‘no stinks’

I’ve always assumed that the main reason Davies avoids mooring in harbours is that he doesn’t really like people. Sure, he’s also avoiding awkward questions from officious German harbourmasters. But the mention of ‘stinks’ on October 5 gives us another good reason to stay away from the mainland. Basically, the harbours were all really smelly.

Sewage Sludge – By U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceMattisse at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Harbour sewage has always been with us. From the earliest of times, the natural place to sluice out all the poo and wee of coastal towns has been into to the sea. In the time of Carruthers and Davies, sewage treatment of any kind would still have been a fairly modern phenomenon.

Big cities like London didn’t deal with the ‘big stink’ until the 1850s. The first big city to ever install a modern sewer system, Hamburg – a place not far from where our adventure is set – didn’t do so until 1842.

A lot of seaside towns with large harbours didn’t bother doing anything other than dump raw sewage into the local waters until very recently. Even now, a lot of drainage systems across the world don’t bother making much distinction between a sewage drain and a storm drain.

Sewage going straight into a harbour (in 2009!) – photo: http://www.ukrivers.net/pollutionpics.html

Only five years ago in this country, Ramsgate harbour was still suffering from stinky sewage leaking into the harbour. In Halifax, Nova Scotia – the world’s second largest natural harbour – things have been terrible for centuries, as this post shows at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harbour_Solutions:

For two and a half centuries prior to this project, raw sewage was discharged untreated directly into Halifax Harbour. The harbour waters have been the recipient of approximately 200 million litres of untreated raw sewage every day, enough to fill 25 Olympic-size swimming pools.[1] Shellfish harvesting from the harbour and swimming within the harbour have been prohibited for health reasons.

The historic settlements of Halifax and Dartmouth were built with no thought to sewage treatment as a means of waste disposal. Throughout the 19th century, sewers were designed as a single system, with no separation between sanitary sewers, which carried domestic human waste, and stormwater drainage systems. The combined sewers simply emptied into the harbour from dozens of outfalls at the bottom of each street that met the waterfront.[2]

By the mid-20th century, it was clear that the system was not environmentally sustainable. Millions of litres of sewage were dumped into the harbour daily, consisting not only of simple human waste, but of pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, fertilizers, and a host of other harmful material.

It wasn’t ’til the 1880s that Germans started thinking seriously about waste water treatment, with a government-backed edict that “the permissible degree of pollution is to be measured in a way that unmistakable signs of stinking rottenness have to be absent even at the lowest level of the river water and the highest heat of summer” (cf ‘The history of German waste water treatment’ by H Seeger: http://www.helsinki.fi/envirohist/seaandcities/articles/Seeger.pdf)

I’m not sure this edict would have reached out-of-the-way coastal towns in East Frisia that quickly, and the citizens of Bensersiel, Carolinensiel etc in 1898 were probably not that careful about what they dumped into the harbour. Davies’s predilection for throwing stuff overboard such as a stove or charts or old clothes was probably the least of their worries, environmentally and olfactorily speaking.

At low tide, I’d even be suspicious about the type of ‘sand’ that our heroes walk across in this part of the world. It’s highly likely to consist of something else that begins with ’s’…

One thought on “‘no stinks’

  1. Some years ago I laid a mooring in the Menai Strait, adjacent to the house of a distant relative. It was in a suspiciously unoccupied creek just off the main strait. It was very tidal,drying out completely at low water which exposed deep and smelly mud. However it was free and handy for showers and mod cons at my relative’s house.
    In conversation one day with an old local he said, ” Oh yes. It used to be the tidal sewage lagoon for the town not that long ago.”
    Hence the smell !
    I wonder how many years of daily tidal flushing it takes to clean it.


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