Director’s Diary: Sweet Thames and The Great Stink

Last week of the summer playscheme, and on Friday we have family workshops as part of Engineering Open House Day.
Four hundred years ago Edmund Spenser wrote a famous marriage song, but two hundred and forty years later a very different London endured The Great Stink. Edmund Spenser wrote about the Thames in Richmond: Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song where King Henry VIII went hunting. The river in the west was a pastoral idyll, but in the east, and much later, Henry Mayhew (1812-1887), philanthropist, social reformer, first editor of Punch magazine, writes about a different Thames. London Labour and the London Poor describes St Saviour’s Dock, Southwark, as a muddy inlet where children play, where latrines empty into a tidal ditch and where women take to their kitchens ‘water the colour and consistency of strong green tea’. Charles Dickens describes St Saviour’s Dock as ‘the filthiest, strangest and most extraordinary of localities hidden in London’. Oliver Twist and Fagin live in this dismal inlet. Bill Sykes swings there from a crane’s gib, like the pirates and murderers before him from their gallows.

So where did the idyll go wrong?

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During a long, hot, dry summer 1858 this cartoon appeared in Punch magazine (founded Henry Mayhew). This summer, London has enjoyed and endured high temperatures, but in 1858 London baked in temperatures of over 30* (86* Fahrenheit) for seven long weeks! We have been advised not to venture out in the heat of the day, but in 1858 people walking near the river were overcome by fumes. Decades of sewage floating on the surface and cooking in the sun. They made plans to move the seat of government because Parliament’s windows opened onto the Thames.  The smell was so bad, even politicians were uncomfortable! First time this ever happened, an event known as the Great Stink. Joseph Bazalgette is asked to solve the problem and appointed Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works.

Bazalgette’s simple solution: pump the sewage east into huge tanks at Crossness, wait till the tide turns, discharge the tanks into the North Sea. Once the sewer was built, the cholera epidemics in London ended. Bazalgette is the hero who saved hundreds of thousands of Londoners’ lives – and fed the fishes in the North Sea…

Londoners, with their flair for organisation and appetite for commerce, made Spenser’s ‘Sweet Thames’ a sewer as well as a drinking tap. Pumping stations, now museums, line the Thames. In Rotherhithe, Brunel’s engines pump out the world’s first river tunnel. In Crossness, Bazalgette’s engines pump in sewage (Brunel wrote Bazalgette’s reference for the job). In Kew huge beam engines pump out water for Londoners to drink, and Charles Dickens describes the piston of the steam-engine working monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in melancholy madness. (Hard Times 1854 chapter 5).

The trade of the world once came up the river and the Thames and its museums are inspiring. Museum means ‘House of the Muses’, or house of inspiration, but more than muses the Thames needs NAIADS (Naiades) or magical guardians. Naiads are nymphs living in the sources of fresh-water, and guardians of springs, fountains, streams, rivers, and lakes.

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Here in the Waterhouse painting, Naiads are luring Hylas the Argonaut away from his voyage of trade and discovery. Today the Thames is being looked after, and Thames Tideway Tunnel working with Bazalgette’s system will prevent any further Stink. But most corporations are not nymphs, and they are looking after money not rivers. We need Naiads. Have the corporations cleaned the Thames or have they just muddied the water? Watch for the glint of a fin because they say that salmon are back. Or are they sharks?

Edmund Spenser’s song is not ended…

Sunday 29th July
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tubeoffered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 30th July

 9.00 – 15.00 Summer Playscheme for local children
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Tuesday 31st July

 9.00 – 15.00 Summer Playscheme for local children
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube
19.30 MOWGLI presented by Abiku Theatre Company
Wednesday 1st Aug
 9.00 – 15.00 Summer Playscheme for local children 
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube in partnership with London Walks
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks
19.30 MOWGLI presented by Abiku Theatre Company

Thursday 2nd Aug

 9.00 – 15.00 Summer Playscheme for local children
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks 
18.00 Secret Adventures in Film, Grand Entrance Hall with cocktails in roof garden
Friday 3rd Aug
 9.00 – 15.00 Summer Playscheme for local children 
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
11.00 Engineering Open House Day: family workshops and talks
17.00 Midnight Apothecary
19.30 MOWGLI presented by Abiku Theatre Company

Saturday 4th Aug

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
17.00 Midnight Apothecary
19.30 MOWGLI presented by Abiku Theatre Company
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