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Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Great Stink

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The Great Stink

by Clare Clark

The Great Stink
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2005, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2006, 372 pages

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The Crimean War (1854-1856) was fought between Russia and an alliance of countries including Britain. It is considered to be the first "modern" war, and was marked by an extraordinary level of incompetence, at least from the British point of view. The low point of the war was probably the notorious Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalized by Alfred Tennyson. One good thing did result from the Charge of the Light Brigade - it put an end to the sale of military commissions: The officer who ordered the charge was Lord Cardigan (the eponymous wearer of that useful button down garment that carries his name) who had paid £40,000 to rise from the rank of an incoming officer to Lieutenant-Colonel in just 6 years. Another good thing to come out of the Crimean war was the birth of modern nursing methods, led by Florence Nightingale.

*If you had a choice between being a tosher, mudlark, rag-and-bone man, scavenger or riverman in Victorian London, which would you choose?

London was a dangerous place with an unnerving number of bodies ending up in the river - cutpurses would murder their victims and throw the bodies in the river, drunken sailors fell overboard, dock fights would result in more bodies in the river, and why pay the expense of a burial when granny could be dropped down the sewer and end up in the Thames?

Rivermen scraped a living hauling corpses from the river with long boat hooks in the hope of finding valuables in their clothing.

Mudlarks were mostly children who searched the mudflats of the Thames at low tide looking for anything of value - coins and jewelry of course, but also old clothes and even driftwood that could be sold as firewood. Mudlarking was dangerous - many got stuck in the mud and would be washed away by the incoming tide.

Scavengers rummaged through garbage dumps searching for valuables they could sell for a few pennies.

Rag-and-bone men, the forerunners of today's scrap-merchants collected rags that could be made into ropes or sold to garment makers, and bones that were ground down for fertiliser.

Toshers, such as Long-Arm Tom, spent their days in the sewers, a lucrative place to be, and many became rich on the pickings to be found there. The word tosher was also used to describe the thieves who stripped copper from the hulls of ships moored along the Thames. The word "tosh" was also used to describe garbage - and is still used in British English, for example "it's a load of tosh", meaning "utter rubbish".

This article is from the November 12, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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