Friday Books: When the Thames was a stinker

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The Independent Culture
THESE TWO books are united by London's most important natural feature, its river, the Thames - today a tourist attraction, but in earlier times providing power, water, transport and factory sites, not to mention salubrious retreats on its banks.

Stephen Halliday is concerned with the river's period of greatest degradation, when supposed urban improvement led to the discharge of so much filth into the river that the water below London Bridge was as "bad as poetical descriptions of the Stygian Lake".

The story of the Great Stink has lessons for reformers. For generations, the putting of waste into the streams that ran into the Thames had been banned. The Commission of Sewers - which supervised the brooks, such as the Westbourne - were charged with keeping filth out of them.

However, in the early 19th century advanced opinion commanded the use of water-closets and the connection of drains into sewers, rather than the use of individual cesspits, which were emptied by "nightmen" but tended to pollute the environs of the houses that relied on them.

Connection to the sewers had the advantage of rendering houses more salubrious, but led to the pollution of the river itself, still used by some companies for fresh water. The great Victorian panaceas - the official report, the Select Committee, and, in extremis, a Royal Commission - were employed.

They provided Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, as well as the Royal Commission under Lord Morpeth, which advocated the Metropolitan Sewers Act. This Act for amalgamating all the sewers in London - except those in the City - started the modernisation of London's government that resulted, first, in the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1856. Then, in 1889, the London County Council ushered in a century of good government for the capital.

The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was to improve life for Londoners in fields as varied as health and transport. In parallel went schemes for improving the water supply, and, less successfully, commercial projects for putting sewage to profitable use as manure.

Joseph Bazalgette, as the MBW's chief engineer, was in charge of many of the works, creating the great system of intercepting the sewers that carried foul water to the pumping stations, and the embankments needed to make the river more wholesome. He was also in charge of "metropolitan improvements" - the cutting of avenues such as Charing Cross Road and Kingsway through crowded neighbourhoods; the rebuilding of bridges over the river Thames; the abolition of tolls on others.

Halliday provides a lively account of these magnificent achievements and of the man responsible, which are graphically illustrated from contemporary sources.

The Tudor palace of Placentia was sited at Greenwich because of the ease of water transport. Clive Aslet has provided a superbly illustrated history of one of the world's most topical suburbs. Better known today for its hospital, the museum and now perhaps the Millennium Dome, Greenwich was beloved of the Tudor monarchs, and also much liked by James I and Charles I, who built the modest Queen's House for Henrietta Maria.

It is to the later Stuarts that Greenwich owes its greatest monument, the naval hospital. Originally a scheme of James II, it was pursued by William III after Mary's death as a memorial to her. But it was John Evelyn who, as a former naval administrator and treasurer to the charity, raised enough money for building to start under Christopher Wren, with Nicholas Hawksmoor as clerk of works. Its curious plan, of two identical wings on either side of the Queen's House, came about as the house remained in royal use well into the 18th century.

In 1865 the Seamen's Hospital closed, largely as potential inmates preferred to take a pension and live elsewhere. Eight years later it reopened as the Naval College, with the Royal Naval Museum. Later the latter became the National Maritime Museum, moving into the Queen's House in 1937 - and recently reopened, magnificently refurbished and extended.

As elsewhere, the fields and gardens of Greenwich were laid out in speculative housing during the 19th century. To water transport were added trams and trains; the LCC provided a tunnel under the Thames in 1902 for south Londoners to get to the thriving factories on the Isle of Dogs. In an area now dominated by Canary Wharf, it is hard to conceive the dereliction after the closure of the docks in the Seventies, though that dereliction provided the opportunity to erect the Millennium Dome.

Greenwich's real significance lies in the knowledge and persistence of the Astronomers Royal who developed accurate time-keeping. The Greenwich meridian became zero longitude, accepted throughout the world in 1874. The selection of a royal park, well removed from the smoky atmosphere of Stuart London, for the Royal Observatory means that today the world speaks of GMT, or Greenwich Mean Time, and that, technically, the millennium will start there.