BookBrowse Reviews The Great Stink by Clare Clark

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The Great Stink

by Clare Clark

The Great Stink by Clare Clark
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2005, 368 pages
    Oct 2006, 372 pages

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With vivid characters and unflinching prose The Great Stink marks the debut of an outstandingly talented writer. Historical Fiction

From the book jacket: It is 1855, and engineer William May has returned home to his beloved wife from the battlefields of the Crimea. He secures a job transforming London's sewer system and begins to lay his ghosts to rest. Above ground, his work is increasingly compromised by corruption, and cholera epidemics threaten the city. But it is only when the peace of the tunnels is shattered by murder that William loses his tenuous hold on sanity. Implicated in the crime, plagued by visions and nightmares, even he is not sure of his innocence. Long Arm Tom, who scavenges for valuables in the subterranean world of the sewers and cares for nothing and no one but his dog, Lady, is William's only hope of salvation. Will he bring the truth to light?

Comment: Psychologically scarred William May, recently returned from the the Crimean War, is a chief engineer on the London Sewer system - a monstrously ambitious project encompassing 80 miles of brick built sewers, most of which are still in use today (picture). Unable to reconcile the horrors of his battlefield memories with his regulated Victorian life, William keeps insanity at bay by cutting himself in the putrid depths of the sewer system, but his tenuous hold on sanity begins to slip when he, probably the only honest engineer working the project, is framed for a brutal murder and starts to doubt his own innocence. With his life on the line he has only one place to turn - to Long-Arm Tom, a tosher*, who unbeknown by either of them is caught up in the same web of corruption that is threatening to destroy William.

This is a gripping, richly atmospheric and exceptionally well researched first novel that delivers a fast paced, credible story-line against the background of one of the great feats of British architecture - the building of the London sewer system (made all the more challenging because much of London is 30 feet below the River Thames at high tide, making drainage by gravity alone impossible). It also offers a vivid exploration of what it would have been like to be mentally ill at a time when mental illness was seen as an untreatable affliction, and more than half a century before the term shell-shock was even coined, let alone widely acknowledged.

Little Known Facts About The History of Plumbing!

  • Excavations in the Orkney Islands (in the northern part of the British Isles) show lavatory-like plumbing systems dating to around 3000 BCE.
  • There is evidence that some Sumerians (living in the the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in modern-day Iraq) had bathrooms about 15 feet square which sloped to the center so water could drain off in small runnels, but the bathtub did not come until much later. Around 2200 BCE some say that Sargon The Great had an arrangement of six toilets in his palace with seats, which were connected to drains which discharged into a main sewer that was 3 feet high and 16 feet long vaulted with baked bricks (made possible because the Sumerians also invented the arch).
  • In 2000, Reuters reported the discovery of a toilet complete with running water, stone seat and comfortable armrest in a Chinese tomb dating from around 200 BCE (it appears the Chinese also lay claim to inventing toilet paper!)
  • It is claimed that King Minos of Crete owned the world's first flushing water closet which, assuming King Minos existed in the first place, positions the first flush around 1200 BCE.
  • The earliest recognized mention of English sewers is in a 14th century record that tells how the wastes from the King's kitchen ran through an open trough in the Great Hall, but the odor was so bad it was ordered that an underground conduit be built to convey the wastes to the Thames River.
  • In 1594 Sir John Harington built his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, a "prive in perfection" that released waste into a cesspool; it was installed in Richmond Palace. A modern-day flush toilet has three basic elements - a valve at the bottom of the water tank, a wash-down system and a float valve to fill the tank for the next flush - Harrington invented the first two. However, in 1596, shortly after installing one prive in the palace and another in his own house, he published a book of off-color jokes about the new device, which made him such a topic of ridicule that he never built another - and apparently no one else did for a further 200 years.
  • London's oldest "sewer," known as the Ludgate Hill Sewer, was constructed in 1668.
  • The first patent for the flushing toilet (English patent 814) was issued to Alexander Cummings in 1775. His design caused some water to remain in the bowl after each flush to stop sewer gases from leaking into the house.
  • Cholera epidemics in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s awakened the need for sewers.
  • In 1861 Louis Pasteur proved disease could be caused by germs.
  • Construction of London's main sewer began in 1844, the majority of the work was complete by 1865, incorporating 450 miles of main sewers with about 13,000 miles of smaller local sewers.
  • The last cholera epidemic in London was in 1866.
  • Queen Victoria was so proud of the new larger sewer tunnels that she ordered a small railway line be installed to transport people through the sewer. Gas lights and walkways were installed along with booths to sell souvenirs to those who chose to walk (or ride) through the tunnel "under the river"!
  • 1858-59 were the years of the "Big Stink" in London - most waste drained into the River Thames (the source of drinking water for most of London), but on an incoming tide the waste would be pushed upstream turning the Thames into a cesspool and shutting down Parliament in the summer months. The heat wave of 1858 made the situation particularly intolerable.
  • In the 1880s, plumber Thomas Crapper, installed 30 lavatories with cedarwood seats and enclosures at Prince Edward's house at Sandringham and was awarded the first Royal Warrant (an endorsement still given by individual members of the royal family to firms that supply goods and services to them, allowing the manufacturer to advertise the fact that the product is used by said royal on the product in question). Crapper held nine patents, 3 for enhancements to the water closet (such as the floating ballcock), but contrary to popular belief, he did not invent the flush toilet.

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

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