History buff Nikki is up to her neck in a ‘big stink’ over Barking Creek’s putrid smells
- Credit: Valence House
What a stink! People daring to visit Valence House Museum are likely to get a definite whiff of manure and other putrid smells.
But there is no leaking sewer causing the niff.
Nikki Shaill is deliberately recreating bad odours of the past in a heritage project showing how bad Barking Creek became over the centuries due to smelly industries moving in.
The Thames festival history expert is using synthetics, chemicals and in some instances the real smelly stuff to show today's generation of youngsters what their forefathers had to put up with living near the creek that runs into the Thames.
Her aptly-named Barking Stink heritage project unravels a history of how noxious-smelling factories and mills were deliberately located downwind from the City of London from the mid-19th century.
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There were bitumen, asphalt, paint and chemical works, fertilizer, rubber and soap factories, gasworks, iron foundries, breweries, timber mills and jute works.
The project recreates the smells in an exhibition opening at Valence House in Dagenham, as well as pop-up displays that are to tour schools in the coming weeks.
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Project manager Nikki has been up to her neck in the venture.
"We're using authentic manure that you can buy online," she said. "We also get supplies from farms.
"Recreating the authentic odours is a mixture of using manure, synthetics and chemicals to get to the stuff that generations of people living near the Barking Creek would have smelt over the past 200 years."
A retired Thames lighterman also gave Nikki's researchers his recollections of being able to tell where his barge was on Barking Creek by the smell in the air, like roasted malt from a brewery or chemicals from a soap factory.
There was a sulphuric "rotten eggs" odour, for example, that he remembers from passing Lawe's chemical works which made fertiliser. Sometimes it was a pungent ammonia that made people's noses bleed.
The project also has raw jute used for sacks and rope, but finding anyone who worked in the industry was impossible.
The last jute works closed down in 1891, so there was no one left who would know what it was like.
The determined researchers wanted to recreate the distinctive smell, so they went up to Dundee where the jute industry thrived until recently.
Dundee's Heritage Trust put them in touch with retired workers who remember the smell to give them the low-down on what it was really like working in jute.
Back in east London, the team sifted through archive documents at Valence House listing complaints from the public such as cow dug dripping on the streets, causing a stench.
"It was a challenge how we could share those smells in a safe way," Nikki recalls.
"We also examined sewers to research what real sewage was like when it used to be vented into the atmosphere, but left that research till after we had our lunch!"
There was always the pungent whiff from manure being hauled from the creek through streets to ever-expanding market gardens, the documents revealed.
The stagnant creek water was getting ever fouler by the decade, out of sight maybe, but not out of mind — the stink made that certain.
The leading Victorian engineer of the day, Joseph Bazalgette, built London's Northern Outfall sewage works in the late 1860s at Beckton, next to Barking Creek, to clean up London following a mass cholera outbreak. But it merely exported the stench downriver.
The Barking Stink heritage project explores stories through the sense of smell to bring it to life for today's young generation to experience, unravelling our industrial heritage. It uses "smell technology" as well as displays, animated films, guided walks, oral histories and public talks.
The exhibition at Valence House Archive Museum in Becontree Avenue runs until November 6, open Tuesdays to Saturdays 10am-4pm (closed Sunday-Monday), as part of the Totally Thames festival season from September 1.