When it comes to the smell of London history there is a great repository of facts which relate mostly to the awful odours that were prevalent in the city until recently modern times. Luckily for everyone who visits, these have been eliminated and London is quite a clean city.
I for one never want to lose the smells that to me are synonymous with the metropolis, my favourite being the Underground on a hot day. There’s a warm metallic smell with a slightly oily back note that I personally love, however, this is counteracted by the heaving mass of commuters, some of which have never heard of antiperspirant! But in terms of an olfactory history this would only take us back to the electrification of the Underground, the earliest being around 1900 although I would think that the smelly commuters have been around since the underground railways inception in 1863.
To go back even further to smell something that predates the Victorians left me scratching my head. All the smells associated with when London streets were no more than open sewers have thankfully disappeared, and as the average person would not have the opportunity to descend into the sewer system today (although it is on my bucket list) , no comparison can be drawn. London today unlike its medieval predecessor is bereft of open privies, slaughterhouses and tanneries. There are no chimneys belching smoke, no wet horseflesh traversing the street and by extension no horse manure either. The great dust heaps that surrounded the city and were a repository of Londondoners rubbish have long disappeared. The one constant that I could come up with is the River Thames. Certainly today it does have a certain odour, but it is well documented that it is considerably fresher than it has been in the past.
The river was basically the only means of getting sewage, certainly liquid waste, out of the city. Off-cuts of rancid meat, various bits of offal, and things that weren’t going to be eaten from the butchers, were wheeled down in wheelbarrows to the Thames and dumped off a specially constructed pier in an attempt to put them into the fastest flowing part of the river in the middle. Corpses would regularly turn up in the river too.
Lord Mayor, Dick Whittington built public privies over the river placed on a wooden dock, where you could go and excrete straight in the water, so there’s not much of a comparison you can draw from the smell of todays River Thames against that of six or seven hundred years ago.
One thing that may have aided my search is the fact that the river is tidal, so you could count on at least some fresh water washing in at high tide and a lot of the detritus being moved out with the receding tide. Therefore my olfactory link with London’s past is mud.
Todays mud banks that line the river have been built up over centuries, they will contain traces of all the odorous things I listed earlier, and although probably not as pungent as say three hundred years ago I’m sure that the smell would be recognisable to any ancient Londoner that was somehow transported into the 21st century. One example that comes to mind is the area known as Shad Thames on the southern bank of the river just by Tower Bridge. Recently I was walking through the area early on a sunday morning, when I paused on the footbridge of St Saviours Dock to gaze at the expanse of mud left at low tide. There was a rich earthy organic quality to the smell coupled with a slight tinge of decay and I found it quite exhilarating to take in deep lungfulls. The strange thing about this was that once you had moved off of the bridge you couldn’t smell it.