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Victorian Fashion and Filth on the Streets of Dirty Old London

Lee Jackson, author of Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, wrote a series of posts for the Yale University Press London Blog to explain how the inventors of ‘sanitary science’ nevertheless lived in what remained a notoriously filthy city. The book has just come out in the United States, so it’s a perfect time to study up on Victorian fashion and what it took to keep the streets clean with the post below. It combines the original entries “Forgotten Crossings” and “Clean Clothes.”

Lee Jackson—

Parish contractors did a poor job of removing ‘mud’—largely composed of horse dung—from London’s streets. The work was usually performed by the same firm who had obtained the much more remunerative ‘dust’ contract, and thus much neglected. This created a space for a lowly class of entrepreneurs—crossing-sweepers.

Crossing-sweepers were beggars (normally the very young or very old, capable of eliciting more sympathy from passers-by) who also performed a very useful function. They swept clear paths across busy muddy streets, hoping for a few pennies from grateful pedestrians. They remain a familiar Victorian type—think of Jo in Dickens’ Bleak House. But few know that sweepers worked on defined ‘paved crossings’—indeed, that the Victorians possessed a precursor of the modern ‘pedestrian crossing’.

Copyright of 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Copyright of 18 Stafford Terrace, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Crossings—confusingly, also the Victorian word for a road junction—were strips of solid paving, typically granite setts, 6-9ft wide. They were more substantial and solid than the crushed-stone macadam that formed the most common road surface, creating ‘a regular continuation of the foot paving for the convenience of foot passengers’. Some crossings were introduced by local authorities; others were actually paid for by local residents or businesses; some even had gaslights on either side. They can be seen in numerous street photographs by the cartoonist Linley Sambourne (who had a fondness for catching unwary young women on camera, crossing the road in west London).

A court case of 1862, reported in the Times, 10 November 1862, even attributed some legal standing to crossings. The family of an eight-year-old girl in Hoxton attempted to sue the driver of a phaeton (a rather sporty sort of carriage) which had run over and crushed the leg of their daughter. The driver claimed that ‘his horse was a very spirited one, and if they were to pull up whenever they saw a child, they would have nothing else to do’. He still initially gave the girl two shillings and sixpence compensation, and ‘two halfpenny cakes’. When the suit proceeded to the county court, the judge ‘laid down as law that unless the child was walking on a paved crossing, she could not recover [damages]’. The case finally ended up in the Court of the Queen’s Bench—and the jury found in favour of the driver.

The mess on London’s streets was not only mud. In the 1890s, Lady F.W. Harberton, a staunch campaigner for ‘rational dress’ would catalogue the assorted filth in minute detail:

One day last week a friend of mine walked down Piccadilly behind a lady who was wearing a dress fitted with the long train now in vogue. Opposite St. James’s Club she got into a cab. She consequently left behind her on the pavement all the rubbish which her skirt had collected as it swept down Piccadilly. My friend, being of a scientific turn, proceeded to make an inventory of the collection, and he has been good enough to send it to me for publication. I give it below. In the days when germs and microbes play such an important part in social life, I question very much whether these trains should be permitted by law. This lady left her street sweepings on the curb-stone; but it might be remembered that many convey them into their own or their friends’ houses:

2 cigar ends.
9 cigarette do.
A portion of pork pie.
4 toothpicks.
2 hairpins.
1 stem of a clay pipe.
3 fragments of orange peel.
1 slice of cat’s meat.
Half a sole of a boot.
1 plug of tobacco (chewed).
Straw, mud, scraps of paper, and miscellaneous street refuse, ad.lib.

V0039973 A young boy, carrying a street broom doffs his forelock as a
Courtesy of Wellcome Images

The ‘long train’ was particularly vulnerable; but even regular ankle-length skirts and crinolines would inevitably accumulate dirt. Balancing fashion, modesty and practicality was a difficult business. Dr. Edward Tilt, an 1850s writer on rational dress, amusingly divided London’s lady pedestrians into three classes, when crossing the road:

  1. Those who never raise the dress, but walk through thick and thin, with real or affected indifference to mud. These are generally country ladies, who have never been abroad and but little in town.
  2. Those who raise the dress, but allow the mass of underclothes, like the mud-carts in Regent Street, to collect the mud and beat it up to the middle of the leg. This class is the most common.
  3. Those chosen few, who, without offending the rules of modesty, which of course must take precedence of all others, know how to raise both dress and petticoats, so as to protect both.

Moving around the metropolis inevitably took its toll not only on fabrics but shoes—not least when out shopping. The most wealthy females could remain in their carriages, whilst milliners and shop-girls brought out samples to their coaches, avoiding the pavements and roads altogether. Many respectable women wore goloshes—rubber overshoes—which allowed them to ‘enter a friend’s drawing-room in the smartest of patent foot-gear, instead of … mud bespattered boots’.

Men, naturally, suffered fewer problems with their sparser attire; but they still had to make their own accommodation with the filth. It was said that a Londoner could always be recognised abroad by his ingrained habit of turning up his trousers.


A well-known Victorianist, Lee Jackson is the author of Walking Dickens’ London and A Dictionary of Victorian London, and is the creator of the preeminent website on Victorian London (www.victorianlondon.org). He lives in London.


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