Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Thames and the Cooum

In the 19th century, the river Thames that flows through London was a far worse stinking river than the river Cooum that flows through Madras. Not only the river, but the whole city of London was the world’s largest dumpyard. Carolyn Steel traces the growth of the London through its ravenous demand for food, first marched in as cattle and sheep on hooves, and later carted in as food by bullock carts and ships.

The Cooum in Chintadiripet
When an engineer, Chadwick, proposed that Thames be cleaned,The Times of London opposed it vehemently: "England wants to be clean, but not be cleaned by Chadwick" ran their editorial. So says Peter Medawar in his book The Limits of Science.

Poor Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria died surrounded by 42 cesspools, and the inconsolable queen then ordered the cleaning up of London - thus was born the modern sewerage system. This was the most useful royal death in history, first for England, then the world. Systematically, the largest metropolis of the post-Industrial Revolution era, got its first effective sewerage system.

Another factor might be mentioned here – horses. More specifically horse dung. As Stephen Leavitt explains brilliantly in his book SuperFreakonomics, the modern curse of Carbon-di-oxide pollution is insignificant compared to the pre-automobile horse-dung pollution that every European and American city suffered. The tall basements of stone houses in the US cities of that era – New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and of similar cities in Europe, owe their design to the deep aversion of the moneyed classes, who built such residences, to prevent rain mixed sludge, thoroughly enriched with horse and human refuse, from entering their homes. In a remarkable connection, the houses of Bohra Muslims in Siddhpur, a city in Gujarat, were built on the designs of the European houses of the time – and reflect the high basements of such houses. 

Bohra houses in Siddhpur, Gujarat - with high basements

Environmentalists mindlessly curse the internal combustion engine, and the modern mechanical world, as the root of all pollution, and as evil incarnate. I have already written about how vital Diesel and Benz’s automobile was to improving farming, citing Matt Ridley. Curse softly, dear Anti-carbon Totalitarians.

Thomas Hager, in his book on the synthesis of nitrogen, The Alchemy of Air, vividly describes cargo ships carrying mountains of guano– bat and bird dung from Pacific islands off the Peruvian coast, arriving at the ports of England. This worsened the smell. London was steadily getting dirtier and smellier well before the Industrial Revolution, and dumping its untreated sewage and trash into the Thames worsened things - in fact, the Great Stink of 1858 caused Parliament to shift from London to Oxford. (If only Muhammad bin Thugluq had such a terrific excuse!) 

The word malaria comes from the Latin word “mal” and “air”, since scientists at one time believed that the disease was caused by the bad air, as the effects of the anopheles mosquito was unknown then.

Most readers of English literature may be familiar with the satires of Charles Dickens of the soot and terrible pollution of London, or the more popular depictions of street boys in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Such a London no longer exists. It is a far cleaner, far less polluted metropolis, a beacon for financiers, fashionistas, artists and capitalists. That is a lesson for the dirty cities of the world.

Stephen Johnson in this tracing of the early history of curing cholera in London, describes the discovery of polluted water as the source of cholera. Bill Joy, in this otherwise melancholy, apocalyptic soliloquy, mentions that Clean water is more important than antibiotics as weapon of health. Some things are obvious, after someone points it out.

I cannot resist pointing out at this point the single most repeated thing about the Indus Valley Civilization – they had the most advanced sewerage systems of the world until the 19th century,  have a better system than most cities and villages in India.  On our January 2014 site visit of Tamil Heritage Trust to Lothal, we were given a tour of the drainage systems of that Harappan city. Sewage is disgusting as current affairs, but apparently fascinating as heritage!

Septic tank in Lothal

Sewage treatment system and drains, Lothal
As Sriram V elucidated to some of us on a Chintadripet Heritage Walk, it was during Lord Hobart’s Governorship of Madras Presidency, that the plan for a sewerage system for Madras germinated. In fact, Lord Hobart’s death was as useful to Madras, as Prince Albert’s was to England.
Road to first sewage pumping station, Chintadripet, Madras
Links (added 2 April 2020)

The Growth of London - Carolyn Steel TED talk video
Cholera in 1850s London - Steven Johnson TED talk video
The Great Stink of 1858
The Limits of Science - Peter Medawar
London's sewerage system - video
SuperFreakonomics - New York's 19th century horse dung problem
How diesel engines tranformed agriculture
Lord Hobart's death - letter from Florence Nightingale - cleaning the Cooum
How terrible traffic was in the Victorian era


  1. It is very interesting and informative. Once I went to London I enjoyed the beauty of Thames. Now I know that it was a gutter once. would Cooum become a Thames? I doubt

  2. Annae,

    One more good article to read and pleasantly surprised to see Ramadurai Sir's comment.The only difference is I was positive that some day Cooum will change for good unlike NR sir. However Cooum not being a perennial river, it would require special ways to achieve this.

  3. Ramadurai sir commented on a couple of my other articles too. Especially on astronomy and one on my attempt to come up with a periodic table in Tamil. I was delighted that he read my blogs.