earth closets were adopted in some schools in the UK and in gaols, government buildings and mental hospitals in Australia and India.

As we know, “earth closets” did not persist in the UK and this may have had something to do with the difficulty of ensuring that the waste was properly disposed of by individual users. Because it is so important to deal effectively with the waste problem, especially in big towns, we ultimately adopted the “flush and forget” system linked to sewerage. This may also have had something to do with our attitude to human excrement. Whether it would have ever been practicable to use the “earth closet” system in large towns is unclear but it is certainly worth reflecting that flush systems can lead to huge losses of nutrients unless the resulting sewage sludge is recycled.

Although the earth closet now appears a historical curiosity, there has recently been an upsurge of interest in composting toilets with increased awareness of the need to conserve water. The modern designs are not exactly the same as Moule’s but they are certainly in the same spirit. Composting toilets are being used at festivals such as Bestival and by the National Trust in the UK and an entire building at the University of British Columbia now uses composting toilets. The Church of England web site reports the installation of composting “treebogs” at Escot church in Devon. (These were blessed by the Bishop but they don’t tell us what his blessing entailed.)

Composting toilets even featured at the recent Cannes Film Festival. At the screening of the new film version of Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe, revellers at the post-screening party were treated to an extra bonus: eco-toilets. Those who visited these conveniences found detailed instructions in English and French with helpful explanatory diagrams showing them how to use the facility and cover their leavings with a scoop of wood shavings. Were these eco-loos designed to contribute to saving the planet by using less water or was their purpose to show solidarity with Robin and his merry men? We shall never know, but there were no flushing toilets in Sherwood Forest and this story gives a new meaning to the name “Little John”.