The Great Stink was hard to avoid in London 160 years ago as a hot summer intensified the stench of the Thames. While everyone knows Bazalgette’s sewers solved the problem, The Post flushes out the facts about the clockmaker who invented the modern-day toilet…
For all London’s triumphs and dramas over the centuries, the capital also has an unwholesome history of sewage, bad smells and dodgy discharges. Clerkenwell-born Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary of the 1660s about how his wife stopped in the street to “do her business”. In another eye-watering account, a neighbour’s cesspit leaked into Pepys’s cellar.
The most notorious smelly episode in the capital was The Great Stink of 1858, when an unusually hot summer meant that the sewage-filled Thames became what Benjamin Disraeli described as a “Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror”.
The pantomimes staged later that year included a Sadler’s Wells production set in “the muddy mountains of Old Father Thames”. The character of the river declares himself the “shockingest of sights”. The Great Stink was caused by misguided ‘experts’ who advocated that sewage be discharged into the Thames. It followed the abolition of 200,000 domestic cesspits, which had become a danger to health as the metropolis expanded rapidly in the Victorian era.
By June 1858, the infamous stench was so bad that river excursions had to be stopped and no one went near the Thames if they could avoid it. The windows of Parliament were draped with sheets soaked in chloride and lime – but MPs couldn’t ignore the problem. Cholera epidemics were common in the capital at this time. A purification Bill was passed by Parliament and Joseph Bazalge he got to work on his famous drainage system and sewer network the following year. It was partially opened in 1865 and completed a decade later, by which time the health of Londoners had improved markedly.
However, one key figure in this sanitation story has been overlooked. Alexander Cumming helped get rid of the stink of human waste in the home with an invention that was ahead of its time – it pre-dated Bazalgette’s sewers by a century. Cumming, a Scotsman, was a mathematician, engineer and watchmaker, so he must have spent a lot of time in Clerkenwell, which was the centre of the watchmaking trade.
In 1765 he was commissioned by George III to make a clock that was also an early barometer. In 1781, he was made an honorary freeman of the Clockmakers’ Company of the City of London. But perhaps his lasting achievement was the invention of an odour- free flushing toilet in 1775. His design was a marked improvement on Sir John Harrington’s water closet, which was invented in 1596 and used by Queen Elizabeth I.
Cumming’s lavatory was a simple but clever idea that changed the world: the S-bend allowed water to stay in the bowl after flushing, which created an airtight seal and prevented sewage smells from wa ing back up the pipe into the home. It also helped clean the toilet.
Unfortunately, it took decades for the wider rollout of his design. In 1848 a Public Health Act determined that all new houses should be built with some sort of toilet. Bazalgette’s system of sewers was a vital requirement for plumbing in a flushing lavatory. The S-bend concept has stood the test of time, even if it has been slightly modified into a U shape (invented by none other than Thomas Crapper in 1880).
Cumming, who died in 1814, has a close association with the Clerkenwell area. He spent his later years in Pentonville and was buried in what is now Joseph Grimaldi Park, which adjoins a Cumming Street. In an obituary in the Clerkenwell-based Gentleman’s Magazine, he was described as “eminent for his genius and knowledge in the mechanical sciences”.
So when you next flush, think of Alexander Cumming and his enduring invention.