Stench and the City

“.. there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women.

….The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces.”

Perfume-The Story of a Murderer (Patrick Suskind)

I spotted this hilarious photo in The Metro, the nose sculpture was picked to promote the The London Dungeons‘  ‘Stinky Summer’ exhibition.

Does my nose look big in this?
(Image in The Metro, supplied by The London Dungeon)

The exhibition features scratch + sniff tours and ‘guides’ on hand to give you a pungently, pong-tastic experience of what London would have smelt like in the 19th century; so take a trip back in time and experience the unsanitary skank of our City.

It would probably be difficult for us to contemplate the unimaginable stench that would have assailed London in the 19th century, one of the more famous episodes in London’s odorous history is the Summer of 1858, known as the the ‘Great Stink”.

From about 1815,  house waste was carried into the Thames via the sewers and the water would be potentially pumped back into houses for drinking, cooking and bathing.  There were about 200,000 cesspits across London prior to the Great Stink and at a cost of a shilling per cesspit to empty, it was a price the average Londoner could ill afford.   So stagnant cesspits added to the swirling soup of airborne stench.

With the advent of flush toilets, the volume of water and waste increased dramatically into the existing cesspits.  These would often overflow into the street drains, which were only designed for rainwater, but were now used to carry the effluence from factories, slaughterhouses and houses contaminating the city before emptying into the River Thames, so far so funky.

Unfortunately, the Summer of 1858 was unusually hot (something we seem to no longer experience in this fair city!). The combined effect of the Thames stink, London streets with overflowing sewage and the unseasonal heat nurturing bacteria to thrive, well the resultant smell would have been overwhelming.  The denizens in the House of Commons had the curtains coated with chloride of lime to mask the malodorous pong of untreated human waste wafting up from the Thames, but to no avail and they considered relocating upstream to Hampton Court.

The eventual happy ending was that heavy rains came and broke the heatwave, diluted the stench and new plans were underway to develop a new sewerage system, under the guidance of chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette (all hail).  The unintended consequence of the new sewerage system was that the water ceased to be contaminated and the Cholera epidemic was resolved.

I was just thinking that kids (and adults?) would love something as ‘orrible as this and may want to concoct a ‘disgusting’ concept smell; I am just racking my brains and olfactive memory file as to what components I would put in to create the miasmic, stinky stench of 1858, here is a first stab, so to speak:

  • Cumin – possesess a musky, sweaty note
  • Valerian – definitely a woody, sweaty sock note
  • Civet – fecal note (a synthetic version would be needed, like civettone?)
  • Asafoetida – an Indian spice, also known as ‘devils dung’, ‘stinking gum’ – you get the idea!  An essential oil is available and possesses large amounts of sulphur compound, which likely explains the aroma of asafoetida as its described as pungent, acrid, onion/garlic note.  I always think of the word ‘fetid’ when I see this botanical!
  • Spikenard – heavy, sweet, animal and woody, I think it has a hint of  ‘damp dog’ smell
  • Indolic rich oils – again, Indoles possess a background note of decay and animal/fecal notes, so perhaps an Ylang, Jasmine and or Tuberose could be thrown into the mix
  • German/Roman chamomile – the chamomiles always remind me of over-ripe apples, a pungent sweet, fruity decay note.
  • Agarwood/Oudh – a product derived from infested wood, producing a deep dung-like, woody, animalic substance, not for the faint-hearted

Well, this is my starter palette, but I do not have all of the oils above, so a visit to my supplier’s site might be in order!  I think it might be a whiffy bit of fun to see what I can concoct.  I shall keep you informed of my experimentations!

About The Perfume Mistress

"If the eyes are the windows to your soul, then the nose is the doorway to your imagination" The Perfume Mistress Hello, by day I am a clinical aromatherapist and tutor, with over 10 years of working with natural materials and essential oils, by night I delve into the art of botanical perfumery, reading and smelling all things olfactory. I have set up the 'Nosetrodami Club' offering scentsory talks, discussions and master-classes on all topics and themes olfactive. I also offer one and two day workshops in the art of natural perfumery, natural and organic body & skincare. My inspirations range from the mundane to the metaphysical, the hum-drum to the hyperbolic which you may see reflected in my posts.
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