Sewage & Filthy River

Until 1865 Barking’s Creek, was a pretty, idyllic place to be and its water was clean and fresh. It was a place for nature and people to enjoy. Fish and shrimp lived in the river. People enjoyed fishing, children learnt to swim in the river and animals drank the water to quench their thirst. Fishing boats could travel easily up from the River Thames where they unloaded their catch at the Town Quay. In 1865 Barking Creek was a pleasant place for the people of Barking. But within a few years, the Creek changed dramatically.

Up until 1865 everyone threw their smelly rubbish into the river, and all their poo and their wee and all the horrible stuff from factories went into the river too, even dead animals. For years and years the river’s tides were strong enough to flush away everyone’s filth. But between 1815 and 1860 the number of people living in London doubled and the river couldn’t cope with all that pollution. The River Thames began to smell really bad – it was so bad it was called The Great Stink – and many people became sick with cholera and other diseases - the government demanded a solution.

The end of Barking’s fisheries coincided with the opening in 1865 of London’s new sewerage system, the much-heralded response to the capital city’s Great Stink. It carried London’s waste by pipe to a site adjacent to the mouth of Barking Creek where it was disgorged untreated into the Thames. It was designed by Joseph Bazalgette. All of London’s horrible waste was carried by new pipes to the edge of the city – in fact just by Barking Creek - where it was held in huge containers and then released, when the tide was at its strongest, into the River Thames.

The Metropolitan Board of Works’ engineers promised the ebbing tide would flush it all out into the North Sea. But unfortunately much of the city’s filth came back in again on the flood and volumes of odious materials were carried up the Creek.

Despite vigorous local lobbying, of which verbatim scripts survive at Valence House archives, Joseph Bazalgette and his engineers refused to accept that their scheme was at fault. It took 22 years before a resolution was agreed. Then from 1887 right the way up to 1998, rather than dumping it in the Thames, the city’s filth was loaded into specially designed sewage vessels called ‘Bovril Boats’ and then dumped in the North Sea.

Filthy river, filthy river,
Foul from London to the Nore,
What art thou but one vast gutter,
One tremendous common shore?

All beside thy sludgy waters,
All beside thy reeking ooze,
Christian folks inhale mephitis,
Which thy bubbly bosom brews.

All her foul abominations
Into thee the City throws;
These pollutions, ever churning,
To and fro thy current flows.

And from thee is brewed our porter -
Thee, thou gully, puddle, sink!
Thou, vile cesspool, art the liquor
Whence is made the beer we drink!

Thou too hast a conservator,
He who fills the civic chair;
Well does he conserve thee, truly,
Does he not, my good Lord Mayor?

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