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Cesspools, Sewage, and Social Murder

Environmental Crisis and Metabolic Rift in Nineteenth-Century London

Monster soup commonly called Thames water, being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us!

"Monster soup commonly called Thames water, being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us!!!" circa 1828. Credit: British Museum.

Ian Angus edits the website Climate and Capitalism and is the author, most recently, of A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism (Monthly Review Press, 2017).

A great city is the most mighty of dung-makers.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

All living things ingest matter from their environment, use solar energy to process it, and excrete the waste products of those metabolic processes into that same environment.1 Over hundreds of millions of years, coevolution has produced an extraordinary range of complex cycles, in which every species’ excretions are nourishment for others.

Human beings are fully embedded in these life cycles. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide; plants do the reverse. We eat plants and metabolize their components into materials we can’t live without, and plants metabolize the leftover chemicals that we excrete.

The links between our excrement and our food have been fundamental to human survival as long as our species has existed. In hunter-gatherer and nomadic societies, human excrement nourished wild plants. The Book of Deuteronomy instructed the Israelites, “when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement,” a measure that reduced disease and recycled waste. In settled agricultural societies, the excrement of humans and other animals helped maintain soil fertility and crop yields. In early capitalist towns, many townspeople had plots of land or kept animals, so using excrement continued to be part of everyday life. As towns grew, so did urban-rural manure trade. Historian Leona J. Skelton has shown that “dunghills were an immoveable fact of life for pre-industrial urban dwellers” because excrement was valuable:

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many urban inhabitants across Britain took responsibility for their own manure and removed it out of town themselves to apply to their own arable land, sold it directly to a local farmer or arranged for it to be removed and sold by a middle man. Inhabitants were careful to heap solid rubbish and manure separately because the latter was a valuable fertilizer.2

As towns grew larger, circular trading arrangements developed: the boats and barges that carried grain and vegetables to London’s markets returned laden with manure purchased at Dung Wharf. An urban worker with a cart, buckets, and some assistants could make a steady income by emptying cesspools for a fee and selling the “night soil” to nearby farms or to one of the 60 or more “night yards” located in the heart of the city. The trade was so important to agriculture that a law passed in the eighteenth century, and still in force in the 1870s, exempted wagons of manure from paying tolls on turnpike roads.3

Although some urban-rural manure trade continued until the early twentieth century, it declined sharply after 1815. It became less attractive to buyers and sellers because large cities produced far more excrement than nearby farmers could use, leaving the middlemen with unsaleable surpluses; because the increasing distances between cities and farms drove up transport times and costs; and because the growing popularity of flush toilets in the homes of the rich diluted the night soil and often sluiced it directly into city sewers.

Still, farms needed fertilizer, so those developments alone would not have made a qualitative difference. The decisive change was the introduction of new fertilizers that were more compact, more consistent, easier to use, and above all more effective, at least in the short-term, than traditional manures.

In 1832, the Scottish politician and agricultural writer Sir John Sinclair described “the use of bones as manure” as “perhaps the most important discovery, connected with the cultivation of the soil, that has been made in the course of a great number of years.” In his account, a Yorkshire experimenter discovered the “astonishing effects” of adding ground-up bones to the soil in 1766, but the practice didn’t become widespread until the 1820s.4 Some farmers made their own bonemeal, but many bought it from manufacturers who scoured European battlefields for the bodies of horses and men, and shipped tons of bones to England for grinding.

Bonemeal was supplemented in the 1840s by superphosphate, a patented fertilizer made by treating phosphate-rich rocks with sulphuric acid. These rocks, inaccurately named “coprolites,” were discovered in the 1830s in Suffolk, and were mined in that area until the end of the century.5

Also in the 1840s, seabird excrement (guano) from dry islands off Peru began to be imported in huge quantities. Though expensive, it proved to be the best fertilizer of all, because it contained twenty to thirty times as much nitrogen as farmyard manure. Even a light application of guano boosted fertility quickly and significantly increased production.

In 1855, the president of the Central Farmers’ Club wrote, “Never was there a time when farmers more readily and more rapidly adopted real improvements…the chemists and the guano merchants have beaten, and will beat, night-soil out of the market in every shape.”6 In 1846, the City of London had been able to charge contractors £5,000 for the right to collect dung from streets and houses; but five years later the City had to pay contractors £4,900 to do the same thing.7 The market for urban excrement had collapsed.

The rapid adoption of artificial and imported fertilizers was part of what was called High Farming—”high” meaning “excellent.” It reflected the fact that by 1840 most farmers were producing “for consumers in distant markets, separated from them by a growing army of middlemen, dealers and processors of food; production was for exchange in the market, rather than for use or subsistence.”8 As a result, “farmers not only desired, but were required by the sanctions of the market, to extract more from the soil in each successive cycle of production, on pain of economic failure.”9 Expanded outputs required expanded inputs, a treadmill of agricultural production from which there was no escape in a capitalist economy.

The chemist Justus von Liebig, who revolutionized scientific understanding of plant nutrition, saw the replacement of human manure by imported bones and guano as a dangerous waste of natural wealth that made English farmers dependent on expensive imports. “I am firmly of the opinion,” he wrote, “that if England wishes to remain an agricultural country she must use as manure the nightsoil and similar residues produced in large cities.”10

Karl Marx, who admired Liebig’s chemistry but had a far better understanding of social and economic conditions, viewed the shift away from human manure as an important example of capitalist society’s alienation from the natural world on which human life depends. By concentrating population in cities, he wrote, capitalism causes an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”11

Marx’s analysis of the nineteenth-century changes in British agriculture provides the theoretical starting point for what is now known as metabolic rift theory, which is increasingly used by radical ecologists in analyzing modern environmental crises.

This article considers an aspect of the metabolic rift that has not been much discussed in modern ecosocialist analysis: the environmental crisis that the accumulation of human excrement caused in cities, particularly in London. Marx and Engels several times criticized “the senseless wastefulness which robs the Thames of its purity,” but said little more about it, probably because no one who read journals or newspapers at the time could have been unaware of London’s excrement problem.12

As we will see, a large body of public opinion favored healing the rift by using urban excrement for agriculture, but all efforts to do that were unsuccessful. The solution that was finally adopted, one of the largest engineering projects the world had seen until then, only shifted the crisis out of sight. London’s solution was copied by most major cities in Europe and the Americas, setting the stage for even greater crises in our time.

Cesspools, Sewers, and Tides

In 1801, more than 10 percent of the population of England and Wales, just over a million people, lived in Greater London.13 As a biological necessity, every one of them excreted, on average, four ounces of feces and a quart of urine every day, in a city that had no infrastructure to deal with it. The few sewers that existed, many of them just open ditches, were supposed to be for rainwater only, although as early as 1801 the agricultural writer James Anderson wrote that “an immense quantity of filth is daily carried to the Thames, in its passage to which it subjects the people in the lower part of the city to the most offensive effluvia.”14 Over the next forty years, a million more people moved to London. They and their excrement helped to make London the most crowded and worst smelling city in Europe. In 1847, physician Hector Gavin wrote:

It is impossible to read the accounts contained in the Reports of the Commissioners of the Health of Towns, of the filthy and horrible state in which the houses and streets in the poorer localities are represented to exist, without being struck with amazement,—that in a town, professing to be the centre of civilization, and the mightiest in the world,—such abominations as everywhere present themselves should be allowed to exist even for a day.

There are thousands and thousands of houses without drains, and multitudes of streets without sewers. In many parts of St. George’s-in-the-East there is no drainage, and the kitchens, in some places, after heavy rains are stated to be several inches under water; which, when it recedes, leaves an accumulation of filth and dirt of the worst description.15

Every middle-class or wealthy home had a cesspool—typically a large pit, brick-lined and covered, in the cellar or yard.16 Often no mortar was used, so liquids oozed between the bricks into the surrounding soil. Once or twice a year, when the pit was full, you could pay “night-men” to dig out the accumulated filth and cart it away. Or, if your house was big enough, you could just dig another. In the 1840s, Queen Victoria’s principal residence, Windsor Castle, had fifty-three overflowing cesspools in its cellars, and sanitary conditions under Buckingham Palace were so bad that the government suppressed the inspector’s report.

The queen’s living areas were far from the smells of the cesspools, and there were undoubtedly servants whose jobs included adding lime or lye to reduce unpleasantness. It was different for the poor. As London’s population grew, slum landlords rented individual rooms in large houses to entire families, so that many people shared cesspools that were never emptied—the tenants couldn’t afford it, and the landlord didn’t care. Even worse were backstreet courts and “rookeries,” where small dwellings, each occupied by several families, shared a single privy over an open pit. Gavin described such a neighborhood in the eastern parish of Bethnal Green in 1848 (bear in mind that “soil” was a Victorian euphemism for feces):

The generality of the privies in this parish are full, and most offensive, great numbers are overflowing. The cesspools attached are, in the majority of instances, in no better condition. Many of the privies are wooden sheds erected over holes from which a surface hollow conducts off the fluid refuse to some other part of the ground. Many are most dilapidated, and some are dangerous to make use of. In numerous instances the soil has infiltrated the walls, percolated through them, and spread itself over the surface of the neighbouring yard; the soil has likewise percolated through the walls, and into the houses, and in some instances, the floors have been saturated, and have been rendered very quagmires of filth; the flooring, in such cases, has become rotten. In numerous instances, the inhabitants have piled either in their yards, or in their houses, or in the alleys fronting the houses, collections of dust and cinders, to conceal from the eye the soil which has oozed from neighbouring privies or cesspools.17

Flush toilets had existed since the 1600s, but they weren’t much used until the early 1800s, when an improved version patented by Joseph Bramah became popular with the rich. The additional water filled cesspools faster, and often caused them to overflow, so many homeowners and builders illegally connected household drains to public sewers that were supposed to carry only rainwater. After 1815, most of the metropolis’s sewer commissions legalized the practice, charging a steep connection fee. That policy change seems to have been a turning point for Thames pollution: during the 1820s, salmon and most other fish disappeared, and hundreds of fishermen lost their livelihoods. Live eels imported from the Netherlands died when put into buckets of Thames water.

The Thames, it is important to note, is a tidal river. Four times a day, the stream changes direction, flowing inland at high tide and returning eastward hours later. Effluent from city sewers wasn’t swept out to sea, it churned back and forth with the tides. In 1828, a witness whose office overlooked the Thames told a Royal Commission that he frequently saw the bodies of dogs in the river, floating upstream and down for ten or twelve days.

In 1827, after journalist John Wright showed that the water for seven thousand homes in Westminster came from an intake pump three yards from the outlet of a major sewer, the government launched a Royal Commission “to Inquire into the State of the Supply of Water in the Metropolis.” One of the invited witnesses, civil engineer James Mills, made what today seems a rather obvious statement. Admitting that he was no water analyst, he went on:

A slender portion of common sense however authorizes me to affirm, that a stream which receives daily the evacuations of a million of human beings, of many thousand animals, with all the filth and refuse of the various manufactories, which of necessity must be carried on in one of the most populous cities of Europe, cannot require to be analyzed, except by a lunatic, to determine whether it ought to be pumped up as a beverage for the inhabitants of the Metropolis of the British government.18

While finding that “the quality of the Water…has suffered a general deterioration within the past ten or twelve years,” the Commissioners’ main conclusion was the remarkable understatement that water piped from the Thames “cannot…be pronounced entirely free from the suspicion of general insalubrity.” They recommended that the water companies obtain water from cleaner sources, and that there should be “some effective superintendence and control.”19 In fact, it was decades before steps were taken to clean up the water supply and the Thames. During those decades the city and the river got much worse. The political elite didn’t act until they felt personally threatened by gross levels of pollution.

Social Murder

“From the 1820s,” writes historian Royston Lambert, “the towns of England began to kill off their inhabitants at an increasing pace”:

The crude general death-rate…rose from 21.1 per 1,000 in 1811–20 to 23.4 in 1831–40; the average of the five large towns Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester soared from 20.69 in 1831 to 30.8 in 1841.… Cruel overcrowding and malnutrition gave respiratory and other forms of tuberculosis a grotesque predominance among the fatal infections, and enabled typhus to take a steady annual toll. Infant diseases, product of dirt, ignorance, bad-feeding, and overcrowding, swept one in two of all children born in towns out of life before the age of five.20

For the tens of thousands who migrated from rural areas to London in search of work every year, the most immediate result was a sharp decline in life expectancy. In the 1840s, the average age at death in rural Surrey was forty-five; in London it was thirty-seven. Such averages concealed extreme geographical and class differences: in St. Giles parish, the average life expectancy at birth was forty years, but for the poor it was seventeen.21

Comic from Punch, July 3, 1858

Comic from Punch, July 3, 1858, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lives shortened by poverty, hard working conditions, and malnutrition were further abbreviated by infectious diseases and epidemics. Multiple waves of deadly diseases swept Britain: influenza and cholera from 1831 to 1833; influenza, typhus, smallpox, and scarlet fever from 1836 to 1842; typhus, typhoid, and cholera from 1846 to 1849; and cholera again in 1853 and 1866.22

Tuberculosis was the most common cause of death, but the most feared was cholera, which had been endemic for centuries in India, near the Bay of Bengal. What seems to have been a new and more virulent strain emerged there in 1817, and travelled with British colonial armies and merchant ships to Europe in the 1820s: it killed tens of thousands of people in Britain and Ireland in four epidemics between 1832 and 1866.

We now know that cholera is most often transmitted in water that contains feces from an infected person, so dumping excrement into the Thames created ideal conditions for the bacterium Vibrio cholera to grow and spread. In the nineteenth century, the disease was both mysterious and frightening, because its cause was unknown and its effects were so devastating: violent stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, sunken eyes, and purple skin. Half of victims died, usually within a day or two of the first symptom. While there were some victims among the well-off, it was, as Dr. William Gairdner wrote of the 1832 outbreak, “impossible to overlook the fact that the poor fell in thousands under the fatal breath of pestilence, while the middle and higher classes were comparatively exempt.”23

In 1844, Frederick Engels wrote that “English society daily and hourly commits what the working-men’s organs, with perfect correctness, characterize as social murder.… It has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long…[and] it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time.”24 Anyone who thinks that Engels was not an objective witness should compare his judgement to that of the influential Whig journal the Edinburgh Review:

Out of every two persons who die in the east of London, one perishes from preventable causes. From twenty to thirty thousand of the labouring population of London are killed every year by causes which, if we chose, we might expel by a current of water. Though we do not take these persons out of their houses and murder them, we do the same thing in effect,—we neglect them in their poisonous homes, and leave them there to a lingering but a certain death.25

Edwin Chadwick and Sanitation

In the 1840s, writes Stephen Marcus, the English middle class was “abruptly disturbed by the realization that millions of English men, women and children were virtually living in shit. The immediate question seems to have been whether they weren’t drowning in it.”26 The 1840s witnessed a veritable flood of articles, pamphlets, and books on working-class living conditions. Titles such as Unhealthiness of Towns, Why Are Towns Unhealthy?, Unhealthiness of London, and Letters on the Unhealthy Condition of Lower Class of Dwellings shocked and titillated middle-class readers, few of whom had ever thought about, let alone visited, the people and neighborhoods involved.

Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England was the most insightful work in this genre, but since it was published only in German it had little effect in England at the time.27 The book that most influenced middle-class opinion was Edwin Chadwick’s 1842 report The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, described by one reviewer as an “astonishing report” that, “showed such a state of degradation and wretchedness among the poor of many of the towns and districts, as was not suspected by those who only saw these classes in the streets. Sickness was found not only to be more prevalent, but much more fatal, and life was shown of shorter duration among the poor than among the prosperous classes.”28

Thirty thousand copies of The Sanitary Condition were sold, more than many popular novels and far more than any previous government publication. It was accepted as the authoritative account of “the chief removable circumstances affecting the health of the poorer classes of the population.”29 And, most important for this discussion, it initiated two decades of public debate and experimentation on the possibility of using urban sewage for agriculture.

Chadwick was a professional bureaucrat who, like his mentor, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, had a fondness for elaborate, centrally managed schemes to smooth out the rough spots in free-market capitalism. His most successful and widely detested scheme was the 1834 Poor Law, which forced applicants for relief to live in prison-like “workhouses” where families were separated, meals were sparse, and tedious hard labor was mandatory. The goal was to make relief substantially less attractive than the worst job outside, on the theory that there was no such thing as unemployment, just unwilling workers. As Dickens wrote in Oliver Twist, the Poor Law Commissioners “established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.”30

The Poor Law was supposed to reduce taxes by cutting the number of people on relief, but in fact the ranks of “eligible paupers” soared during the epidemics of influenza and typhus in 1838, and rose further in the severe economic depression of 1839–43. In late 1841, one in ten adults in England, and one in five in industrial Lancashire, qualified for poor relief. From 1839 to 1843, the number of people receiving relief rose from 1.1 million to 1.5 million. Such figures undermined the very basis of the Poor Law: the workhouse couldn’t be less attractive than outside work if there was no outside work to be had.

At the same time, the working class was challenging the oligarchic political system that subjected working people to the dictates of property owners. In May 1842, over 3 million people signed a petition supporting the Peoples Charter for democratic rights, and that summer, strikes and political riots swept large parts of the country. The ruling class and its supporters were terrified by what social critic Thomas Carlyle called the Condition-of-England question: “Chartism means the bitter discontent grown fierce and mad, the wrong condition therefore or the wrong disposition, of the Working Classes of England.”31

Chadwick’s 1842 report was a response to the condition-of-England question, but, as historian Philip Harling writes, it “was hardly a work of humanitarian empathy. It was riddled with middle class value-judgements about the putative moral turpitude of slum-dwellers, and it advocated public health partly as a practical means of protecting the established political order against plebeian violence.”32 Although it was published at a time “marked by perhaps a greater incidence of unemployment, destitution, and social protest than any other in the nineteenth century,” such matters were scarcely mentioned.33 Christopher Hamlin describes it as “an ideological manifesto, not an empirical survey of conditions affecting health. Far from representing any kind of radicalism it was thoroughly conservative in seeking to solve a problem through minimal changes maximally acceptable to established interests.”34

Chadwick had carefully selected his witnesses and organized their evidence to support his belief that ill health and high death rates among the poor weren’t caused by working conditions or overcrowding or diet or poverty. His key message was that illness wasn’t caused by destitution; destitution was caused by illness, and illness was caused by miasma, the foul air emitted by rotting organic matter. The report was carefully edited “to point to one particular, namely, atmospheric impurity…as the main cause of the ravages of epidemic, endemic, and contagious diseases among the community.”35 He made the same point more bluntly in testimony before a Parliamentary committee in 1846: “All smell is, if it be intense, immediate acute disease; and eventually we may say that, by depressing the system and rendering it susceptible to the action of other causes, all smell is disease.”36

The Arterial-Venous Plan

As a disciple of Bentham, Chadwick couldn’t just criticize the lack of sanitation in England’s cities. Benthamism required plans for improvement, and Chadwick definitely had one, which he set out in general terms in 1842 and in great detail in the following years. To reduce miasma, all cesspools and privies had to be eliminated. Every dwelling should have a water closet and be connected to two new pipe systems—one to deliver clean water from the country, the other to take excrement and other waste away to the country, in a steady flow of water. In Chadwick’s elaborate scheme, steam engines would pump sewage to farms outside the city, where networks of subsoil pipes would distribute it to irrigate and fertilize crops. Deeper pipes would capture excess water and direct it through cleansing filter beds to the nearest river, lake, or sea. Chadwick described his scheme as arterial-venous, with arteries bringing clean water to the city, veins taking dirty water back to the country, and steam pumps standing in for the heart. Best of all, the arterial-venous system would pay for itself, by reducing the number of people on relief, by charging each home for water, and above all, by selling sewage as fertilizer.37

Chadwick’s only evidence that sewage might be profitable was in Edinburgh, where sewage had for years been dumped in the fast-flowing burns (streams) that flowed through the city to the North Sea, streams that came to be called foul burns. Beginning about 1800, farmers had irrigated and fertilized some 350 acres of land east of Holyrood Castle, by diverting water from the Craigentinny foul burn. The Sanitary Report quoted an anonymous expert who claimed that enriching the land with sewage had increased its value by 50 percent or more. Despite Chadwick’s belief that smells caused disease, he didn’t mention that the description he quoted came from a reply to an 1840 Police Commission complaint that the “offensive smells” of the Craigentinny Meadows endangered the health of the people of Edinburgh.38

In any event, 350 acres where farmers were taking a portion of Edinburgh’s sewage without paying for it scarcely constituted a market test for selling all of London’s sewage. Would it work for other types of soil or other crops? Could it be scaled up for the metropolis, which had twenty times Edinburgh’s population? Would farmers pay? Would the operation be viable if they had to? Such questions were not asked or answered by Chadwick or by the many subsequent writers who claimed Craigentinny as conclusive proof of the commercial value of sewage as fertilizer.

The other authority Chadwick claimed in support of his plan was Liebig, but in the passage that Chadwick cited, Liebig was actually quoting another chemist, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault, about the amounts of plant nutrients in human excrement—he said nothing about whether they could be economically recovered from sewage water.39 Seven years later, Chadwick revealed to a much smaller audience that in 1842 he had asked Liebig’s opinion of his plan, and “learned in reply that he was unfavourably impressed with the practice of applying manures in their liquid form.”40 Chadwick, who thought he knew more about illness than doctors, and more about sewer design than engineers, evidently also believed that he knew more about fertilizer than the man he himself called “the greatest living authority on agricultural chemistry.”41

When the national government didn’t immediately accept his plan, Chadwick and some associates formed a Towns Improvement Company “to supply water to towns; to effect their drainage and cleansing and to apply their refuse to agricultural production; to supply gas, and carry out any connected or similar improvements, of towns either in the British Empire or abroad, where adequate interest and security can be given for the capital invested.”42 But despite a promised 6.5 percent return, investors showed no interest, and no towns signed up. The company also failed in an attempt to sell sewage as fertilizer directly to farmers from a canal barge equipped with pumps and hoses.43

While his specific plan never materialized, Chadwick’s Sanitary Report won wide support for four ideas: that disease was caused by the smell of rotting organic material; that public health could only be improved by removing excrement from cities; that major improvements to sewers and drainage were required to achieve that; and that the cost of those improvements could be offset, if not entirely covered, by selling sewage as fertilizer. The debate Chadwick triggered on those issues shaped London’s politics for years, and the outcome continues to cause severe environmental problems in our time.

The Industrial Revolution’s First Environmental Movement

No one knew the real causes of disease—the existence and effects of bacteria weren’t even suspected—but many medical theorists doubted the miasma theory, and few would have agreed that malnutrition and poverty were not causes of ill health. Nevertheless Chadwick, a relentless self-promoter who had the ear of those in power, drowned out contrary views, and his opinion became official doctrine. As medical historian Margaret Pelling writes, “that the correlation between smell and disease became an article of popular faith was a triumph of sanitary propaganda.”44 A simplistic miasma theory had the particular advantage, for the political and economic elite, that it excluded fundamental social problems as causes of working-class discontent and unrest. It also countered commerce-disrupting calls for quarantines, because if disease was caused by bad air, then the victims weren’t contagious.

Chadwick convinced middle-class reformers that what the poor really needed wasn’t votes or higher wages or better food—it was better sewers. Charles Dickens, for example, came to believe that “nothing effectual can be done for the elevation of the poor in England, until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome. I have always been convinced that this Reform must precede all other Social Reforms.”45

While Chadwick responded to government dithering by trying to build a water and drainage corporation under his control, other reformers focused on mobilizing middle-class opinion. The Health of Towns Association (HTA), founded in London in December 1844, at “a meeting which was most numerously attended, in spite of the severity of the weather,”46 was described as

an association…for the purpose of diffusing among the people the information obtained by recent inquiries, as to the physical and moral evils that result from the present defective sewerage, drainage, supply of water, air and light, and construction of dwelling-houses; and also for the purpose of assisting the legislature to carry into practical operation any effectual and general measures of relief, by preparing the public mind for the change.47

In Britain at that time, about 9 percent of adults (all male) had the right to vote, and the HTA was created by members of that enfranchised minority. Its officers were a bishop, an earl, a surgeon, and an evangelical minister. Its governing committee included ministers, Members of Parliament, doctors, surgeons, attorneys, and members of the nobility, and they directed their message to people like themselves.

When it did try to speak to the lower classes, the HTA was either urging them to sign petitions, or—in the guise of the Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association for Improving the Public Health—distributing self-help pamphlets that were condescending to the point of insult. The pamphlet Bathing and Personal Cleanliness, for example, complained that “the poor and, and in common with them a large number of the working class, are accustomed to think that their narrow circumstances are a sufficient excuse for their dirty habits.”48 Such statements, like the slogan they printed on the cover of each tract—”We can be useful no longer than we are well”—reveal how disconnected the reformers were from the people they claimed to be helping.49 They certainly wanted no contact with actual working-class militants. A correspondent complained to Chadwick that in Glasgow, “some noisy, brawling, turbulent Chartists had got mixed up with the agitation,” and that “their way of doing business had disgusted the more discreet.”50

The principal organizer and spokesman for the HTA was Thomas Southwood Smith, a prominent physician and humanitarian who worked in several of London’s charity hospitals. He was the medical theorist from whom Chadwick learned the miasma theory, and he had played an important role in the preparation of the 1842 Sanitary Report. Chadwick depended on him for guidance on medical matters, but was deeply jealous of his personal popularity, and was outraged when anyone suggested that Southwood Smith’s contribution to sanitary reform might equal his own.

The terms “environmental” and “non-governmental organization” didn’t exist in the 1840s, but the HTA can justly be described as the world’s first environmental NGO. From 1844 through 1849, directly and through more than a dozen local affiliates, it organized public meetings, sent speakers to other organizations, commissioned studies and reports, distributed pamphlets, wrote letters to the press, and lobbied Members of Parliament for sanitary legislation. In 1847 and 1848, it published a monthly Journal of Public Health, and it conducted an influential review of sanitary conditions, concluding that out of sixty-nine towns surveyed, fifty-one were “bad” or “very bad.” Parliamentary supporters of sanitary reform regularly used HTA materials to support their arguments, while opponents like the ultra-Tory David Urquhart condemned their ideas as “mawkish philanthropy” and “undisguised corruption” that only aimed to create “an immense number of new situations and offices which were to be in the gift of the Government.”51

No one could doubt that reformers like the deeply religious Smith were sincerely concerned about the health of the poor, but their most effective arguments addressed the bourgeoisie’s self-interest, not mawkish philanthropy. An 1847 statement from the HTA, for example, stressed the danger to the middle class and rich if poor neighborhoods were not cleaned up:

Although the sickness and mortality from these causes press with particular severity on the poorer classes yet the wealthy are by no means exempt from similar suffering; that there is no boundary within which it is possible to confine the visitations of malaria, and no moment when it may not pass beyond its usual haunts; that it sometimes introduces fever and other painful and mortal diseases into the mansion as well as into the hovel.52

If disease was transmitted by airborne miasma, then, as Charles Dickens warned, the wind could carry it to the most exclusive districts: “The air from Gin Lane will be carried, when the wind is Easterly, into May Fair, and…if you once have a vigorous pestilence raging furiously in St Giles, no mortal list of lady patronesses can keep it out of Almack’s.”53

The Edinburgh Review agreed: “The higher and the middle classes have, besides the obligation of plain justice, a great and palpable interest in making sacrifices for the purification of their degraded neighbours…. We cannot separate ourselves from uncleanness and misery by mere walls and lanes, and remain safe.”54

The country’s most widely read newspaper, the Times, said the same: “Grosvenor-square must care for Bermondsey; Belgravia can no longer think slightingly of Bethnal-green…. The filthy spots we have named, if they be allowed to generate and spread abroad their noisome miasmata, under favourable atmospheric influences, may gradually infect other quarters of the town which but for their evil neighbourhood would have escaped scot-free.”55

As Engels later wrote, the English sanitary movement of the 1840s was ultimately rooted in self-interest and fear:

Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of generating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in the ranks of the capitalists as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers.…[so] the philanthropic bourgeois became inflamed with a noble spirit of competition in their solicitude for the health of their workers. Societies were founded, books were written, proposals drawn up, laws debated and passed, in order to stop up the sources of the ever-recurring epidemics. The housing conditions of the workers were investigated and attempts made to remedy the most crying evils. In England particularly, where the largest number of big towns existed and where the bourgeoisie itself was, therefore, running the greatest risk, extensive activity began.56

Cholera Provokes Action

The middle-class voters mobilized by the HTA pressed the government to act, but initially the politicians felt no urgency: several draft bills were introduced, but none came to a vote. The turning point was a typhus epidemic that killed 30,000 people in 1847, followed by the news that cholera had returned to Eastern Europe, and was moving westward just as it had in 1831. Chadwick, who had just been appointed co-chair of another discuss-and-delay Royal Commission on Health in the Metropolis, took the opportunity to sound an alarm. Barely two months after it was formed, the commission issued a report that recommended Chadwick’s sanitary program, but with a new emphasis: these measures were now presented as the only way to save Britain from the most feared of diseases, cholera.

While some new sewers had been built since the 1832 cholera epidemic, the commission said, they were badly designed and the water flow was insufficient to clear their contents: as a result, “they not only do not accomplish any sanitary purpose, but, on the contrary, act as extended cesspools.”57 That, together with the continued lack of sanitation in London, meant that “the causes of epidemic disease continue to operate in the metropolis with unabated and even with increased force at the present time; and the reasonable inference to be deduced from this fact is, that were cholera to re-visit it at the present time, with the existing predisposition to epidemic disease, it would come at a period peculiarly favourable to its extension.”58

The rich would not be exempt: “if the Asiatic cholera should again appear amongst us, no district would be secure from its ravages, and although those in which the system of sewerage and cleansing is the worst would be most liable, the nidus [beginning point] so afforded would be a source of peril to all classes.”59

The solution was Chadwick’s sanitary program:

There is but one safeguard against this malady, as against other diseases of the same class. That safeguard consists in sanitary arrangements; and sanitary arrangements to be efficient must be such as will secure the purity of the atmosphere, particularly by the immediate and complete removal of all filth and refuse, and that not only from the principal squares and thoroughfares, but also from the streets, courts, and alleys of the lowest portion of the population. But this requires a general and proper system of street and house drainage, and a supply of water sufficient for keeping the drains and sewers clean, for surface cleansing, and for domestic use. Were the arrangements and the administration for cleansing thus complete, we might still not be able to obtain an absolute exemption from the visitation of cholera, but we should have done what might and must be done to deprive it, should it come, of the means of support and strength.60

In response to Chadwick’s report and the approach of cholera, the Whig government quickly passed laws that restructured English sanitary administration. The Public Health Act permitted towns to undertake sanitary measures without parliamentary approval, and created a General Board of Health (GBH) to assist them, while the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers Act (MCS) created a single body to manage sewers in greater London, except those in the politically untouchable City.

“That appalling pest, the cholera, was making a steady, systematic, and rapid progress towards the shores of England,” said the government spokesman in the House Lords, urging rapid approval of the Public Health Act. “It was their interest, as it was their manifest duty, to promote as much as possible the progress of the only conceivable measure which could give a check to that dreadful scourge of humanity.… He did not wish to create any unnecessary alarm—quite the contrary; but it was right that our true position should be properly understood.”61

Many reformers complained that the measures were not just inadequate, they were a betrayal of the goals of the Health of Towns campaign. London surgeon William Simpson, wrote in the HTA’s journal that what was being proposed was “not a Public Health Act…a total and lamentable failure, so far as the progress of the science and art of preventing disease is concerned…. a perfect Caliban…one of the most melancholy proofs of the slow progress of mankind in perceiving and acknowledging the most obvious and important truths.”62

Despite such criticisms, leading reformers quickly joined the new sanitary administration. The GBH hired Southwood Smith as Chief Medical Officer and Journal of Public Health editor Hector Gavin as a medical inspector. The HTA’s secretary, Henry Austin, became secretary and later Chief Inspector of the GBH. Declaring that “our principles have been…practically acknowledged to be correct, and have been universally adopted,”63 the now-leaderless HTA faded away.64

Chadwick received the biggest plums of all: he became the only paid member, and thus de facto director, of both the GBH and the MCS. That combination seemed to give him all he power he had long sought, to implement his sanitation and health program, but that proved to be an illusion.

The GBH, with a limited budget and no enforcement powers, was toothless: Chadwick wrote sanitary regulations that local authorities refused to implement, and reports that the government ignored, until he was forced to retire in 1854. His time at the MCS was even shorter: paralyzed by acrimonious disputes between Chadwick and a minority who had been on the previous district commissions, the MCS accomplished so little that after 18 months the government dissolved it and appointed another, excluding Chadwick.

‘No Filth in the Sewers, All in the River’

One successful project that Chadwick did initiate at the MCS probably made the cholera epidemic worse, and it definitely expanded Thames pollution to crisis proportions.

As London grew, the metabolic rift grew as well: farms needed ever more imported and manufactured fertilizer to maintain soil fertility, while urban accumulations of human and animal excrement grew ever larger and noxious. Some new arrivals moved into large homes with water closets and connections to sewers, but most had to accept tiny rooms that shared outdoor privies over open pits, if they had sanitary facilities at all.

The working-class population of London grew, but the number of working-class homes did not—indeed, many small houses and tenements were destroyed to make room for new thoroughfares, railway lines, and expensive townhomes. The contractors who built fashionable Oxford Street between 1841 and 1845, for example, evicted some 5,000 people in the largely Irish St. Giles district, and erected a twenty-foot-high hoarding to block the poor from view. Immediately behind that wall, on Church Lane, 27 houses that had been home to 655 people in 1841 were occupied by 1,095 people in 1847.65 Observers who visited Church Lane in December 1847 reported:

The back yards are 5 or 6 ft. square, with broken pavement, and most of them have accumulations of filth and night soil, and the drainage from them (which is superficial) runs through the passage of the houses into the street.… These yards are, in most instances, without privies, and in the few cases where they do exist, they are in a most dilapidated condition…. Church Lane has not any sewer; the sewer of George Street sends off into Church Lane a ramification at right angles, which terminates within a few feet opposite the door of No. 1, Church Lane, and the landlady complains, that this trunk periodically chokes up, and inundates her cellar.66

In 1848 Hector Gavin reported that in another poor parish, Bethnal Green, “a great number of the courts and alleys are altogether unprovided with house-drains, or where they do exist, they are mere surface-drains [open ditches] and they are nearly always choked up.” On some streets that had new sewers, landlords refused to bear the cost of installing and maintaining connections to them.67

While the excrement of hundreds of thousands more working people was added to the privies and cesspits of London’s poorest neighborhoods, the upper and middle classes were increasingly flushing theirs away. The Building Act of 1844 required every new house to have a drain connected to a sewer, if there was one nearby—in twenty-five years, such drains had gone from prohibited, to permitted, to mandatory. Also in 1844, a contractor who specialized in upscale homes, Thomas Cubitt, told a Royal Commission that this had been his practice for some years: “I scarcely build any house, however small, without having a water-closet attached to it, and not a common privy.”68

Chadwick had long criticized the design of London’s sewers, pointing out that a significant percentage of the sewage, rather than flowing to the Thames, accumulated in stagnant ponds and heaps in the sewers themselves. These buildups, he argued, produced miasma that rose into the streets and backed up through drains into houses, causing disease. To reduce the danger of cholera, the Chadwick-controlled MCS hired workers to clear out the filth. To some degree this was done in traditional fashion, with shovels and buckets, but where possible a new technique was applied: the water flow was dammed and then quickly released, flushing accumulated sewage out of the sewer and into the Thames. The Commission reported in September 1848 that 163 miles of the worst sewers had been flushed.69

The immediate effect of this program, which was supported by both factions on the Commission, was a radical increase in the amount of sewage in the river. What’s worse, since most sewer outlets were below the high water level, the sewage had to be flushed at low tide, so it festered on the banks until the tide returned and mixed it thoroughly into the river, the city’s primary source of drinking water. Doing this during a cholera epidemic could only contribute to spreading the disease—and, in fact, in 1849, after a year of sewer flushing, what had been a mild epidemic in London exploded, killing over 14,000 people in a few months. The Pharmaceutical Journal spoke more truth than it knew when it bitterly joked that cholera victims may have been drinking “Chadwick’s entire,” “a beverage consisting of liquid guano, flushed into the Thames, and pumped up by the Lambeth water-works ‘properly diluted’ for the use of the inhabitants.”70

The connection between water and cholera was not known, but the state of the river was plain for all to smell. Parishes on the south side of the river petitioned to have flushing stopped, at least until cooler weather, but the Commission declined, arguing that sewage in the river was less dangerous to health than sewage under homes. In September 1849, Chadwick reported that inspectors had discovered a huge buildup under a tenement in Westminster, near an exclusive boys school. They emptied and filled in the cesspools, and installed water closets, restoring the inhabitants to good health. “From beneath that one block of houses between 400 and 500 loads of decomposing matter had been removed.”71

The Times, which was highly critical of the lack of action on improving the entire sewer system, mocked Chadwick’s report:

Does he really consider it so great a triumph to have cleansed an Augean stable in Westminster of 450 cartloads of refuse and corruption?…

What has Mr. Chadwick done with his 450 cartloads of filth? Has he sent them to fertilize the fields of Kent or Essex?—or, if not available for such purposes, has he taken care that at least they shall not contaminate the atmosphere in the neighbouring districts? No; he has sent them into the river, that the whole metropolis may share his favours, and that the poison which is ejected from Westminster may circulate with freedom throughout Lambeth and Southwark.

In all that Mr. Chadwick has done he has simply relieved one locality at the expense of others.72

Chadwick’s policy, the Times editors charged, was “no filth in the sewers,—all in the river!”73

Shortly after that was published, the MCS was dissolved and reconstructed without Chadwick, but the new regime apparently agreed with his view that dumping sewage into the Thames was a lesser evil than leaving it in cesspools and sewers. Through the 1850s, the MCS employed teams of men who, for a modest fee, would pump out cesspools, and transfer the contents to the river.74 At the same time, home and building owners were encouraged to fill in cesspools and install water-closets, which had become more affordable. According to Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer for London’s sewers, “within a period of about six years, thirty thousand cesspools were abolished.”75

The transition to water closets—a true technological revolution—can be seen in two statistics. Between 1850 and 1856, the number of London houses with running water increased from 270,581 to 328,561. And in the same period, the average usage per house rose from 160 to 246 gallons per day. As the statistician who calculated those figures wrote, the increase in water use was not an unmixed blessing: “while the increasing abundance of water has necessarily added to the comfort and health of the people, by enabling them to have baths and other conveniences easily and cheaply, it has at the same time tended to encourage city and house impurities being improperly carried away, and that too in a manner calculated rather to transfer than to abolish nuisance.”76

Many houses, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, still had no running water, but those that did were using much more, and the increased water flow was carrying dirt and excrement into sewers and the Thames. After ten years of sewer flushing and cesspool removal, the Lancet described the state of London’s river:

The concentrated refuse of some millions of people are daily poured into the Thames in the immediate vicinity of their habitations. This refuse consists of waste and effete material of all kinds, including solid excrements and urine, compounded of a variety of noxious and hurtful substances. Again, this refuse, bad and offensive as it is originally, is not poured at once and directly into the Thames, but is first discharged into the sewers, where it accumulates, festering and rotting, and by its decomposition gives rise to the generation of various additional hurtful or poisonous compounds; and it is in this foul state that it is conveyed to the river, where, mingled with water, it undergoes further corruption….

To such an extent has the river been polluted with sewage this year, that the water for miles, from Chelsea in the one direction, to Blackwall in the other, has become almost black, and has, in fact, presented the appearance of sewage itself, so that, without the least exaggeration, the river may be said to be transformed into one vast uncovered sewer, reeking with noxious and pestiferous abominations.77

After a boat ride on the Thames in July 1855, the famed physicist Michael Faraday described the experience in a widely reprinted letter to the Times: The water, he said, was “an opaque, pale-brown fluid…. The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water; it was the same as that which now comes from the gullyholes [sewer grates] in the street.” The river had become “a fermenting sewer,” he wrote, warning that “if we neglect this subject, we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we to be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season gives us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness.”78 Three years later, a hot season gave the proof Faraday predicted.

‘A Stink Risen to the Height of an Historic Event’

When the MCS was dissolved and reformed in 1849, the balance of its membership shifted away from local politicians and reformers toward engineers who viewed sewage as a technical problem, rather than one of health or social justice. But anyone who expected them to act more expeditiously than the Chadwick-dominated MCS was soon disillusioned. For six years, the engineers debated and discussed possible ways of diverting sewage from the Thames. The government dissolved and reconstituted the commission four more times, before replacing it entirely in December 1855 with a new Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), which was elected by the various local governments in London. Although it was given an explicit mandate to get the sewage out of London, its endless discussions and debates quickly earned it the derisive label Metropolitan Board of Words.

When the commissioners did propose specific measures, they were stymied by politicians: everyone agreed that something had to be done, but property owners and their representatives in Parliament didn’t want the business disruptions that large-scale construction would entail, nor did they want to pay the cost. The Commissions could not raise money without government approval, and not even the return of cholera in 1853–54 loosened the political purse strings. While the rich still feared the disease, most of the 11,000 Londoners who died in that outbreak lived in poor districts on the south bank, so the rich, most of whom lived north of the river, did not feel directly threatened. As the Lancet said, failure to clean up the Thames wasn’t a result of lack of money, but of grossly misplaced priorities: “Millions and tens of millions are provided readily enough, too readily, for the dire purposes of war, but an outlay for sanitary purposes, for the sake of prolonging, in place of destroying, the health and lives of our fellow creatures, is always begrudged.”79 “The English poor,” Marcus writes, had “the privilege of being the first group whose humanity was cost-accounted.”80

By the beginning of 1858, efforts to design a new sewer system were at a stalemate. The government had two proposals in hand—a £2.5 million plan from the MBW, prepared by chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette, and a £5.5 million plan prepared by outside engineers that the government had retained to critique the MBW plan. The banks wouldn’t finance either version without government guarantees that politicians did not want to give. Then fate intervened, in the form of unexpected weather, and England’s rulers once again confirmed Engels’s judgment that they would only improve sanitation when their own health was at risk.

June 1858 was the hottest month in living memory. Temperatures of 90°F (32°C) and higher combined with low rainfall to turn the normally unpleasant smell of the Thames into a sickening stench. People who lived or worked near the river complained of nausea, vomiting, and fainting. The queen cut short a river cruise after 10 minutes. Westminster’s law courts stopped hearing cases. Barges spread over 200 tons of deodorizing chemicals a day on the river banks near sewer outlets, with little effect. Parliament itself was disrupted, and committee meetings had to be cancelled because it was too hot to have the windows closed, and too disgusting to leave them open. The engineer responsible for ventilation in the Parliament buildings had cloths soaked in lime-chloride hung by windows on the river side, but warned that he could not protect the health of MPs.

William Budd, the physician whose research proved that typhoid was waterborne, described the smell as unprecedented: “For the first time in the history of man, the sewage of nearly two millions of people had been brought to seethe and ferment under a burning sun, in one vast open cloaca lying in their midst. The result we all know. Stench so foul, we may well believe, had never before ascended to pollute this lower air. Never before, at least, had a stink risen to the height of an historic event.”81

For people who believed that all smell was disease, this was a frightening event—a powerful miasma that threatened new epidemics. Newspapers and magazines were filled with articles on the possible deadly effects of the Great Stink. The Saturday Review, reminding readers of Parliament’s years-long failure to deal with the polluted Thames, sarcastically suggested that if parliamentarians contracted diarrhea or typhus, they might be spurred to action: “The Thames will be purified; and if it is at the cost of the health and lives of the official guardians of the public safety, they will have only themselves to thank for the neglect which Parliamentary neglect entails. If Parliament can only be made to interfere by its own decimation we must make up our minds to the dreadful sacrifice.”82

Disease did not produce action, but fear of disease did. On July 15, the government leader in the House of Commons, Benjamin Disraeli, declared that the Thames had become “a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors.” “The public health is at stake; almost all living things that existed in the waters of the Thames have disappeared or been destroyed; a very natural fear has arisen that living beings upon its banks may share the same fate; there is a pervading apprehension of pestilence in this great city.”83

Disraeli introduced a bill that allowed the MBW to proceed without further government approval, and to borrow up to £3 million, guaranteed by the government, to build new sewers as it saw fit. Described by an opposition MP as “forced upon the Government by a panic rather than with dignity,” the new law was rushed through both houses of Parliament and given final approval in just 18 days.84

Shifting Sewage Downstream

The London Main Drainage project was supposed to be completed in five years and cost £3 million. It actually took three times as long and cost more than twice as much, the equivalent of about £360 million today. There had never before been a construction project so large and complex. Thousands of workers, many working far below the most densely inhabited parts of the city, built three brick-lined tunnels north of the river and two on the south. The Victoria, Albert, and Chelsea embankments—54 acres of new land—were built to enclose the sewers that were built beneath the river bed on either side. Their vertical granite-faced walls replaced low muddy banks, forcing the narrowed river to flow faster, scouring the bottom, and moving sewage from upstream more quickly through London.

The new main drainage system opened in stages between 1864 and 1874: when it was done, over ninety million gallons of sewage a day was rerouted from London’s existing sewers into eighty-two miles of massive intercepting sewers, and carried, by a combination of gravity and steam-pumps, to huge reservoirs on either side of the river, just east of the metropolis. Twice a day, just after high tide, the reservoirs were emptied into the Thames.

In 2003, a BBC series identified Bazagette’s sewers as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Industrial World.” In purely physical terms that may be true, but with all due respect for the ingenuity and hard work involved, in the end all the system did was move London’s sewage a few miles downstream. As historian Michelle Allen says, “the Embankment and main drainage merely altered the patterns of environmental disorder, rather than removing them altogether.” 85 Or, as an observer said at the time, the new sewers were “merely putting off the evil day a little longer, or rather destroying the salubrity of one neighbourhood for the benefit of those who can afford to pay for individual advantages.”86

The new sewers reduced pollution in central and western London, at the expense of the city’s fast-growing East End. Less than a decade after the intercepting sewers were completed, it was reported that “some 30 miles of the River Thames is now as bad, if not physiologically worse, than that which was observed in the cholera years of 1848–49, and in 1855–56, when the Thames was no better than a foul stinking ditch.”87 The chair of yet another Royal Commission wrote that “the river was in such a state as to be a disgrace and a scandal to the Metropolis and civilization.”88

A petition signed by 13,000 people complained of sickening odors and accumulations of excrement near the new outfalls, complaints that the MBW dismissed as “if not totally unfounded, greatly exaggerated.”89 The Times commented wryly that the board “has nostrils constituted on peculiar principles…. It pours daily 96,000,000 gallons of crude sewage into the near reaches of the Thames, and pretends to think bad smells and putrid shoals are the simple phantasms of morbid fancy or malicious prejudice.”90

When the MBW was finally ordered to act, it simply relocated the problem again. Beginning in 1887, the company used chemicals to separate liquids from solids—the liquids went into the Thames, while 3,000 tons of sludge a day was loaded onto barges and dumped fifteen miles offshore. That “out of sight, out of mind” practice continued for more than a century, until 1997, when European Union rules against dumping at sea forced London to build incinerators.


In the 1840s and 1850s, the campaign for sanitary reform promoted what might be called proto-ecological ideas, ecological thinking before the concept existed. Most common was the view that humanity was breaking the circle of life by not returning its excrement to the soil. Southwood Smith claimed that discarding refuse violated “great laws of nature…a due conformity with which would bring us health, plenty, and happiness.” Chemist Lyon Playfair declared “a recognized principle of agriculture, that the excreta of those animals which subsist on a certain kind of food form the manure best adapted to the production of the same food; and hence the refuse of a town is the best productive manure for the food of the residents of that town.”91

Henry Austin, Chief Inspector of the GBH (and Charles Dickens’s brother-in-law), noted that many towns had eliminated cesspools and taken no further steps, “but Nature’s laws allow no such halting. The mere removal of the decomposing mass is but a shifting of the mischief. The great cycle of life, decay and reproduction must be completed, and so long as the elements of reproduction are not employed for good, they will work for evil.”92

Journalist Henry Mayhew was particularly eloquent in his best-selling book London Labour and the London Poor:

In Nature everything moves in a circle—perpetually changing, and yet ever returning to the point whence it started.… As animals live on vegetables, even so is the refuse of the animal the vegetable’s food.… That which we excrete as pollution to our system, they secrete as nourishment to theirs. Plants are not only Nature’s scavengers but Nature’s purifiers…. That which supports respiration in us produces putrefaction in them. What our lungs throw off, their lungs absorb—what our bodies reject, their roots imbibe….

In every well-regulated State, therefore, an effective and rapid means for carrying off the ordure of the people to a locality where it may be fruitful instead of destructive, becomes a most important consideration. Both the health and the wealth of the nation depend upon it.… We are now beginning to understand this. Up to the present time we have only thought of removing our refuse—the idea of using it never entered our minds. It was not until science taught us the dependence of one order of creation upon another, that we began to see that what appeared worse than worthless to us was Nature’s capital—wealth set aside for future production.93

A leading trade magazine, the Builder, was more concise: “Food makes the muck-heap, and the muck-heap makes the food.”94

Another proto-ecological argument warned that farming should not be dependent on guano and imported bonemeal, because the supply would eventually be exhausted—that English farmers were relying on a non-renewable resource. Liebig wrote to the Times in 1859: “In relation to guano, I have been assured that in 20 or 25 years, if its use should increase in even the same proportion as hitherto, there will not remain in South America enough to freight a ship. We will, however, suppose its supply and that of bones to continue for fifty years, or even longer—then what will be the condition of England when the supply of guano and bones is exhausted?”95

Such ecological sentiments coexisted with a conviction that capitalist markets would always achieve the most desirable results. Thus, just as in today’s vast literature promoting market solutions to environmental crises, much of the discussion of sewage in Victorian England consisted of attempts to prove that London’s sewage could and should be sold at a profit.

‘Bright and Glittering Heaps of Sovereigns’

Disraeli’s 1848 sewer commission bill aimed “to effect a more perfect system of sewerage and drainage within the limits of this act, and to construct and alter the sewers and drains therein and into and through the city of London, for the purpose of collecting the sewage and drainage, and converting the same into manure, and to dispose thereof” (emphasis added).During the debate, Liberal MP Francis Conyngham “protested against the wasteful and extravagant system of throwing away what had been justly called a ‘mine of wealth.'”96

No one questioned that sewage could and should be used as fertilizer, that returning human excrement to the land wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was the profitable thing to do. That wasn’t just the opinion of reformers and journalists—it was government policy. An observer might easily have concluded that the metabolic rift was about to be closed, using capitalist methods.

And yet, although sales of guano and superphosphate continued to grow, all attempts to sell sewage manure failed. Frustrated sanitary reformers and entrepreneurs blamed the customers. As Samuel Sydney of the Central Farmers Club complained, “year after year…the non-agricultural public are informed that the waste of valuable town sewage is only owing to the stupidity of farmers,” despite the fact that farmers were clearly interested in “real agricultural improvement,” as shown by the sales of “other portable manures of proven value.” 97

Proven is the key word. By the mid-nineteenth century, most working farmers in Britain were tenants who had to make enough surplus over costs to pay the rent and feed their families, and pay for next year’s seed and fertilizer. Margins were thin and getting thinner. Guano and superphosphate and barnyard manure were known quantities, fertilizers that did the job and fit into processes and procedures they knew well. The promoters of sewage manure, few of whom seemed to know much about practical farming, wanted to sell farmers products that simply didn’t work—either precipitated solids with no nutrients, or immense volumes of liquid requiring a complete change in the way they farmed, with no certain result.

So it’s not surprising that, as a critic pointed out in 1854, that “each scheme, after a short flare up, expires, leaving behind an abominable smell at the works, and a lawyer’s and engineer’s bill at the offices.”98

Most of the schemes were based on estimates of the market value of the fertilizing chemicals in sewage that were little better than guesses. For example, when Lyon Playfair translated the first edition of Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry into English in 1840, he added a footnote simply asserting, without evidence, that “the value of the manure thus lost amounts annually to several millions of pounds sterling.”99 Wealthy inventor and high farming enthusiast Joseph Mechi was more dramatic but less concrete: “If the money value of the contents of our sewers could be shown to the British farmer in bright and glittering heaps of sovereigns, he would grasp at the enormous wealth, and make great efforts to achieve it.”100

Others offered pages of detailed calculations, producing a very wide range of estimates of the “manurial value” of the components of sewage. As Henry Austin of the GBH wrote, what those articles actually revealed was not the monetary value of sewage, but “how inadequate are the present means for arriving at any general conclusion of the actual value of sewage waters as manure.”101

One of the most detailed of these studies was conducted by John Lawes, founder of the leading agricultural research institution in Britain, Rothamsted Experimental Station. In 1855, he published detailed statistics on the chemical composition of the urine and feces of men, women, and children in a variety of locations and occupations, and from that calculated the amount of nutrients that must be in sewage. His conclusion: “the intrinsic value of the sewage of London considered in this merely chemical point of view is therefore enormous.” He estimated that a manure containing the nutrient components of London’s sewage could sell for £15 a ton, a total of £774,525 a year.

But, critically, he qualified his conclusion by saying that would only be true, “supposing it were possible, which it certainly is not, to separate the constituents from sewage.”102 The problem, as Lawes and others pointed out, was that most of the nutrients in human excrement are in the urine, which, along with the small portion of nutrients in feces, was quickly diluted in the huge quantities of water used to flush toilets and to carry waste through the sewers, and further diluted by rainwater. John Thomas Way, Consulting Chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society, estimated that the solid matter in London’s sewage was mixed with 1,400 times its weight of water. “Here is the great difficulty of the subject, and one which so many people seem to forget. We have not to deal with ordinary excrementitious matter, but with that matter diffused through an enormous bulk of water…. If it be desired to separate by filtration the insoluble matter of the sewage, we have to filter neatly 3000 tons (more than half a million gallons) to obtain from it one ton of dry manuring matter.”103

In a report for the GBH, Henry Austin explained that this was an insuperable problem for manure-making projects.

Chemical research has not yet arrived at any satisfactory method of economically arresting from solution the fertilizing ingredients in sewage, while the analyses of solid sewage manures, manufactured under various patents, show, that although for the most part possessing a certain low value, they do not justify the high prices at which they have been offered to the public; nor does there appear to be evidence of any agricultural results derived from their use, which will support such a view of their value.104

At a public meeting to discuss Lawes’s paper, Way, who is now considered the founder of soil chemistry, summarized the near-unanimous view of scientists who had studied the issue. “He said unhesitatingly that any existing plan for the production of solid manure from sewage water would be a failure.”105 Nevertheless, as a report published in 1876 wryly commented, “it would appear that to learn the lesson that money cannot be made out of sewage-sludge is very difficult”—as evidence, the authors listed 417 sewage-related patents filed between 1855 and 1875.106

As historian Daniel Schneider writes of the thirty-odd sewage-manure companies formed in this period, “they were all based on patented processes, they all promised large profits, and they all went bankrupt. In fact, the shares in sewage became notorious as speculative bubbles, and sewage company share offerings were widely seen as frauds and swindles.”107

Sewage Farming

The other approach, applying sewage directly to farmland, seemed to have more potential. Edinburgh’s Craigentinny Meadows were constantly cited as proof that it could be done profitably.

A major problem with sewage farming as a general solution to urban sewage disposal was that sewage flowed day and night, 365 days a year. Few existing farms, if any, needed irrigation and fertilizing on that scale, and very few crops other than fodder grass could survive the constant flood produced by a city of any size, especially where the soil was mostly clay, as it was around London.

Still, the MBW had a mandate to see that the sewage was used as manure, so in 1860 it called for tenders. It received eight responses, which were quickly narrowed down to one, from the Metropolis Sewage and Essex Reclamation Company. Its founders, William Napier and William Poole, proposed to build a retaining wall to reclaim some 30,000 acres of tideland in the Maplin Sands, on the Essex coast. A forty-four-mile long, nine-foot diameter conduit would then carry all the sewage from the north side of the Thames, to irrigate and fertilize the new land. In return for a fifty-year exclusive contract, they promised millions of pounds in yearly profits—investors would be guaranteed 7.5 percent, and the Board of Works would get half of the rest. Having only one credible plan in hand, the MBW signed a contract, subject to the Company getting Parliamentary approval for the land reclamation.

When Parliament considered the plan, there were loud objections from the City of London, which thought the MBW should seek better offers. In its support, the City published letters from Liebig, who argued that the Maplin Sands plan would not work—it was “like a soap bubble, glistening with bright colours, but inside hollow and empty.” He predicted that “every penny invested in that frivolous undertaking would irretrievably be lost.”108

Parliament did approve the plan, but the company proved unable to raise the £3 million it needed to build the culvert and the retaining walls. It did some initial construction on the conduit, and set up a small demonstration farm to show that sewage-soaked sand could indeed grow crops, but by 1870 it had ceased operations and forfeited the £25,000 bond it had posted to get the contract. It was noted at the time that this was the only money that London’s taxpayers ever received for their supposedly valuable sewage.

Napier and Poole blamed the banking crisis of 1866 for their inability to raise funds, and that may be true, although it’s just as likely that investors were unwilling to risk money on yet another dicey sewage scheme. In 1876, John Chalmers Morton, manager of the company’s demonstration farm and editor of the influential Agricultural Gazette, commented on “how ludicrously experience hitherto has almost everywhere upset the anticipations of the sanguine sewage agriculturist.… Nowhere has the Edinburgh experience been realised.”109 If it had been built, the Maplin Sands project might have filtered pollutants out of London’s sewage, but there was little chance that it could have covered its capital costs, and even less that it could have produced the 20 percent annual profit that Napier and Poole predicted.

Between about 1850 and 1880, a handful of wealthy landowners experimented with sewage-farming, but few lasted long. More significantly, about eighty towns acquired land suitable for filtering sewage through sandy or rocky soil, and then tried to recoup their costs by farming that land. None of those projects came close to breaking even, and most were eventually abandoned or converted into farm-free sewage filtration operations. That experience was summed up in a single sentence in 1907, in a legal and policy manual written for local governments: “Although many different methods of sewage disposal have been tried, up to the present no process has been introduced which combines the speedy clearance and profitable utilisation of the injurious matter.”110

Sewage Is Not Night Soil

What the promoters of sewage-manure didn’t understand, although some scientists did, is that sewage is not night soil. The many calculations of the supposed manurial-value of London sewage seemed to assume that the sewers carried only urine, feces, and water, that there was no other matter of any consequence, and that being diluted and swept through miles of pipes and tunnels made no substantial change to the potential fertilizer. But as Henry Austin advised the GBH in 1857, in the sewers excrement was mixed with a great variety of noxious materials. “The sewage of towns consists of the solid and liquid excrements of the population, the ingredients of soap, the refuse from kitchens, the drainings and washings from markets, stables, cow-houses, pigstyes, slaughter-houses, etc., the refuse drainage from many factories and trading establishments, the washings of streets and other open surfaces.”111

In 1890, there were estimated to be 300,000 working horses pulling carts, carriages, and omnibuses in London: their dung covered many streets, and most of it ended up in the sewers.

Over time, more manufacturers added industrial waste to the mix, and sewer managers added potent chemicals to reduce the smell. In 1893, the prominent physician and sanitarian George Vivian Poore said these additions made sewage into “a practical nuisance which no sane farmer would take as a gift.”

The composition of sewage as it flows from towns is so doubtful, and must be so variable, that no sensible man would let it run over his farm. Chemicals and antiseptics are very abundant at the present day, and they are very largely used to lessen the dangers which are inherent in our present system of sanitation. Antiseptics, however, which stop the growth of putrefactive microbes, also check the growth of nitrifying organisms, and are deadly poison to plants. All town sewage is liable to contain dangerous chemicals which must render the “manurial value” a very minus quantity.112

In his history of sewage treatment, Daniel Schneider draws an important conclusion: “By combining waste with the water used to convey it through the sewer system, Victorian sanitary reformers created a new problem: sewage. Sewage was a new and distinct substance from the wastes that emptied into privy vaults and cesspools.”113

In 1863, biochemist Johann Thudichum argued that the Parliamentary committee that reported on agricultural uses of sewage ought instead to have asked why excrement was being put into the sewers at all.

The attempt to deal with the matter in question perished in the use of the word “sewage,” just as the material which it was desired to preserve perished in the complex mixture called sewage. Sewage was assumed to be an unalterable entity, a decree of fate, from the very moment that those who proposed to deal with it lost sight of its real nature, as a foolish and short-sighted manufacture of man…. As sewage contains nothing that is valuable for agriculture or any other human purpose beyond the excrements of men and animals, the inquiry of the Commons should properly have been into the best mode of utilising human excrements for the purposes indicated in the resolution.114

Another chemist, Charles Glassford, wrote that “if the excreta of towns and cities is ever to be economized, and turned to the purposes for which it is so admirably and naturally adapted, it must never enter the sewers, it must never become sewage.”115 James Bannehr, a promoter of composting toilets, argued that “the whole system of the hydraulic disposal of the excreta of town populations is nothing else than an ingenious method of polluting enormous quantities of water.”116 Physician and chemist C. Meymott Tidy, in his comprehensive review of methods of sewage treatment, concluded that “dilution of water is the best-known method of rendering practically useless whatever is valuable in sewage.”117

Liebig too blamed England’s water-based disposal systems for the destruction of night soil. In 1843 he told Prime Minister Robert Peel that “The causes of the exhaustion of the soil, is to be sought in the customs & habits of townspeople, viz., in the construction of water closets which do not admit of a collection and distribution of the liquid & solid excrements.”118 He repeated that charge several times over the next two decades, including in the influential seventh (1862) edition Agricultural Chemistry, where he argued that “the introduction of water-closets into most parts of England results in the irrecoverable loss of the materials capable of producing food for three and a half million people every year.”119 Eventually this failure to recycle nutrients would permanently damage British agriculture.

Other countries could avoid England’s fate, he argued, if all the farmers in each area were to form “a society for the establishment of reservoirs where the excreta of men and animals might be collected, and converted into a portable form…for transport by the society’s own officials.” For this plan to succeed, “government and the police authorities should take measures to insure the proper construction of latrines and sewers in towns, to guard against the waste of the night soil, etc.”120 His great fear, which was soon realized, was that London’s approach would become the model for waste removal everywhere.

Widening the Rift

Most capitalist responses to environmental problems are after-the-fact technological fixes that address symptoms rather than causes. The problems are not solved, but moved in space or time, transferred elsewhere or to future generations, where they create new problems. Often that involves “end of pipe” solutions, like continuing to produce toxic exhaust gases and installing catalytic converters to capture them, and plans for burying greenhouse gases instead of phasing out fossil fuels. Cover up the mess takes precedence over don’t make a mess.

The London Main Drainage system was figuratively and literally an end-of-pipe solution to an environmental crisis, possibly the first one ever. Instead of addressing the causes of unprecedented accumulations of excrement in London, politicians and engineers chose to spend millions of pounds—hundreds of millions in today’s money—to build pipes to carry it away. What happened at the end of the pipes was a minor concern, once the smell was gone. Healing the metabolic rift by reducing farmers’ dependence on guano was no part of the Board of Works’ agenda: if money could be made selling sewage, that was a bonus, but otherwise, dumping it in the river was perfectly acceptable.

Similarly, the sewage farms that other towns established were attempts to offset treatment costs, not to repair the broken food and nutrient cycle.

Nor, despite the promises made in the 1840s, did the main drainage project improve the living conditions of working people. Indeed, for most London workers, those conditions deteriorated in the second half of the century: while self-satisfied reformers looked the other way, massive construction projects, including many related to the sewers, destroyed working-class neighborhoods to build upper-class homes, expensive boulevards, and office buildings. Tenants had no choice but to move to more crowded dwellings where sanitary conditions were often worse than before. Many slum landlords removed privies completely, rather than pay for water closets and sewer connections.

The Bitter Cry of Outcast London was written by a Congregationalist minister in 1883, but its description of working-class dwellings in the east end could have been published forty years earlier:

To get into them you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions and often flowing beneath your feet; courts, many of them which the sun never penetrates, which are never visited by a breath of fresh air, and which rarely know the virtues of a drop of cleansing water. You have to ascend rotten staircases, which threaten to give way beneath every step, and which, in some places, have already broken down, leaving gaps that imperil the limbs and lives of the unwary. You have to grope your way along dark and filthy passages swarming with vermin. Then, if you are not driven back by the intolerable stench, you may gain admittance to the dens in which these thousands of beings who belong, as much as you, to the race for whom Christ died, herd together.121

A Fabian Society pamphlet published eleven years later said much the same: “In many a narrow court, where the poorest people dwell, the dustbins are not emptied for months at a time, the water-closets are allowed to remain out of order, the drains smell, and all manner of filth pollutes the air.… All this neglect by the Vestry may save money, but it means discomfort and misery and disease to the poor.”122

In István Mészáros’s words, the “super-institutions of ecological oversight,” often prove to be only “ministries for the protection of middle-class amenities.”123 That was certainly true of the sanitary agencies established in England in the 1840s and 1850s. They eliminated inconvenient and hard-to-manage cesspools, and reduced London’s smell to tolerable levels, at least in posh west end neighborhoods—but better living standards for working people were dropped from the agenda.

So too was the promise of affordable fertilizer for farmers. Every day, for the next 150 years, sewage containing endless amounts of potential plant nutrients was dumped into the Thames and the North Sea.

By the end of the nineteenth century, most cities in Britain, Europe, the United States, and Canada had built sewer systems similar to London’s, flushing human excrement through sewer networks to central locations, where it was dumped into lakes, rivers, or oceans, almost always with no filtering or other treatment. There were exceptions—Berlin, for example, operated sewage farms that covered more area than the city itself, until after the Second World War—but most adopted London’s move-it-and-dump-it approach, justified by the claim that the solution to pollution is dilution. Water closets connected to city-wide sewer networks became the very definition of sanitation.

The subsequent evolution of waste management in the capitalist world has effectively been constrained by decisions made in London between 1840 and 1870. When it became clear that diluted sewage was still toxic, more technology was added at the end of the pipe, expanding the model instead of rethinking it. The historical irony runs deep: systems that were built at immense cost to eliminate unmanageable accumulations of potential fertilizer are now adding new technology, at immense cost, to transform unmanageable accumulations of sewage sludge into potential fertilizer.

Town and Country

“Capitalist commodity production,” writes Andreas Malm, “has a spatial logic of centralization“:

The basic receptacle is, of course, the factory, but it immediately points beyond itself, towards a place for the “conglomeration” of all manner of inputs not under one roof, but within the town where mills, warehouses, banks, stock exchanges, machine workshops, wholesale traders and, not the least, houses for hands are crowded together. Macro-receptacle and magnet for means of production, the town receives the influx of “free” workers, the amassing of proletarians the flip side of the haemorrhaging of the countryside.124

The birthplace of this spatial logic was Britain, where the rise of industrial capitalism and hypergrowth of cities went hand in hand. In 1851, when the environmental crisis described here was nearing its peak, the census revealed that England was the only country in the world in which more than half of the population was urban—and over a third of the urban population lived in London. So it is not surprising that the environmental impact of irrational urbanization was felt first and most intensely in the Metropolis. The system’s deepest contradictions were exposed when the shit hit the Thames.

London’s sewers were built in response to problems caused by uncontrolled urban growth, and yet, as Dr. Poore wrote in 1893, they accelerated growth and overcrowding by eliminating the need for curtilage (open space) between houses and buildings.

Water-carried sewage encourages overcrowding because it enables us to build houses with no outlet except a hole for the sewage to run through. The growth of London must be a source of alarm to sanitarians, and it is impossible not to admit that our system of sewers has been a most important factor in its production. Look at Charing Cross, where a street of gigantic clubs and hotels has arisen, each without curtilage of any kind, and where a handsome profit has been made by setting the first law of sanitation at defiance. You will find the same thing to a greater or less extent throughout the Metropolitan area.125

Poore, who viewed such overcrowding as a major threat to public health, argued that sewer expansion should be stopped, and that all new buildings should be required to include sufficient open space to absorb all the waste created in them, as fertilizer. His proposals won no support from governments dominated by landlords and builders, for whom any limitation on building size was a limitation on profits.

Unlike today’s ecomodernists, Marx and Engels did not view huge cities as cause for celebration. On the contrary, for them, “the abolition of the contradictions between town and country is one of the first conditions of communal life.”126 In the Communist Manifesto, they called for “gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country” as one of the first “despotic inroads on the rights of property” that a workers’ government should implement.127

In Capital, Marx wrote that by collecting the population in great centers, capitalism “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil.”128 And in The Housing Question Engels wrote that “only the existence of towns, and in particular the big towns,” prevents implementation of Liebig’s “first demand…that man should give back to the land what he receives from it.”129

Most importantly for the present discussion, in Anti-Dühring, which he wrote and Marx approved, Engels explicitly linked the irrational growth of cities under capitalism with the environmental crisis caused by accumulation of excrement:

Abolition of the antithesis between town and country is not merely possible. It has become a direct necessity of industrial production itself, just as it has become a necessity of agricultural production and, besides, of public health. The present poisoning of the air, water and land can be put an end to only by the fusion of town and country; and only such fusion will change the situation of the masses now languishing in the towns, and enable their excrement to be used for the production of plants instead of for the production of disease.

Engels went on: “It is true that in the huge towns civilization has bequeathed us a heritage which it will take much time and trouble to get rid of. But it must and will be got rid of, however protracted a process it may be.”130

A Global Robbery System

Liebig described European and North American agriculture, which took nutrients from the ground but didn’t return them, as a Raubsystem—a “robbery system.” Marx echoed and extended that idea, describing “all progress in capitalistic agriculture…[as] progress in the art, not only of robbing the laborer, but of robbing the soil.”131 This was true not just within Britain, but in Britain’s relations with its colonies: “For a century and a half England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.”132

In our time the international robbery system has achieved a scope and scale that Marx and Engels could not have imagined. Supermarkets and food processing plants in the global North are crammed with agricultural products flown in from southern countries, where entire economies have been restructured to support soil-destroying industrial monocultures that produce for distant metropolises.

In 2005, a century and a half after it happened in England, the planet became majority-urban. Tens of millions of people, driven from the land in a new age of brutal enclosures, now live in conditions that recall Engels’s descriptions of London and Manchester. According to the United Nations, 2.9 billion people live without toilets or latrines, and most of the sewer systems that do exist dump untreated sewer into rivers and lakes. Inevitably, waterborne diseases, including cholera and diarrhea, are now the number one cause of death worldwide.

Engels’s accusation of social murder has never been more appropriate and damning. As Mike Davis shows in Planet of Slums, this is not just a repeat performance: “the scale and velocity of Third World urbanization…utterly dwarfs that of Victorian Europe. London in 1910 was seven times larger than it had been in 1800, but Dhaka, Kinshasa, and Lagos today are each approximately forty times larger than they were in 1950.”133 The crisis is too great to be displaced or hidden by intercepting sewers and slum clearances, and today’s ruling elites show even less interest in real systemic solutions than their Victorian forebears.

The metabolic rift and environmental crisis that shook London and other cities in the nineteenth century have re-emerged as global disasters. The centuries-old divides between people and soil, between town and country, between global North and South, have become deadly metabolic chasms, and there is no reason to believe that those rifts will be healed, so long as capitalism survives.


  1. A few species, living in deep oceans or deep in the earth’s crust, use energy sources other than solar.
  2. Leona J. Skelton, Sanitation in Urban Britain, 1560–1700 (Oxford: Routledge, 2015), 44.
  3. The Law Journal Reports, vol. 39 (London: Ince, 1870) 72. The decision reported here said that the exemption applied to all manure, manufactured or imported.
  4. John Sinclair, The Code of Agriculture (London: Sherwood, 1832), 141.
  5. Early geologists thought the phosphate rocks were fossilized dinosaur dung, which they were not, but the name “coprolites” stuck. (Thanks to Mark Woods of the British Geological Survey for explaining this.)
  6. Samuel Sidney, “Remarks on Mr. Edwin Chadwick’s Views on Indian Irrigation,” Journal of the Society of the Arts, May 25, 1855, 499.
  7. Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, vol. 2 (London: Cass, 1851), 167.
  8. Mark Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996), 195.
  9. John Bellamy Foster, “Marx as a Food Theorist,” Monthly Review 68, no. 7 (December 2016): 18.
  10. Quoted in William H. Brock, Justus von Liebig: The Chemical Gatekeeper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 256. Justus Liebig became Justus von Liebig in 1846, when the king of Bavaria made him a baron.
  11. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 637–38; Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 949–50.
  12. Karl Marx, “Herr Vogt,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works [Collected Works], vol. 17 (New York: International Publishers, 1981), 243.
  13. London did not exist as a political entity. The City of London, the square mile roughly corresponding to the medieval walled city, jealously guarded its autonomy. The rest of what we now call London comprised some 39 separately governed parishes and districts, and was usually referred to as “the metropolis.”
  14. James Anderson, A Calm Investigation of the Circumstances that Have Led to the Present Scarcity of Grain in Britain, second ed., (London: Cumming, 1801), 76.
  15. Hector Gavin, Unhealthiness of London and the Necessity of Remedial Measures (London: Churchill, 1847), 21.
  16. I use the term “middle class” as the Victorians did, meaning people who were above tradesmen and working people in the social hierarchy, but below the very wealthy and the aristocracy. It included most capitalists, and professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and the clergy.
  17. Hector Gavin, Sanitary Ramblings: Being Sketches and Illustrations, of Bethnal Green, A Type of the Condition of the Metropolis and Other Large Towns (London: Churchill, 1848), 79.
  18. “Report of the Commissioners appointed by His Majesty to Inquire into the State of the Water Supply in the Metropolis, April 21, 1828,” Parliamentary Papers: 1780–1849, vol. 9 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office), 62.
  19. Ibid., 9, 11, 12.
  20. Royston Lambert, Sir John Simon, 1816–1904, and English Social Administration (London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1963), 59.
  21. Hector Gavin, Unhealthiness of London, 13.
  22. Bruce Haley, The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 6.
  23. W. T. Gairdner, Public Health in Relation to Air and Water (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862), 16
  24. Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 127.
  25. “Supply of Water to the Metropolis,” Edinburgh Review 91, no. 184 (1850): 385–86.
  26. Steven Marcus, Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class (New York: Random House. 1975), 184.
  27. An English translation was not published until 1887.
  28. Edward Jarvis, “Reviews,” American Journal of the Medical Sciences 15, no. 30 (1848): 420.
  29. Edwin Chadwick, Report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965), 75.
  30. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1966), 10.
  31. Thomas Carlyle, “Chartism,” in Selected Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 151.
  32. Philip Harling, The Modern British State: An Historical Introduction (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 100.
  33. M. W. Flinn, “Introduction,” in Chadwick, Sanitary Condition, 1.
  34. Christopher Hamlin, Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800–1854 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1998), 187.
  35. Chadwick, Sanitary Condition, 79.
  36. Quoted in S. E. Finer, The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (London: Methuen, 1952), 298.
  37. Chadwick was not the first to argue for selling sewage to the country. In the 1830s, an artist named John Martin proposed diverting London’s sewage into reservoirs near the Regents’ and Grand Surrey Canals, and then shipping it to farms around the metropolis. As he had no engineering or agricultural knowledge, and no capital, his plan went nowhere.
  38. The commission’s complaint failed, because although no one denied that there was a stench, they could not show that any disease had resulted. Chadwick did not mention that, either.
  39. Chadwick, Sanitary Condition, 122n.
  40. Edwin Chadwick, Sewer Manure: Statement…Prepared for the Consideration of the Committee of Works (London: Reynell and Weight, 1849), 20.
  41. Chadwick, Sanitary Condition, 121.
  42. Anthony Brundage, England’s Prussian Minister’: Edwin Chadwick and the Politics of Government Growth, 1832–1854 (State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), 104.
  43. For fuller accounts of the Towns Improvement Company, see R. A. Lewis, Edwin Chadwick and the Public Health Movement, (London: Longmans Green, 1952), chapter 5; and Brundage, England’s Prussian Minister’, chapter 6.
  44. Margaret Pelling, Cholera, Fever and English Medicine, 1825–1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 60.
  45. Charles Dickens. “Preface to the Cheap Edition (1851),” Oliver Twist, 382.
  46. Marquess of Normanby, “Health of Towns,” House of Lords Debates, February 14, 1845.
  47. Abstract of the Proceedings of the Public Meeting Held at Exeter Hall, December 11, 1844 (London: Knight, 1844), 3.
  48. The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association for Improving the Public Health, Bathing and Cleanliness (London: Churchill, 1847), 9.
  49. The Working Classes’ Association had the same officers and patrons as its middle-class parent association. I have found no evidence that it actually existed as an independent organization.
  50. Beggs to Chadwick, April 11, 1846, quoted in Lewis, Edwin Chadwick and the Public Health Movement, 113.
  51. Quoted in Michael Levin, The Condition of England Question (London: Macmillan, 1998), 21
  52. Lord Ashley, “Health of Towns Association,” Howitt’s Journal 17 (1847): 238. Note that “malaria” meant “bad air,” not the tropical disease.
  53. Charles Dickens, The Speeches of Charles Dickens, 1841–1870 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1884), 127. St. Giles was one of London’s worst slums. Almack’s was an exclusive social club in St. James, governed by a group of high society women called the Lady Patronesses.
  54. “Sanitary Reform,” Edinburgh Review 91, no. 181 (1850): 216.
  55. “The Report of the Registrar General,” Times, November 1, 1848.
  56. Frederick Engels, “The Housing Question,” in Collected Works, vol. 23 (New York: International Publishers, 1988), 337–38.
  57. Metropolitan Sanitary Commission, First Report of the Commissioners…for the Improvement of the Health of the Metropolis (London: Clowes, 1848), 21.
  58. Metropolitan Sanitary Commission, First Report, 26.
  59. Metropolitan Sanitary Commission, First Report, 28.
  60. Metropolitan Sanitary Commission, First Report, 33-4.
  61. Lord Brougham, “Health of Towns Bill,” House of Lords, July 7, 1848, in Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, third series, vol. C (London: Woodfall, 1848), 231.
  62. William Simpson, A Digest of Several Reports on Sanitary Reforms (London: Renshaw, 1849) 5 (reprinted from the Journal of Public Health, January 1849).
  63. Quoted in Robert G. Paterson, “The Health of Towns Association in Great Britain 1844–1849,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 22, no. 4 (1948): 394.
  64. Some former members of the HTA formed a Metropolitan Sanitary Association in London in 1849, but it does not seem to have been very active, and disappeared within a few years.
  65. Horace Mann, “Statement of the Mortality Prevailing in Church Lane during the Last Ten Years,” Quarterly Journal of the Statistical Society of London 11, no. 1 (1848): 19.
  66. “Report of a Committee of the Council of the Statistical Society of London,” Quarterly Journal of the Statistical Society of London 11, no. 1 (1848): 2, 17.
  67. Gavin, Sanitary Ramblings, 75–76.
  68. First Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts, vol. 2 (London: Clowes, 1844).
  69. Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 85.
  70. “The Cholera,” Pharmaceutical Journal, October 1, 1849, 152.
  71. “Metropolitan Commission of Sewers,” Times, September 21, 1849.
  72. Times, September 21, 1849.
  73. Times, October 7, 1848.
  74. Jackson, Dirty Old London, 84.
  75. Joseph Bazalgette, “On the Main Drainage of London,” March 14, 1865, Newton’s London Journal of Arts, new series, vol. 21, no. 125 (1865): 288.
  76. John Strang, “On the Water Supply to Great Towns: Its Extent, Cost, Uses, and Abuses,” Journal of the Statistical Society of London 22, no. 2 (1859): 249.
  77. Analytical Sanitary Commission, “Report upon the Present Condition of the Thames,” Lancet 75, no. 1819 (1858): 43–45.
  78. Times, July 14, 1855.
  79. Analytical Sanitary Commission, “Report upon the Present Condition of the Thames,” 43.
  80. Steven Marcus, Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class (New York: Random House, 1975), 17.
  81. William Budd, “Typhoid or Intestinal Fever: The Pythogenic Theory,” British Medical Journal 2, no. 44 (1861): 485.
  82. “The Silver Thames,” Saturday Review 5, no. 137 (1858): 631.
  83. Chancellor of the Exchequer, “Metropolis Local Management Act Amendment Bill,” Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, July 15, 1858.
  84. Viscount Ebrington, “Metropolis Local Management Bill,” Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, July 24, 1858.
  85. Michelle Allen, Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008), 82.
  86. E. Haughton, “On the Application of Sewage in Agriculture,” Natural History Review and Quarterly Journal of Science 6, no. 4 (1859): 1.
  87. “The State of the Thames,” Pall Mall Gazette, December 21, 1881.
  88. Copy or Extracts of Correspondence…as to the Pollution of the River Thames (London: House of Commons, 1884), 61.
  89. Copy or Extracts of Correspondence, 13.
  90. Times, December 12, 1884.
  91. Both quoted in Hamlin, Public Health and Social Justice, 239.
  92. Henry Austin, Report on the Means of Deodorizing and Utilizing the Sewage of Towns (London: General Board of Health, 1857), 3.
  93. Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, vol. 2 (London: Griffin, Bohn, 1851), 160.
  94. The Builder, December 4, 1875, quoted in Halliday, The Great Stink of London, 110.
  95. Times, December 23, 1859, 6.
  96. Mr. Conington, “Metropolis Local Management Bill,” Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, July 24, 1858.
  97. S. S. [Samuel Sydney], “Sewage Manure,” Journal of the Society of the Arts 2, No. 101 (1854): 805.
  98. S. S., “Sewage Manure,” 805.
  99. Justus Liebig, Organic Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, second ed. (London: Taylor and Walton, 1842), 194n.
  100. J. J. Mechi, “On the Sewerage of Towns as It Affects British Agriculture,” in J. J. Mechi, How to Farm Profitably: or, The Sayings and Doings of Mr. Alderman Mechi, second ed., (London: Routledge, 1860), 348.
  101. Henry Austin, Report on the Means of Deodorizing and Utilizing the Sewage of Towns, 15.
  102. J. B. Lawes, “On the Sewage of London.” Journal of the Society of the Arts, March 9, 1855. 263-277. Emphasis added.
  103. J. Thomas Way, “On the Use of Town Sewage as Manure.” Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, Vol. 15 (1854). 147.
  104. Henry Austin, Report on the Means of Deodorizing and Utilizing the Sewage of Towns (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1857), 87
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  113. Schneider, Hybrid Nature, xxi.
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  118. Liebig to Peel, March 14, 1843. Thanks to Imperial College London for providing a copy of this letter and for permission to quote it. The ICL catalogue describes it as a letter from Liebig to Lyon Playfair, copied to Peel, but from internal evidence it is clearly a copy that Playfair made of a letter from Liebig to Peel.
  119. Quoted in Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017), 198.
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  123. István Mészáros, The Necessity of Social Control (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015), 29.
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  129. Engels, “The Housing Question,” 384.
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  133. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006), 2.
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