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Why Was Victorian London So Dirty?

Lee Jackson—

In 1899, the Chinese ambassador was asked his opinion of Victorian London at the zenith of its imperial grandeur. He replied, laconically, ‘too dirty’. He was only stating the obvious. Thoroughfares were swamped with black mud, composed principally of horse dung, forming a tenacious, glutinous paste; the air was peppered with soot, flakes of filth tumbling to the ground ‘in black Plutonian show’rs’. The distinctive smell of the city was equally unappealing. Winter fogs brought mephitic sulphurous stinks. The summer months, on the other hand, created their own obnoxious cocktail, ‘that combined odour of stale fruit and vegetables, rotten eggs, foul tobacco, spilt beer, rank cart- grease, dried soot, smoke, triturated road- dust and damp straw’. London was the heart of the greatest empire ever known; a financial and mercantile hub for the world; but it was also infamously filthy. The American journalist Mary H. Krout, visiting London for the Diamond Jubilee of 1897, found Londoners’ response to the dirt strangely apathetic. She felt sure that, if the same conditions were visited upon Washington or New York, some solution would have been found. This was a peculiar state of affairs. The Victorians, after all, had invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and considered cleanliness the hallmark of civilisation. Moreover, they had not been idle.

London had seen millions of pounds invested in a vast network of modern sewers. This was a gargantuan project, planned and managed by Joseph Bazalgette of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and brought to fruition in the 1860s – a concrete testament to the importance accorded ‘sanitary reform’. Indeed, mile upon mile of meticulously executed brickwork still survives beneath modern streets, and popular histories regularly credit Bazalgette as ‘the man who cleaned up London’ – which only makes the filthy condition of the late- Victorian metropolis all the more baffling.

In fact, the Victorian passion for sewerage – and latter- day awe at Bazalgette’s engineering genius – has obscured the true history of metropolitan dirt. The fight against filth was waged throughout Victoria’s reign on many fronts, with numerous battles ending in stalemate or defeat. Reforming zeal was frequently met with plain indifference. The stench of overflowing dustbins, dung- filled thoroughfares, the choking soot- filled atmosphere – even the peculiar history of the public toilet – these are as much part of the (in)sanitary history of Victorian London as the more familiar story of its sewers. The aim of this book is to give these overlooked aspects of ‘dirty old London’ their due; and to explain why, far from cleansing the great metropolis, the Victorians left it thoroughly begrimed.

The capital’s century- long struggle with filth was intimately connected with its unprecedented growth. Between 1801 and 1901, the population of London soared from one million to over six million. Suburbia replaced green fields, ‘crushing up the country in its concrete grasp’. Waste products multiplied in due proportion, whether smoke from household fires or mud from ever increasing horse traffic. Some types of dirt posed a challenge in terms of the sheer volume of unwanted matter; others contained a real or perceived danger to public health. Nuisance and discomfort abounded. Some saw metropolitan dirt as the harbinger of moral decay. Filth implied social and domestic disorder; and, when discovered in the home, inculcated immoral habits – for it was widely agreed that working men, faced with poor housekeeping, sought refuge in the glittering comforts of the gin palace.

The worst types of filth, solely in terms of volume, were human excrement; mud on the streets; and ‘dust’ (cinders and ash from coal fires). In the eighteenth century, their disposal had been less problematic. Human waste was stored in household cesspools, emptied occasionally by ‘night soil men’, who sold it to farmers as manure. Mud was swept up by parish contractors, and, likewise, sold as fertiliser. Ashes and cinders were collected by dustmen and sold to brickmakers, who added the ash to their bricks, and used cinders as fuel. These tried- and- tested recycling arrangements, however, were not suited to the expanding nineteenth- century metropolis. The brickfields, market gardens and farms grew ever more distant; the country more separate from the town. Transport costs mushroomed; and the sheer volume of refuse produced by Londoners began to outstrip any possible demand – ‘such a vast amount of sheer useless rubbish’. Simply finding somewhere to put the mess became a problem.

Nineteenth- century Londoners also grew increasingly apprehensive about the health risks associated with dirt. This heightened awareness is generally associated with the ‘sanitary movement’ of the 1840s – when public health reform became the subject of intense national debate – but its roots go further back. Doctors at the London Fever Hospital were attempting to organise systematic cleansing of the slums, to eradicate typhus, as early as 1801. The smoke from factories and furnaces was damned in parliament as ‘prejudicial to public health and public comfort’ in 1819. Fears about water pollution were first raised in the 1820s, when wealthier households began to connect more and more water closets to the main drainage, which ultimately fed into the Thames. In 1827, a pamphlet was issued which pointed out that a west London water company was drawing its domestic supply from the river at Chelsea, within a few yards of a sewer outfall. When a doctor examined the resultant murky- looking tap water, ‘the very sight of the turbid fluid seemed to occasion a turmoil in his stomach’. The gentlefolk of Westminster, although accustomed to a degree of mud and sediment, were shocked to discover they had actually been imbibing a solution composed of their own ‘ejectamenta’.

The important link between drinking- water and disease would, admittedly, not be fully recognised for several decades; and even Bazalgette’s sewers would be built on the widely held, mistaken assumption that ‘miasma’ (foul air, generated by decaying matter) was the cause of cholera and typhoid. Indeed, the connection between dirt, smell and disease was a source of ongoing anxiety, not limited to sewers.

From Dirty old London by Lee Jackson, published by Yale University Press in 2015. Reproduced by permission.


Lee Jackson is a well-known Victorianist and creator of a preeminent website on Victorian London.


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