Victorian Book Report: The Great Stink of London, by Stephen Halliday

The title of this book is a bit of a misnomer. While it does indeed report on the Great Stink of London — the summer of 1858, when the sanitary condition of the Thames got so bad that Parliament almost had to flee the stench — it’s more properly an overview of the great engineering works of Joseph Bazalgette. These include road improvements, bridge improvements, new parks, three river embankments, and (of course) the sewer system that saved London from cholera and is still in use today.

So, y’know. If for some reason you need to know about the history of London’s sewer arrangements, and the political squabbling that surrounded their replacement with a better system, then this is a useful book. But I imagine that audience is rather small. 🙂

As is the book — only 191 pages, some of them heavily taken up by illustrations. It’s an overview, not a hugely in-depth study. It also suffers a little bit from repetition, as certain details crop up again and again; Halliday has a particular tic that annoyed me, which is his tendency to put an epigraph at the beginning of the chapter, and then re-quote it in its entirety elsewhere in the chapter, rather than just referring back. In most cases this was not remotely necessary, and contributed to the feeling that he was on occasion hitting me over the head.

But it is the book I needed it to be, namely, an orienting resource on one of the big upheavals that will have affected my characters prior to the beginning of the novel. Now I just need to find, or badger someone at Thames Water into giving me, a set of plans detailing the layout of all tunnels in the area of the City, and I’ll be more or less set.

0 Responses to “Victorian Book Report: The Great Stink of London, by Stephen Halliday”

  1. wshaffer

    Have you come across in your research yet? In particular, they have a PDF of an 1865 article by Bazalgette himself, including a map, though I’m not sure if it goes to the level of detail you’d need:

    • Marie Brennan

      Oooh — no, I hadn’t found that. Thanks!

      The map is more or less the one included in several books of mine; I need something finer-grained, that shows the City in detail. But the article may well be useful nonetheless.

  2. lindenfoxcub

    There was a BBC documentary on the sewers of london that I saw years ago; you might be able to download it somewhere. It was in their seven wonders of the industrial world series.

    • chrisondra

      ::goes to peek at what the seven wonders are in that series::

      Ah-ha! I knew the Hoover Dam would be one. The focus on the Hoover Dam has always kinda amused me. The Hoover Dam was actually a test case for the Grand Coolie Dam. They figured, correctly, if the Hoover Dam couldn’t be built, the Grand Coolie couldn’t be built either. But the Hoover Dam is the famous one.

      Just randomness, I know!

    • Marie Brennan

      All hail Netflix! And also the power of LJ, to point me at such things. Thanks!

  3. akasylvia

    How bizarre. I clicked on your name having seen a comment you left elsewhere and then jumped up and down when I saw the subject line of your latest post.

    I need this book. It sounds bizarre but I’ve specifically been looking to understand more about the sewers to clean up (no pun intended) a sequence of scenes which take place along the Fleet.


    • Marie Brennan

      In that case, this might be of even more use to you:

      It’s some tunnel hackers exploring the Fleet, with pictures. (The Halliday book only touches lightly on the Fleet itself.)

      But I am highly amused that the interested audience for this book has proved to be larger than 1. 🙂

      • akasylvia

        Yes, I was so pleased to see the subject of your post and then laughed out loud when you mentioned the target audience.

        I love the sub-urban photos and also for some good imagery and strong descriptions.

        But I need some hideyholes and I’m thinking the sewer system itself will make more sense.

        I’ve since read some more posts and realised who you are! Yes, I’m slow sometimes. I didn’t realise it was for the Onyx Court when you referred to using this for orientation. Insert a quiet fan-girl squee [here].

Comments are closed.