The Thames, once the lifeblood of the city, now became a river of death. Londoners, overwhelmed by the smell, retreated behind closed doors and heavy curtains soaked in lime.
In the 1850s, there was no understanding that diseases, particularly cholera, were caused by germs in polluted water. Instead, the miasma theory of disease was dominant, which taught that contagion spread on the air, with the foul smells directly causing illness. This gave the Great Stink added terrors, as Victorian Londoners believed simply smelling the noxious odour of the Thames could kill them.
The summer of 1858 was one of the hottest in memory, and the heat and lack of rain left the city stinking and the Thames a river of effluent. The Houses of Parliament had to be closed, as the river running beneath its windows became too noxious. Even soaking the window-blinds in strong-smelling carbolic of lime failed to keep out the Great Stink.
Such appalling conditions in the world’s greatest city forced the authorities to act.