Objectifying Male Birds

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

By 1858 London had grown to be the largest city on earth, yet its nearly two and a half million inhabitants had no effective sewage system. Prior to the 1840s the city’s 200,000 cesspools had provided some degree of sanitation, but they often overflowed, and they needed to be emptied by hand so that their contents could be transported out of the city and sold as fertilizer. It was doubtless a messy process, but the solution implemented by the great sanitary crusader Edwin Chadwick in 1842 was, in the end, even worse. He had the city’s human effluent diverted into the sewers, which had been built to carry rainwater into the Thames. As a result, so great a volume of waste flowed into the river that the water drunk by Londoners was mixed with raw sewage.

The full extent of Chadwick’s folly became evident in the summer of 1858, when unprecedented heat cooked the river into a putrescent stew that stunk so vilely it interrupted all nearby human activity. On June 16 the temperature in London broke all records, reaching 94.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and prompting a lawyer working at the Riverside Temple Bar to write, “The stench of the Temple to-day is sickening and nauseous in the extreme…. I am being killed by inches.” Things were no better in Parliament, with many members decamping to the countryside, and even the stalwarts being forced on occasion to rush from the chambers, holding handkerchiefs over their noses.

Through it all the fifty-three-year-old Benjamin Disraeli, chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Derby’s reforming Tory government, toiled on, seeking passage of his Thames Purification Bill. That summer, he was also responsible for the passage of several other bills, including one allowing Jews elected to Parliament to take their oath of office by swearing on the Old Testament (rather than the Christian Bible) and others that reformed the practice of medicine, simplified divorce, and made India a British colony.

Born a Jew, Disraeli had been baptized into the Church of England as a teenager. (His father had been advised to take the step to spare his son discrimination.) His wife, Mary Anne, who was thirteen years older than her husband, was a merry dresser who in 1871, at the age of seventy-eight, appeared in “youthful muslins, profusely decorated with blue and yellow ribbons.” Disraeli was devoted to her and exceeded her in dandification. His luxuriant curly locks and extravagant clothing, which included purple trousers, scarlet waistcoats, and white gloves with gold rings worn on the outside, were much commented upon. The prime minister regarded his chancellor as flamboyant and untrustworthy, which Disraeli may have been. But he was also talented and hard-working.

For all Disraeli’s political skills, the Great Stink of 1858 must be given some credit for the passage of so many reform bills during that summer. As an epic poem published in Punch

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