Thursday 8 December 2011

Bad smells in south London 1871

The mid-19th century was a great time for a lot of not particularly well regulated industry.  In 1871 Dr. Ballard, the Medical Officer of Health for Islington investigated some Thameside complaints of smells.  Who had been complaining??

One person was the Military Commandant at Woolwich, and Dr. Gordon, the Principal Medical Officer of the Garrison. Ballard reported that their evidence was “the clearest and most instructive that I received” and pointed out that the barracks and the barrack field were “about a mile from the river and at a considerable elevation” but that nevertheless “each variety of odour is perceptible … when the wind is in the northwest or north-north-east one variety is perceived, and when east-northeast the other variety”.

Dr. Gordon told him that when he travelled on the river between Woolwich and Purfleet that he recognized the smell of Lawes Manure Works at Barking Creek as distinct from that from Bevington and Brown in Erith Marshes.  That smell, said Dr. Gordon, was like that “which he has perceived in India when passing the places in which the Hindus consume, by cremation, the bodies of their dead”.

Thus they concluded “A northeast wind would bring effluvia towards the barracks from Barking Creek, distant 2 miles” and on a different day “a more easterly wind would bring those from Erith Marshes, distant 4 miles”.

To the Manager of the Southern Outfall Pumping station at Crossness complaints about smells must have been a subject of some sensitivity.  He told Dr.Ballard that he could “distinguish two varieties of offensive odour”. One of these which “he describes as in tolerably offensive” was from the, previously mentions, glue and manure works of Brown and Bevington, at Erith.

However at Charlton complaints were not so bad – Ballard was told this by the local Inspector of Nuisances. There was “only one variety of offensive odour …….that is of an acid and sickening character”.  That smell came from factories on the north shore of the river near the Victoria Docks, and – (oh dear) “from some factories … Greenwich Marshes”.

Ballard therefore set out to inspect “the several factories between Blackwall Reach to the west, and Erith Reach to the east”. He sorted them out into three groups:

Group 1 - on the river bank near Bugsby's Reach – and this in response to complaints from Charlton, and from the army in Woolwich. Ballard reckoned there were 10 factories here to be looked at.

Group 2 on Barking Creek. Which annoyed the army in Woolwich, the inhabitants of Plumstead village and of the “little colony at the Southern Outfall Pumping Station”. There were four factories in this group

Group 3 downriver “between Halfway Reach and Erith – which annoyed the same people as Group 2.  There were seven factories here

Ballard points out “All of these factories are not equally offensive” ….  “Some effluvia is only perceptible at a short distance … while the effluvia from others are such as experience has shown, may be carried by the wind to the distance of several miles”.

Forthcoming episodes will reveal which factories smelt of what ……………with exciting details of exactly what Bevington and Brown were doing …………..and which factories Ballard found it difficult to remain near, and which were completely deserted apart from the smell.

…………….More to come.

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