A daily excerpt from a a historical edition of Punch – the greatest satirical magazine in history

Category: Chemistry

“Odoriferous, but not fragrant.” The Thames in 1855

To look at the many floating masses that make of the Thames a perfect sink of corruption, one would imagine that in London it never rained anything but literally “cats, and dogs,” and that they all found their way down to the river.

You should be thankful if you live within a couple of miles of the Thames and can manage to breathe in without retching. By the summer of 1855, the Thames is stinking so much that it is becoming a serious problem.

IT is really beginning to be a very serious question, ” What’s to be done with the Thames ?” We wish that somebody would set it on fire, and get rid of it at once. It is daily getting into the worst possible odour; and, although many of us are continually drinking some of it to the great danger of our lives, it is clear that we don ‘t drink enough of it to get rid of it as rapidly as could be desired. Perhaps the best plan that could be adopted, would be to get some of the most efficient Parliamentary pumps to set to work upon it, after the termination of the Session, when they might endeavour to exhaust the river, as they have already exhausted the House of Commons by their long speeches. We are quite sure that these instruments will be found the most efficacious in trying to get rid of the water; for there is nothing they touch which they do not render perfectly dry. If these means should fail, we recommend the river to the earnest attention of those persons who are fond of throwing wet blankets upon anything like improvement; and who, by deriving the moisture they require from the Thames, might eventually absorb the disgusting liquid of which it is composed.

The stench has even inspired much poetry,

BY the margin of Thames’ dirty waters,
Ur ah oh ugh !
Lived a youth who was sick night and day.
For the stench in such pestilent quarters,
Ur ah oh ugh !
Was never one moment away.
When abroad none more healthy than he,
But at home none more sickly could be,
“Will you cleanse this vile river, I pray ?”
Ur ah oh ugh !
The authorities only could say “Ur ah oh ugh ! It ‘s dreadful to-day.
Ur ah oh ugh ! Ur ah oh ugh !”

was all they
could say.

By the margin of Thames’ dirty waters,
Ur ah oh ugh !
At the close of a hot summer’s day :
As he lay in his pestilent quarters,
Ur ah oh ugh !
This youth was heard faintly to say :
“I “m ill, as you plainly can see,
This river is poison to me.
Oh ! I ‘d rather be drown’d in its tide,
Ur ah oh ugh !
Than of typhus die off at its side.
Ur ah oh ugh ! Ur ah oh ugh ! I ’11 jump in its
Ugh ! Ugh ! No. I’ll move from my lodgings instead.
Ur ah oh ugh ! No. I don’t fancy its bed.
Ugh ! Ugh ! “So he changed his apartments instead.


COME where your nose will quiver,
Down by the dirty river.
Bring not alone some Eau de Cologne,
But all the scents you own.
Perfume of sweetest roses
We need for our outraged noses,
When its odour the Thames discloses
Such smells were never known.
Come just above the Tower,
Sit, there for half-an-hour ;
Bring not alone your Eau de Cologne,
But all the scents you own.
Sniff when the tide is flowing,
Sniff when the wind is blowing,
Sniff where the sewers are going
To add to Thames’ filth their own.
Come, &c. &c.

and song,

KING THAMES was a rare old fellow,
He lay in his bed of slime,
And his face was disgustingly yellow,
Except where ’twas black with slime ;
Hurrah ! hurrah, for the slush and slime !
There came to him all the essence
Of filth, both coarse and fine ;
And all kinds of putrescence
To visit him did combine.
Hurrah! &c.
The matter from cesspools carted,
Decay’d vegetation as well ;
Dogs and cats from life departed.
Sent their odours to add to the smell.
Hurrah! &c.
All comes to the rare old fellow,
In the course of a little time ;
No wonder he looks so yellow,
As he lies in his bed of slime.
Hurrah! &c.

Luckily, the Thames has a saviour. This saviour is Michael Faraday, the learned chemist and physicist extraordinaire.

A CHEMICAL work of small size and great importance has been lately published. The production alluded to is FARADAY on the Thames; a title which means even more than it appears to mean; for it not only expresses PROFESSOR FARADAY’S views of the composition of the river, but also describes the sensations experienced by him during a period of brief transit upon its surface. A piece of white card, according to the professor, becomes invisible at a very small degree of submersion in the Thames water which is of a peculiar colour – “opaque pale brown ” – drab – quakerish and a not very peculiar smell, because it partakes of that of the sink-holes; and may be described as odoriferous but not fragrant. We have often had great pleasure in hearing FARADAY explain the composition of water, pure and simple; but we rejoice much more that he has enabled the public to form a correct idea of the constituents of that of the Thames; which consists of something more than Oxygen and Hydrogen. Because we are losing brave men by war, it is rather the more desirable than otherwise that we should not also lose useful citizens by pestilence, as we certainly shall if the Thames continues much longer to be an open sewer. We hope that PROFESSOR FARADAY’S publication, which takes the shape of a concise letter to the Times, will effect a saving of human life still greater than that which has resulted from his predecessor’s safety-lamp. DAVY’S invention prevents carburetted hydrogen from blowing up miners; may FARADAY’S epistle avert cholera and typhus, by stirring up senatorial and municipal persons to prevent sulphuretted hydrogen from being disengaged.

It’s obvious who is to blame for the state that the Thames is in.

IT is really very unfair of everybody to be always abusing poor old father Thames, who was originally a clean, respectable, well-conducted river, until we rendered him what he is by throwing dirt at him and into him, on all and from all hands. Father Thames may well turn round upon the public and exclaim, in the words of Norma (English version).

* See the wretch that thou hast made me.”

For it is the public to whom the river is indebted for all the filth it contains. Not only do we pitch into it everything
in the shape of refuse, but we are continually “pitching into it” in the more familiar and pugilistic sense of the words. We might just as well throw a quantity of rubbish into our neighbour’s garden, and then begin abusing the poor garden as a nuisance, for which, after all, the remedy is in our bands. How can we expect the Thames to wear anything but black looks under the treatment to which it is exposed, for we should all of us wear a somewhat lowering aspect if we were to be perpetually made a target for all the dirt that the Metropolis contains.


Be gentle with Chemistry. For She is a young science.

IR, I am a young female, being a science of recent origin: the sciences, you know, are invested with petticoats, and all sisters. You behold in me, Mr. Punch. a case of beauty in distress: for I am beautiful, though I say it: ask PROFESSOR FARADAY if he does not think so. My unhappiness arises from the circumstance of being compelled to be subservient to the designs of an odious and brutal tyrant and his thralls, whilst by the noble and the brave, the champions of liberty, to whose assistance I would devote myself with all my heart and soul, I am coldly neglected. The Russian Government has established a commission at St. Petersburg, with a view to extort from me all the destructive devices they possibly can to be employed against the Allies. My chlorate of potash, my sulphuric acid, my galvanism, they press into their abominable service, using their utmost efforts to render me ancillary to the subjugation and the degradation of mankind. By and by they will arrive at the power of wielding my fulminating silver, and my chloride and iodide of nitrogen and then what will become of civilisation! I am arming savages with thunderbolts. I cannot help myself. Those who choose can win me, and will wear me. That horrid man JACOBI, or JACOBS, was encouraged to apply me to the construction of his infernal machines, and you have only to thank his imperfect knowledge of me, and my sister, MECHANICS, that a considerable portion of the Baltic Fleet has not been blown out of the water. Has the British Government ever consulted, even, with FARADAY, or any of my other wooers, to the intent, of employing me against the common enemy? “Try me, ply me,” as the song says; you won’t know what I am capable of till you do: indeed, I don’t know that myself, exactly. But I do know that I possess tremendous powers of destruction, requiring only to be developed, and I wish that those could be employed by generous and gentle freemen for the extermination of ferocious and cruel slaves, I would, my dear Mr. Punch, wish to be,

Your faithful Handmaid,
Albemarle Street, July, 1855

The Jacobi that she speaks of is Moritz von Jacobi, a famous physicist and engineer who revolutionized electric engines. Blind prejudice unfortunately prevents Punch from seeing Jacobi for the genius he was. Nonetheless, these are fast moving times, and the very fact that chemical warfare is possible is a chilly prospect for many.

Luckily, chemicals were never really employed by either side. Unbeknownst to Punch is the fact that, actually, Faraday had already been consulted by the British Government about the use of mass produced chemicals for the Crimean War. He point blank refused to have anything to do with it on ethical grounds, despite knowing precisely how they could be applied. Indeed, the Government had already turned down proposals to use cyanide based artillery shells against the Russians.

(August 4th, 1855)

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