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FROM GREAT STINK TO GREAT THINK

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 20th August 2010
London’s Great Stink has lessons for Ripon, argues David Winpenny

In the summer of 1858 London was affected by what quickly became known as ‘The Great Stink’. Noxious smells pervaded every part of the capital’s centre, including the Houses of Parliament, where the windows of the Commons were covered with curtains soaked in chloride of lime in an entirely unsuccessful attempt to stop the smell reaching the sensitive noses of MPs.

It was hardly surprising that the smell got up the MPs’ noses – its cause was right outside – the River Thames. For centuries the Thames had acted as London’s sewer, with hundreds of thousands of cesspits emptying their effluvia straight into the river. Hot summers, like that of 1858, were, inevitably, the worst time for the smells.

Yet despite plenty of complaints, nothing seemed to be happening to alleviate it. Dickens, in his magazine ‘Household Words’, drafted a satirical address to the ratepayers in an imaginary town, tellingly called Cess-cum-Poolton. ‘Rally around your vested interests. Health is enormously expensive. Be filthy and be fat. Cesspools and Constitutional Government! Gases and Glory! No insipid water!'

Heavy rain and cold weather alleviated the Great Stink, but it at last spurred Parliament to action. Scientists were drafted in to suggest ways of alleviating the smell – the satirical magazine Punch had a cartoon of Michael Faraday presenting his calling card to a filthy Thames – but the answer came, of course, from better sewerage. Joseph Bazalgette’s grand plan for the sewers of London transformed the city. By 1866 most of the structure was built and connected.

For much of the 19th century – and for a long time before – people believed that smell caused disease; and the stronger the smell, the more chance you had of becoming ill. They called the smell ‘miasma’. Florence Nightingale’s open and airy hospital wards were designed to disperse the miasma; there was no knowledge of germs that could be spread from person to person. So the impetus to get rid of the smell was a medical as well as a social one.

The smell from the Thames – and from other rivers and watercourses all around the country – was at least obvious in the noses of the population. But as the latest report for Harrogate Borough Council on the air quality in parts of Ripon shows, we have an equivalent to the Great Stink with us today – and it is perhaps more insidious.

The council has been monitoring, in particular, nitrogen dioxide levels in Low and High Skellgate and Westgate. It probably came as little surprise to find that they are high – higher than is officially approved as being safe for people who live in those streets. The greatest producer of nitrogen dioxide is the traffic that moves along – and, worse, is stationary in – the streets.

The regular queues of traffic at the lights in Low and High Skellgate are contributing to the build-up of the noxious gas – and unlike the London stink, it is not as obvious to the nose. Yet whereas the London stink was not, in itself, poisonous (though the water that gave it off held great dangers), nitrogen dioxide poses particular health problems.

A booklet called ‘Air Pollution: what it means for your health’, provided not by the Department of Health but by DEFRA, warns that ‘when air pollution levels are high, some people may feel eye irritation, others may start to cough, and some may find that breathing deeply hurts.’ It adds that you are especially at risk if you have heart or lung problem, particularly if you are elderly. ‘Daily changes in air pollution trigger increased admissions to hospital and contribute to the premature death of those who are seriously ill.’

The booklet then gives advice on how to drive (if you must) to minimise the production of pollutants – all good stuff, but it seems rather to miss the point. In streets like Low and High Skellgate what is needed is a reduction in traffic – preferably to zero by finding alternative routes.

Harrogate Borough Council is proposing to set up an Air Quality Management Area that covers our polluted streets. Once that’s in place, there will be another assessment of air quality within a year, and an Action Plan ‘to identify appropriate measures to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide . . . so that air quality meets the required standard’.

There is no indication as to what the ‘measures’ may be. It is to be hoped that it is not just a tinkering with the problem, but a proper, imaginative solution that takes the traffic away from these streets – streets that were never designed for such use and which are being ruined by it. And while these streets are being monitored, there also needs to be a parallel exercise on the top of Kirkgate and Duck Hill, where there is likely to be similar pollution, but which have so far been ignored.

This matter of air quality is only a part of the whole traffic picture in the centre of Ripon, though a vital one. How long do we have to put up with these problems before action is taken? It took a ‘Great Stink’ in London before the capital embraced Bazalgette’s visionary scheme for properly tackling the problem of London’s sewage. It is high time for a ‘Great Think’ in Ripon about the totality of our traffic problems.


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