'Father Thames Introducing his Offspring to the Fair City of London' from Punch


This cartoon was published in 1858 at the outbreak of a period known popularly as ‘The Great Stink’. Unusually warm weather and large deposits of raw sewage into the River Thames had caused a smell so foul that the Houses of Parliament had to be closed for several weeks. The cartoon is subtitled ‘A Design for a Fresco in the New Houses of Parliament’, a reference to a rumoured plan to move parliament upstream to Hampton Court in Middlesex.

The three diseases in this cartoon are all depicted as being water-borne. This is inaccurate in the case of diphtheria and scrofula (a type of chronic tubercular abscess), but is significant in showing the extent to which theories of water-borne infectivity had gained popular acceptance in a short time. Before the 1850s, most infectious disease was presumed to have been spread by ‘miasma’ – foul-smelling airborne deposits supposed to result from rotting organic matter. This seemed to explain why prosperous areas were largely free from epidemic diseases: no smell, no infection. The prevailing theory was challenged, however, by the positive identification of a single water spout as the cause of an 1854 outbreak of cholera in Soho. It was superseded completely in 1861 when Louis Pasteur outlined his ‘germ theory’ of disease transmission.

Full title:
'Father Thames Introducing his Offspring to the Fair City of London'
3 July 1858, London
Periodical / Illustration / Image / Ephemera
© Punch Ltd
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor

Article by:
Mary L Shannon
London, Poverty and the working classes

London Labour and the London Poor is a key work in the development of investigative journalism. Dr Mary L Shannon describes how Henry Mayhew conducted numerous interviews with street-sellers, sweepers and sewer-hunters, in order to share their stories with the reading public.

Health and hygiene in the 19th century

Article by:
Liza Picard

In a time when diseases like smallpox, cholera and TB were insatiable and continued to relapse in epidemical waves, Liza Picard explores how medical pioneers and health innovations shaped the landscape of medicine in the 19th century.

Related collection items