Snakes and Leeches

Rosemary Hill

  • One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 by Rosemary Ashton
    Yale, 352 pp, £25.00, July 2017, ISBN 978 0 300 22726 0

The last day of June 1858 was a warm day, though not the hottest of that summer. Two weeks earlier the temperature in London had reached 90 degrees, the highest ever recorded. Even so the atmosphere in the Palace of Westminster was close when the parliamentary committee inquiring into the working of the Bank Acts met. Gladstone was present, as was Disraeli, then chancellor of the exchequer, and business opened as usual despite the appalling stench coming from the Thames, until suddenly Disraeli could stand it no longer and rushed out, briefing papers in one hand, a handkerchief in the other over his nose. He was followed by the rest, retching and choking. The nation rejoiced. Complaints about the state of the river, which was virtually an open sewer, had been made repeatedly for a decade and ‘committee after committee, commission after commission’ had sat, as the Times pointed out, to no avail. Vested interests and administrative inertia prevailed. Now, with the politicians themselves running gagging down the corridors of power, the obstacles rapidly disappeared. The Thames Purification Bill was introduced on 15 July and swiftly passed into law on 2 August, the last day of the session.

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[*] Oxford, 304 pp., £25, September 2016, 978 0 19 870719 6.