One of the things that I love about London is that there is always a new discovery waiting just around the corner. This time I thought I had found my own little treasure, but apparently all my friends already knew about this spot and perhaps thought I also knew, or they wanted to keep it a secret from me. I’m not sure which is correct.
I’ve cracked on to Charring Cross so many times that I can’t keep count, and always in a massive rush. I had just crossed over the river, having spent a lovely afternoon on the Embankment, and instead of dashing off to catch a train, this time I turned right instead of straight on, went down some steps, and noticed a little entryway just opposite the Starbucks.
Well what have we here? It was a fabulous little oasis! The Victoria Embankment Gardens. What a lovely little place nestled behind a wall of hedges and trees, keeping at bay the noise of the street and only allowing a little glimpse of the river and beyond.
The beds were full of tulips blooming and it was just the place to sit down and relax. Who would have thought that this garden was a result of an awfully big stink?
The Gardens are small but are full of memorials. The Queen’s tree is planted here in honour of her coronation, there is a statue of Robbie Burns overlooking the gardens, a small koi pond, a poignant memorial plaque to those victims of the horrific terrorist attack of July 7, and the beautiful statue for the Imperial Camel Corps.
There are tribute statues to John Stuart Mill, Sir Arthur Sullivan the other half of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan musical team, Sir Wilfred Lawson, and Robbie Raikes, the founder of the first Sunday School, and more. Certainly enough statues and memorials to satisfy the most eager tribute hunter, but it is Henry Fawcett (1833-1884) who lived at No 8, The Lawn, and his wish to form a park on the site, that deserves special note.
Fawcett was a Member of Parliament, an educational reformer and an economist. He was blinded at the age of 25 when his father’s shotgun accidentally discharged whilst they were out partridge shooting. His blindness did not stop him from becoming Postmaster General. He encouraged the Post Office to employ women. He wanted a garden, and this bit is morbid and lovely, a garden that after his death, his widow Millicent Fawcett would be able to stroll and enjoy. Bit gloomy and romantic to create a garden for your weeping widow, but there you have it.
The gardens were created in 1874 on the reclaimed land on the inward side of the roadway named Victoria Embankment. But before the gardens were designed by Alexander McKenzie, one of the great 19th century public works was on offer, a sewage system for London, an underground railway, a new riverside road, and the Victoria Embankment Gardens, all designed by Joseph Bazalgette and completed in 1870.
All this riverside development was a reaction to the Great Stink of 1858. The summer of 1858 was miserably hot and dry. The Thames and its tributaries were highly polluted with untreated sewage, which quickly bloomed into a rank fetid stink in the heat. The smell was so overwhelming many were convinced it created illnesses. It was so offensive that it halted and affected work at the Houses of Parliament. The stench was so bad in Westminster that in a desperate move, the windows were draped with curtains soaked in chloride of lime to squelch the smell. Disraeli claimed the river as “a Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror’.
Heavy rain finally broke through the hot summer and for the time being the air was cleared. However, it was now time for the MPs to pass a bill to save the Thames and so they did.
It’s so hard to imagine, but the smell must have been horrific, the stench of urine, faeces, dead animals, blood, the overflowing cess pools dripping into alleys, yards and even the basements of houses. It wasn’t the sort of smell one could wash away. This odour would get into your hair, your clothing, on your skin and in every aspect of your life. And all this natural waste was added to by the latest “must have” for Georgian England, the flush toilet! The Water closet.
How wonderful that must have been to go into a room and not have to squat over a little pot, cover it with a damp cloth and toss it. Toss it where? Throw the contents into the cesspool at the bottom of the garden, out the front door, into the alley, and into the river?
Now suddenly the mess in the pot magically floated away with each flush. What wonders! But with each flush came a massive amount of water per human creation, (I couldn’t find a nicer way to put it!) The increased water amounts soon over flowed the cesspools, creating awful little lakes that streamed down the street drains. The river could not handle this new onslaught from man and retaliated with a massive stench and cholera.
That word Cholera terrorised. Death by cholera was terrifying and sudden. Often within hours after debilitating diarrhoea, and vomiting, the painful death of dehydration came without mercy. In 1853 – 1854 the disease killed more than 10,000 Londoners.
Treatments of all sorts from leeches to thin the blood, (thickened by dehydration), Castor oil to rid the body of foul wastes, doses of brandy, all further heightened the effects of dehydration. The great irony of all this, is what was poisoning people was the cure. Water. Clean water to restore the natural balance of the body, but there was none to be found.
Everyone blamed the air, the miasma, and there some truth to this. The bad air came from the stinking cesspools infecting the water. Although they thought it was the air itself, and not the bacteria thriving in the water creating the illness, they were not far wrong. When there’s a bad smell, there’s trouble in the air.
It was not just the new wonderful “must have” item of the era, the flush toilet that had created this problem, the Thames had become a dumping ground for waste, everyone believing it would just wash out to sea. Paper mills, tanneries, dye works, coal and gas works, breweries all used the river for both drinking water and water for their works. Passenger ships sailed by, dropping their passenger’s waste into the Thames.
The blood and offal from the slaughterhouses ran down in bloody rivulets to the Thames. The massive amounts of manure from the cattle and other livestock all drained into the Thames, the source of drinking water. All I can think is how lucky we are today to have clean drinking water! How far we have progressed in our thinking, and how much farther we still have to go. But luckily for all, the sewer system was now in place and by 1870, both the Albert and the Victoria Embankments were opened for all to enjoy without gasping for a breath of clean fresh air.
Today when you stroll through the gardens all this is forgotten, and it’s hard to imagine London as a stinking foul place. It would have been impossible to sit outside by the river and enjoy a cup of tea back then, so if not all progress is fabulous, in this case, it’s ‘Well Done!”