The Fatal Water Closet

The nineteenth century brought Britain the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution, and world domination.  It also brought her a brand new and terrifying disease:  Cholera.

First described in British India in 1817, cholera began a remorseless progress west.  By 1821 it reached Teheran and Basra, where 15,000 died in 18 days.  In 1830 it had moved through Russia and reached Hungary, where another 100,000 died.  It then marched through Europe, infecting and killing people in every country.

Time finally ran out for Britain in October of 1831, when the first case was officially identified in Sunderland.  From there it spread out, moving north and west.  By the end of the year it seemed, blessedly, to be dying out.  London might be spared.

But it was not to be.  London had to wait till spring, but then the cholera came.

London was a really beautiful target.  It had over a million potential victims.  It had filthy slums with tens of thousands packed together like sardines.  It had a medical system blissfully unaware of the existence of disease germs.  But it had more than that to make it the perfect target.

It had the water closet.

Lunatic as it may seem, one of the greatest hygienic inventions in the history of man had conspired with history, gravity and tradition to make London uniquely vulnerable to cholera.

But let me back up a bit.  What exactly is cholera and how is it spread?

Cholera is a disease caused by a comma-shaped bacillus called vibrio cholerae.  It attacks the intestines, reproducing at a fantastic rate, causing endless diarrhea and vomiting.  It is the massive fluid loss of this diarrhea and vomiting that actually causes death.  It has been described as a survivable disease with side effects that kill you.  It may take a week or even more to kill you, but there are hundreds of cases of people who went to bed well but were dead by morning.

It is that massive reproduction in the gut that is the key to cholera’s spread.  It is not contagious in the normal sense.  You can attend to a cholera patient in perfect safety.  But that incredible volume of expelled fluids, oral and rectal, is simply chock full of the bacillus.  Should even the smallest bit of that contaminate anything going into your mouth, wham, you’re a new victim.

Hygiene, then, is the chief weapon in the battle with cholera.  Personal cleanliness, good waste disposal, and a clean water supply and you are safe.  Without those, even today you are vulnerable.

So how then did the invention of that wonderful tool of modern sanitation, the flush toilet, make London the perfect spot for the cholera bacillus to put down roots and start raising its families of billions?

To answer that question, you have first to see 1832 London as a gargantuan, overcrowded mess.  The Industrial Revolution had caused her to double in population in less than fifty years.  She was explosively dense, bustling, and growing at a rate that had all her municipal systems, sewage, water supply, and so on, nearly at the breaking point.

Especially her sewers.

Originally, London’s sewers were not intended for sewage.  They were more in the nature of flood control channels.  Their job was to take all of the surface water from rain and the like and channel it safely down to the Thames.  The Thames being tidal, the sewers had to wait for low tide to drain down.

It was actually illegal to allow your household sewage to drain into the sewers.  Every dwelling had to have its own cesspool.  This may seem horrible, particularly as many London residents drew their water from wells drilled not too far away from those cesspools, but it had worked pretty well.  By 1832 most Londoners got their water from companies that drew it out of the river, anyway.  All in all, London was considered no less healthy than any other large city.

Until, that is, those water closets came along.

Granted, they kept the privies cleaner and healthier.  But they did it at the price of adding lots and lots more water to the load going to all those cesspools.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, as the fashion for the new gadget swept across the city, an ominous thing happened.

All over London, the cesspools began to overflow.

They just couldn’t absorb it all.  Pretty soon the backyards and fields were full of cesspools that had overflowed.  Pretty soon, too, the outflow was leaking into the cellars…and a lot of the wells began to smell and taste pretty bad…and the city finally had to allow all that muck to follow gravity and drain into the sewers.

This quickly brought another problem.

Remember I said that the sewers were designed to drain down at low tide.  Well and good.  The vastly increased (and much riper) outfall drained out into the Thames at low water.

Then the tide reversed and all that nicely enriched water flowed back up through the city.  In fact, it flowed back far enough to reach the sections where those water companies were drawing their water.

So London was an overcrowded city with lots of people living in wretched conditions.  And it was a city with lots of overflowing cesspools leaking contents everywhere.  And it was a city that was massively contaminating both its wells and its river-drawn water.

Just about a cholera bacillus’ idea of heaven.

So when the disease finally broke out in London, it did so with a vengeance.  In 1832, it killed around 7,000.  In 1848, it returned and took over 14,000.  And it was back in 1854.  And again in 1866.

As a second dose of irony, let me point out that while no one knew what caused cholera, there was a very conspicuous and industrious group who thought they did.

It was the miasma.

Disease, you see, was the creation of smelly, decaying matter under the influence of moisture and the sun.  Given time, a miasma would be given off, laden with disease and death.  It was a scientific formulation of the old human notion that if it smells really strong, it must be really powerful.  Get rid of the smell, they said, and you get rid of the disease.

The miasmic theory, daffy as it seems to us today, was widespread among the civic minded types with a mania for sanitation.  These good people wrote endless tracts, volunteered to sit on endless committees, and preached the righteous cause of cleanliness wherever they could.

Not too surprisingly, they just hated that smelly, brown Thames.  They put forth manifestos proposing expensive plans to redo London’s sewers and clean up the Thames, all of which were ignored by the parsimonious Parliament.

Until, that is, the summer of 1858.

That year the Commons, meeting in their new gothic House of Parliament, were utterly unable to conduct any business.  The difficulty was that a drought and an extremely low river had exposed the riverbank just below the new building.  That stretch of bank, on a curve of the river, had been accumulating deposits from London’s cesspools for years.  Exposed under the hot sun it gave off a smell that drove the honorable members right out of their new House.

It also loosened their purse strings.

Dazzled by the suddenly obvious virtues of the miasmist proposals, Parliament funded their plans to eliminate all the cesspools and completely revamp London’s sewers and redirect the outfall to a new location far down the river.   The project was almost complete by 1866, when the cholera arrived again.

And a strange thing happened: where the new sewers were, hardly anybody died.

Just as the water closet, in an earnest effort to clean up the privies, ended up making the city a paradise for cholera, the miasmists, in a completely wrongheaded attempt to get rid of the disease-generating smell, had accidentally made the cholera unwelcome.

Years ago my brother coined Plachy’s Corollary to Murphy’s Law:  In all situations, irony will be maximized.

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