London is full of breathtakingly beautiful Victorian structures — St Pancras Station, the Natural History Museum, Albert Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, to name just four.
Some of our Victorian infrastructure is a little less… flamboyant. On a street near you, a bit of London’s sewer network stretches rusty and tall into the sky, and yet, it is almost entirely ignored. It is the 'stinkpipe' or 'stenchpole'.
Always made from cast iron and usually painted grey or green, stinkpipes look a bit like street lamps at ground level. There are some tell-tale signs to differentiate them, though; stinkpipes tend to be taller (6-8 m) and wider (15cm) than most of the other poles found on residential streets.
They’re also hollow, so if you suspect it’s a stinkpipe, give it a knock, or check for an opening at the top.
Other than that, stinkpipes don’t come in a standard form. Some look a bit utilitarian, but many display the types of features that only Victorians would think to add to a piece of street furniture: fluted columns around the bottom, studded rings and even a rose or two. If you’re very lucky, you might even spot one crowned with gold, like this beauty on Kennington Cross.
Despite these design details, a stinkpipe’s job was — and still is, in many cases — to vent gas from the sewers deep underground, releasing it high above street level where it wouldn’t offend delicate Victorian noses.
They were installed in response to The Great Stink. In the mid-1800s, London was rather smelly – the Thames had been a dumping ground for hundreds of years at this stage – but in the summer of 1858, it all came to a head.
The river was replete with turds and other waste, which all began to ferment in the hot weather. The resulting smell was so odious, it literally brought the city to a standstill for weeks. Two engineers — Joseph Bazalgette, and the excellently-named Sir Goldsworthy Gurney — were later brought in to build a proper sewer system to contain the waste, and to design a simple way to ventilate the gases produced by its rotting.
Gurney’s stinkpipes follow, more-or-less, the route of the main sewers. The gas they ventilate is a delightful cocktail that includes methane, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia — all flammable, all smelly.
The same is true now of course — when you flush a loo, the waste is carried out of your house and into one of Bazalgette’s sewers. But London’s population has grown way beyond anything the great engineer could have imagined, so to keep up with demand, a super-sewer called the Lee Tunnel was recently constructed. It is able to cope with far more than the 1.25 billion kilograms of poo that Londoners already produce each year.
There’s no doubt that without the trusty stinkpipe, London would be a whole lot stinkier. And there you were, just walking straight past them, every day.
The excellent Stinkpipe Collector blog is a veritable treasure-trove of these monuments to sanitary engineering. It also includes an interactive map of the stinkpipes, although it may only be a small sample of those still in existence.
There are lots of images on this dedicated Flickr pool too, so there’s no excuse for not recognising one. Once you spot your first stinkpipe, you’ll see them everywhere….
Laurie Winkless's book, Science and the City: The Mechanics behind the Metropolis is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.