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Father Thames Introducing His Offspring To The Fair City Of London

Page history last edited by kmp7cf 11 years, 3 months ago



“Father Thames Introducing His Offspring to the Fair City of London.” Punch, or the London Charivari; July 3, 1858; pg. 5 


               Notes on the Cartoon (organized alphabetically)


Boat: In the 19th Century, the Thames River became a major trading post, and traffic to The Port of London (created by the Romans in 30 A.D.) increased almost 100 percent. The increased traffic and the industrial revolution contributed to the polluted state of the river (Port of London).


Bridge: The "old" London Bridge survived three major fires, in 1212, 1633, and the Great Fire of London in 1666. The traffic was a big problem and made the old bridge unsafe, because it was too narrow and too old to bear the load of the travelers. It was officially replaced by the "new" London Bridge on August 1, 1831. The bridge featured in this cartoon is the new bridge (London Bridge).


Cholera:  Cholera is a disease that affects the small intestines.  Its only symptom is intense diarrhea, which manifests as soon as 12 hours after infection.  Severe, untreated, Cholera can result in dehydration or shock within a few hours of its onset.  Death occurs quickly, after as few as 12 hours.

London experienced Cholera for the first time in 1831, when more than 6,000 people were infected and died.  14,000 more died in a second London outbreak in 1849, and from 1853-1854, 10,000 more died (Cholera).

Bacteria are transmitted through ingestion of infected food or water, a problem in areas of poor sanitation. Cholera was most prevalent in places of industrial expansion, where building had overtaken planning and where sanitation was especially bad.  Often, drinking water was drawn from rivers where sewage was dumped (Victorian).


Dead Creatures/People: The Thames was toxic for the people who continued to drink from and bathe in it, despite its lack of cleanliness. The toxicity stemmed both from the sewage being dumped into the river and the increased industrial pollution of the time (Barrow).


Diphtheria:  Diphtheria is an upper respiratory tract illness, characterized by a sore throat, low fever, and a membrane that grows in the throat or nasal cavities.  Bacteria are transmitted through physical contact or by breathing infected air.   

Today’s industrialized nations vaccinate successfully against Diphtheria, though the fatality rate is still between 5 and 10% of infected cases.  

The first successful treatment of Diphtheria wasn’t created until 1880.  In this early treatment, tubes were inserted into the airway to keep expanding membranes from suffocating the sufferer.  Successful vaccines against Diphtheria weren’t discovered until 1913.  Death rates due to Diphtheria didn’t decline until 1924 (Diphtheria).


Father Thames:  The Thames River has been an important feature of London since its beginnings, allowing easy trade and travel between London and surrounding areas.  In the 19th century, however, the Thames began to contribute something vile:  1858 became known as “The Great Stink,” because of the polluted, rotten smell that came off of the Thames.  In addition to the stink, the Thames also contributed to the disease outbreaks that had begun to plague the mightily expanding city (River).  

Here, and in other Punch comics, the Thames is personified as a dirty and scruffy old man. He looks ill cared for.


Industry/Smoke Stacks:  The Industrial Revolution is commonly dated from 1760-1850, 8 years before this illustration appeared in Punch.  The Industrial Revolution brought vast changes to England, altering the places and the ways that people lived and worked.  The census of 1851 reported that half of the British population now lived in towns, the first time in history that had happened (Daunton).  

Factories associated with industry were often built along rivers.  This way, they could be powered by the flowing water and have easy access to import and export opportunities.  This way, also, they could easily dispose of the waste they produced. 


Lady London:  London is depicted here as a crowned young woman.  Her dress is reminiscent of ancient Greece, often a symbol of knowledge or refinement.  Her lovely face is likely that of Queen Victoria (Punch).


Lady London's Shield: The shield Lady London is holding features the coat of arms of the city of London (Punch).


Scrofula:  Scrofula is a term widely used to describe skin diseases.  It is, specifically, a variety of Tuberculosis that affects the lymph nodes of the neck.  Symptoms include a cool and painless swelling of the nodes and chills, fever, and weight loss.  The swelling, if untreated, will rupture, leaving an open and infected wound.  

Since medieval times, Scrofula has also been called The King’s Evil, because it was believed that only a royal touch could cure the disease.  This practice continued through the 16th century.

The 20th century decrease in Tuberculosis also saw a decrease in Scrofula infections.  It is now considered a rare disease (Scrofula).


Sewage Drain/Tunnel: The invention of the "flushing water closet" turned the river into a large sewage dump. The sewers drained directly into the Thames, causing both pollution of the water and a horrible odor to emit from the river. The sewage is assumed to be the downfall of the fishing industry in London and the start of the Cholera outbreak (Briggs).


St. Paul’s Cathedral:  St. Paul’s Cathedral, rising behind Lady London, has been a spiritual center of London since 604 AD.  It overlooks the Thames, as the illustration indicates. 

As it stands today, it is the fourth construction of the church, built by Sir Christopher Wren between 1675 and 1710.  The third St. Paul’s burned down in the Great Fire of London. 

St. Paul’s Cathedral is also the Diocese of London, and oversees five Episcopal areas (About).





                Commentary on the Cartoon


Kristin Pugh, April 17, 2009

There is Something in the Water


            With the increasing industrialization of the nineteenth century in Western Europe, disease began to spread more quickly, in part because of increased foreign travel and trade, and also because of newly realized sanitation problems.  Numerous diseases and illnesses were on the rise, some surfacing in England for the first time.  Cholera, for instance, was a disease endemic to tropical areas, but as Europeans began to travel to these places, they also began bringing disease back to their native countries.(Harrison 87)  Among these diseases were the three noted in the drawing: Cholera, scrofula, and diphtheria, as depicted by the children in the picture.

            It was initially believed by some that Cholera was being spread via waterways, such as the River Thames.  In the middle of the nineteenth century, a medic named John Snow Medicinetheorized cholera was waterborne, and pointed to the Thames as one of the many culprits. (Gilbert 107)

            Scrofula, also known as tuberculous adenitis, which is an “inflammation of the lymph nodes due to the bacillus of tuberculosis,” was not generally fatal, but could disfigure if left untreated. (Bloch 11) at the time of the picture, it was believed this disease could be cured with a ‘royal touch,’ which is ironic since contact with an infected person is generally how the disease is contracted.  It was also later discovered it could be spread through contaminated milk, just as diphtheria.

            Diphtheria was rampant in England in the mid-nineteenth century, and was also contracted via human contact, as well as through contaminated milk, although it was believed, at the time, to be spread through contaminated water, such as the Thames River. (Hardy 91)



Ken Gerety, April 17, 2009


Social Class and the Great Stink 

            This image allows a modern viewer to peek into the social disconnect between the industrial underbelly of London and its fairer aspect, the façade the higher classes may have preferred to portray to the rest of the world, and to themselves. Here, we see the river Thames represented as father figure to three terrible diseases, Diphtheria, Scrofula, and Cholera, for which the river was in many ways a conduit for spreading. According to The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson:

Until 1815, it was illegal to discharge raw waste into the sewers … This system resulted in some foul-smelling cellars, but it left the waters of the Thames remarkably pristine … But as the city’s population exploded, and as more and more houses discharged their waste into the existing sewers, the quality of the Thames water declined at an alarming rate. (Johnson 119)

The “Fair City of London” here represented as a white-clad, pure and crowned female, represents the highest social class of the city, and how far removed and untouched these citizens viewed themselves to be from the diseases of the lower classes. There were numerous faulty explanations manufactured to explain why only certain people were taking ill by these diseases, and it came to be that, “…constitutional failing was invariably linked to moral and social failing: poverty, alcohol abuse, unsanitary living” (Johnson 133).

            The background of this image is telling of how the city was split, between the higher class and the working classes of blossoming industry. The working class and the many sub-classes of scavengers within the growing metropolis of London became the first line infected by these diseases, and industry itself was responsible for much of the pollution the Thames endured. It is no surprise, therefore, that in this picture Father Thames is shown with such decrepit, oily, and distorted features. He has become what industry has made him, and from this pollution both from industry and from the incredibly inadequate system for waste management, he has begotten these three children. Fair London looks down her nose at this introduction, her mouth slightly agape, hand over her heart, but it is curious to wonder if this is a reaction of surprise, shock, or outrage that these offspring are being revealed. Again from The Ghost Map:

…well-to-do neighborhoods around Golden Square were abuzz with sneering explanations for the outbreak … Either their physical crisis was the embodiment of a moral crisis, a kind of divine retribution, or they had succumbed to the fear of the disease, which in turn made the cholera more powerful over them. (Johnson 149-50)

However, the various theories and social commentaries about who was to blame for the spread of disease and the causes for unsanitary living could not deny the Great Stink, which began in the summer of 1858, when this image was originally illustrated. The pollution of the Thames by this time was such that the heat of the season caused a, “…stench of epic proportions” (Johnson 205), that managed to reach the attention of Parliament and require them to address it. They planned to at last develop a sewer system that did not dump directly into the Thames, but instead transport waste away from London to the east (Johnson 207).

                As this image suggests, it took such a public calamity as the Great Stink to turn the heads of authorities to look beyond social class and prejudice, and see the problem of pollution as a shared problem for all. The upper classes could no longer escape the issues of the lower classes, at least in this instance, and a problem which could have been solved much sooner was rectified with the construction of the new sewer system, and investigations into the true causes for the spread of disease and the need for more rigorous waste management, as well as advances in medical diagnosis. In modern times, we see many of the same environmental issues beginning to come to the forefront of both public and governmental policies, as the effects of human waste, development, and population begin to show scientifically proven problems few from any social class can deny.





                Works Cited



“About St. Paul’s.”  St. Paul’s Cathedral.  14 April 2009.  <http://www.stpauls.co.uk>.

Barrow, Mandy. River Thames: From Source to Sea. Woodlands Junior School. 8 April 2009


Bloch, Marc. The Royal Touch. Great Britain: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Briggs, Jeanette. "About The Thames." The River Thames Guide. January 2006. 8 April 2009


“Cholera.”  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  12 April 2009.  14 April 2009


Daunton, Professor Martin. “London’s ‘Great Stink’ and Victorian Urban Planning.”  BBC

     History Trails.  14 April 2009. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/victorian_britain/


“Diphtheria.”  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  13 April 2009.  14 April 2009


Gilbert, Pamela K. Mapping the Victorian Social Body. Albany: State University of New York, 2004.

Hardy, Anne. The Epidemic Streets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Harrison, Mark. Disease and the Modern World. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.

Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.

"History of the Port of London pre 1908." Port of London Authority. 13 April 2009

     <http://www.pla.co.uk/display_fixedpage.cfm/id/238/site/port of london>.

"London Bridge." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 10 April 2009. 15 April 2009


“‘Punch’ Cartoons.”  Portcities London.  14 April 2009. 


“River Thames.”  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  1 April 2009.  14 April 2009. 


“Scrofula.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  12 April 2009.  14 April 2009


“Victorian Britain: A Healthy Nation?”  The National Archives Learning Curve.  14 April 2009.                <http://www.learningcurve.gov.uk/VictorianBritain/healthy/default.htm>.


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                Project Group Members


Member Name



Kenneth Gerety  University of Missouri - Kansas City  
Sabrina Osborn  University of Missouri - Kansas City   
Kristin Pugh  University of Missouri - Kansas City   
Julie Timmins  University of Missouri - Kansas City   






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