After the introduction of the water closet in the 19th century, the banning of cesspools for newly-built houses in 1848, and the rapid expansion of London’s population, numerous new sewers were built, many emptying directly or indirectly into the Thames. The river became ever more filled with human waste, with several cholera epidemics from 1832 onwards, the cause of which was finally understood in 1854. The summer of 1858 was particularly hot and the river smelt so foul that it became known as the ‘Great Stink’, so bad it became impossible to continue working at the Palace of Westminster. That event finally spurred Parliament into action and an emergency Bill was passed. Responsibility for the sewers had recently passed to the Metropolitan Board of Works and their chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, devised a solution. It involved creating a new eighty-two mile underground network, flowing downhill in an easterly direction until reaching two pumping stations, one each side of the river. There sewage was pumped into the river at a point where tides washed it out to sea.
Part of Bazalgette’s plan involved creating new embankments through the centre of London on either side of the Thames. The Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments narrowed the Thames and thereby increased the size of London by fifty-two acres. They were designed to create new riverside roads, and house an underground railway, gas and water pipes as well as the mains sewers.
It was estimated that at least a third of Londoners lived in poverty in the middle of the 19th century. The fervent evangelism and the desire to ‘reform’ the poor were the stimulus behind numerous new charities that were formed by the middle classes in the mid- to late-19th century. Societies were established for every aspect of the well-being of the needy.
There was a severe shortage of housing for the working-classes. Property developers generally created housing for the middle or upper classes and thereby maximize the profit on their investment. However, the majority of Londoners were workers on relatively low incomes and were unable to afford to rent, let alone buy, those types of dwellings. Most workers lived in overcrowded conditions of one or two rooms, with facilities shared with others, and without running water. During the second half of the 19th century several philanthropists including Angela Burdett-Coutts, George Peabody and the Guinness Trust, began to create new model apartment dwellings that were affordable to respectable workers in stable employment.
Despite the opening of the Foundling Hospital in the mid-18th century thousands of orphaned or abandoned children lived on the streets during the Victorian period. When the Irishman Thomas Barnardo arrived in London in 1866 he took up their cause, founding a home for destitute children that opened in Stepney in 1870. Once the home was full a boy was refused entry and then found dead from malnutrition so Barnardo vowed to never again refuse admission to any child, opening ninety-five homes before he died in 1905.
After years of debate as to whether education should be provided by the state the government passed the Elementary Education Act in 1870, creating the framework for elected school boards around the country. The London School Board then came into being and they quickly set about providing modern, high-quality schools for children in the capital. From 1871 attendance at some form of school became mandatory for all children between five and thirteen years old. Within thirty years around four hundred schools had been built, many still in use over a hundred years later. At the end of the century it was generally accepted that the standard of behavior of young people, as well as knowledge, had improved compared with thirty years earlier. In 1893 the London County Council created the Technical Education Board, which encouraged technical education within schools and the establishment of ‘polytechnic’ colleges. In 1900 there were twelve polytechnics operating in London, funded by charities and businesses, at which teenage men from working-class families were given training in particular trades. The highest achievers would be offered a place at a university for further study.