The Great Stink – The Silent Highwayman by John Tenniel, 1858

The Great Stink was an event in central London in July and August 1858 during which the hot weather exacerbated the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent that was present on the banks of the River Thames. The problem had been mounting for some years, with an ageing and inadequate sewer system that emptied directly into the Thames. The miasma from the effluent was thought to transmit contagious diseases, and three outbreaks of cholera prior to the Great Stink were blamed on the ongoing problems with the river.

The smell, and people’s fears of its possible effects, prompted action from the local and national administrators who had been considering possible solutions for the problem. The authorities accepted a proposal from the civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette to move the effluent eastwards along a series of interconnecting sewers that sloped towards outfalls beyond the metropolitan area. Work on high-, mid- and low-level systems for the new Northern and Southern Outfall Sewers started at the beginning of 1859 and lasted until 1875. To aid the drainage, pumping stations were placed to lift the sewage from lower levels into higher pipes. Two of the more ornate stations, Abbey Mills in Stratford and Crossness on the Erith Marshes, are listed for protection by English Heritage. Bazalgette’s plan introduced the three embankments to London in which the sewers ran—the Victoria, Chelsea and Albert Embankments.

Bazalgette’s work ensured that sewage was no longer dumped onto the shores of the Thames and brought an end to the cholera outbreaks; his actions probably saved more lives than any other Victorian official. His sewer system operates into the 21st century, servicing a city that has grown to over eight million. The historian Peter Ackroyd argues that Bazalgette should be considered a hero of London.

Fair in the Thames Tunnel, 1855

From the Illustrated London News; The Thames Tunnel was the one of the first attempts to exploit underground space in a major urban centre. Running from Wapping to Rotherhithe in the East End, it was begun in 1825 by the engineer Marc Brunel but only completed, after many setbacks, in 1843. In its early days, the Tunnel was a fashionable space for promenading by both Londoners and tourists, and was the site of numerous popular entertainments throughout the 1850s and 1860s.

The room over Temple Bar, 1876

Temple Bar is the principal ceremonial entrance to the City of London on its western side from the City of Westminster. It is situated on the historic royal ceremonial route from the Tower of London to the Palace of Westminster, the two chief residences of the mediaeval English monarchs, and from the Palace of Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral. The road east of Temple Bar and within the City is Fleet Street, the road to the west, in Westminster, is The Strand. At Temple Bar the Corporation of the City of London formerly erected a barrier to regulate trade into the City.

Old and New London, etc

The 19th century Royal Courts of Justice are located next to it on its north side, having been moved from Westminster Hall. To its south is the Temple Church and the Inner Temple and Middle Temple Inns of Court. As the most important entrance to the City of London from Westminster, it was formerly long the custom for the monarch to halt at Temple Bar before entering the City of London, in order for the Lord Mayor to offer up the Corporation’s pearl-encrusted Sword of State as a token of loyalty. The term Temple Bar strictly refers to a notional bar or barrier across the route, but is commonly used to refer to the 17th century ornamental Baroque arched gateway designed by Christopher Wren which spanned the road until its removal in 1878. Wren’s arch was preserved and was re-erected in 2004 in the City, in Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s Cathedral.


A walk along Fleet Street, June 2015

Fleet Street is named after the River Fleet, London’s largest underground river. It was the home of British national newspapers until the 1980s. Even though the last major British news office, Reuters, left in 2005, the term Fleet Street continues to be used as a metonym for the British national press.

As early as the 13th century, it seems to have been known as Fleet Bridge Street, and in the early part of the 14th century it began to be mentioned frequently by its present name, spelled in accordance with the customs of those days. Fleet Street began as the road from the commercial City of London to the political hub of Westminster. The length of Fleet Street marks the expansion of the City in the 14th century. At the east end of the street is where the River Fleet flowed against the medieval walls of London; at the west end is the Temple Bar which marks the current City of London/City of Westminster boundary, extended there in 1329. At Temple Bar to the west, as Fleet Street crosses the boundary out of the City of London, it becomes the Strand; to the east, past Ludgate Circus, the route rises as Ludgate Hill.

The nearest London Underground stations are Temple, Chancery Lane, and Blackfriars tube/mainline station, and the City Thameslink railway station.


20 hauntingly beautiful photographs of Victorian London

Newgate prison exercise yard by Gustave Doré

Newgate Prison was located at the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey just inside the City of London. It was originally at the site of Newgate, a gate in the Roman London Wall. The gate/prison was rebuilt in the 12th century, and demolished in 1777. The prison was extended and rebuilt many times, and remained in use for over 700 years, from 1188 to 1902.

The first prison at Newgate was built in 1188 on the orders of Henry II. It was significantly enlarged in 1236, and the executors of Lord Mayor Dick Whittington were granted a license to renovate the prison in 1422. The prison was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt in 1672, extending into new buildings on the south side of the street.

According to medieval statute, the prison was to be managed by two annually elected Sheriffs, who in turn would sublet the administration of the prison to private “gaolers”, or “Keepers”, for a price. These Keepers in turn were permitted to exact payment directly from the inmates, making the position one of the most profitable in London. Inevitably, the system offered incentives for the Keepers to exhibit cruelty to the prisoners, charging them for everything from entering the gaol to having their chains both put on and taken off. Among the most notorious Keepers in the Middle Ages were the 14th-century gaolers Edmund Lorimer, who was infamous for charging inmates four times the legal limit for the removal of irons, and Hugh De Croydon, who was eventually convicted of blackmailing prisoners in his care.

Over the centuries, Newgate was used for a number of purposes including imprisoning people awaiting execution, although it was not always secure: burglar Jack Sheppard escaped from the prison two times before he went to the gallows at Tyburn in 1724. Prison chaplain Paul Lorrain achieved some fame in the early 18th century for his sometimes dubious publication of Confessions of the condemned.

The great fire near London Bridge, Saturday June 22nd 1861

The colossal warehouses were filled with every variety of goods, among which were many of a highly combustable nature, which, igniting, exploded with awful crashes, lighting up the vast metropolis and country round for thirty miles.

It was during one of these fearful explosions that Mr. Scott and the gallant Mr. Braidwood were crushed to death by the blowing out of a stupendous wall. Many other lives have also been lost. The fat and oil ran like molten fire into the stream, and for a long time threatened with destruction the numerous vessels in the pool.

The scene altogether was of the most fearful and terrific description. The burning ruins have continued to smoke and blaze for several days and nights, while hundreds of thousands of people from all parts of the metropolis gaze on with wonder and awe. The destruction of property is valued at upwards of Three Millions sterling.

Shakespeare’s King John at the theatre in Drury Lane

The last scene of a critically acclaimed 1865 performance of Shakespeare’s King John at the theatre in Drury Lane, as depicted in the Illustrated London News.

King John, a history play by William Shakespeare, dramatises the reign of John, King of England (ruled 1199–1216), son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine and father of Henry III of England. It is believed to have been written in the mid-1590s but was not published until it appeared in the First Folio in 1623.

Soho Square, London in 1700

Scanned from ‘Old and New London – Its History, its people and its places’, published by Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co. 1878.

Built in the late 1670s, Soho Square was in its early years one of the most fashionable places to live in London. It was originally called King’s Square, for King Charles II. A statue of Charles II was carved by Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber in 1681 and placed at the center of the Square. By the early 19th century, the statue was described as being ‘in a most wretched mutilated state; and the inscriptions on the base of the pedestal quite illegible’. In 1875, it was removed during alterations in the square by T. Blackwell, of Crosse and Blackwell, the condiment firm, who gave it for safekeeping to his friend, artist Frederick Goodall, with the intention that it might be restored. Goodall placed the statue on an island in his lake at Grim’s Dyke, where it remained when dramatist W. S. Gilbert purchased the property in 1890, and there it stayed after Gilbert’s death in 1911. In her will, Lady Gilbert directed that the statue be returned, and it was restored to Soho Square in 1938.

Exeter Change in 1826

The Exeter Exchange, popularly known as the Exeter ‘Change, was on the north side of the Strand in London. It was built on the site of Exeter House, a residence of the Earls of Exeter, from which it acquired its name. The building was designed to be a superior shopping venue, with an arcade in front, and originally housed small shops with lodgings above, but over time, the ground floor was taken over by businesses.

From about 1773, the upper floors took on a new role, housing a menagerie formed by Mr Pidcock. On Pidcock’s death in about 1810, the menagerie passed to Stephani Polito and on his death in 1814, one of his employees, Edward Cross, took over the menagerie.

London Watchman – 18th Century

Scanned from ‘Old and New London – Its History, its people and its places’, published by Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co. 1878.

Night watchmen patrolled the streets between 9 or 10 pm until sunrise, and were expected to examine all suspicious characters. In the City of London, daytime patrols were conducted by the City Marshall and the beadles. Like the night watch, their primary responsibilities were to apprehend minor offenders and to act as a deterrent against more serious offences. Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, the arrangements by which men served as constables and watchmen changed significantly, in ways which altered how felons were detected and apprehended.

The theatre in Portugal Street, London

Scanned from ‘Old and New London – Its History, its people and its places’, published by Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co. 1878.

A theatre has stood on the site since the 17th century. Known as Gibbon’s Tennis Court, or the Vere Street Theatre. Mrs Hughes became the first woman to tread the boards of a London theatre, on 8 December 1660, in a performance of Othello. The company left the theatre in 1663 and there is no record of further plays at the theatre. The building was finally destroyed by fire in 1809.

The Holman Opera Troupe were lessees of the London Opera House. Mr. George Holman, his wife, his daughter Sallie Holman and another daughter, and two sons, with some others, including William H. Crane and Sallie`s husband Mr. J. T. Dalton, which toured throughout Canada for many years.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the creation of Aldwych and Kingsway, linking High Holborn and Aldwych, destroyed a number of established London playhouses and the site between Portugal Street and Sardinia Street became available. New York-based theatre impresario Oscar Hammerstein I (the grandfather of Oscar Hammerstein II) commissioned Bertie Crewe, to build a new theatre in the Beaux-Arts style. The theatre opened on 13 November 1911 as the London Opera House. It had an approximately 45 feet (13.7 m) by 78 feet (23.8 m) stage, and a capacity of 2,660. As an opera house, it found it difficult to attract audiences from the Royal Opera House, and from 1914–15 the house became the National Theatre of England.