Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 18

‘Fog also crept indoors. Court-rooms, museums, theatres and art galleries could become filled with a choking haze. Perhaps the worst such incident occurred at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, in 1873. The annual cattle show was halted by the encroaching gloom, the atmosphere foul.’

 

jackson-blog-click thruThroughout this month, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against FilthThe Victorians invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and were obsessed with sewers, sanitation and cleanliness. Why, then, did Victorian London remain so notoriously filthy?

 

Day 18: Shades of Fog

The fog of Victorian London came in various shades:

‘a dilution of yellow peas-pudding, just thick enough to get through it without being wholly choked or completely suffocated.’

‘In a fog, the air is hardly fit for breathing; it is grey-yellow, of a deep orange, and even black at the same time, it is moist, thick, full of bad smells, and choking.’

‘the fog was denser than ever,— very black, indeed, more like a distillation of mud than anything else; the ghost of mud …’

‘Sometimes it is of a bottle green colour; but if the barometer rises, it will either totally disappear or change into a white mist. At other times it is of pea-soup yellow …’

It was, of course, smog (a termed not coined until 1905) containing the noxious by-products of countless domestic hearths, not to mention industrial effluvia.

The consequences of a bad fog were potentially lethal. Traffic accidents were commonplace and walking even the most well-trodden path along a canal or dock-side was terribly hazardous.  On one  awful night in 1873, the Poplar coroner was obliged to conduct hearings on the deaths of seven different men who had fallen into the West India Docks. Robberies, meanwhile, multiplied – from theft in the street, to ‘smash and grabs’ from shop windows. Deaths from bronchial complaints doubled.

Day 18

There was also the sheer nuisance of a London fog – from the smell (‘that nauseous compounds of all the sulphates and phosphates’) to the pall of complete darkness, which left people navigating the streets ‘by a careful regard to the kerbstone’. Alternatively, there were always youths brandishing fiery ‘links’. These lads offered to see pedestrians across roads, or even take them home, for a small fee  (‘boys with little red torches were prepared to pioneer the path to Euston Station for twopence’).

Fog also crept indoors. Court-rooms, museums, theatres and art galleries could become filled with a choking haze. Perhaps the worst such incident occurred at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, in 1873. The annual cattle show was halted by the encroaching gloom, the atmosphere foul. After prolonged suffering, several prize cattle died. Ninety one animals had to be removed from the show; many were hastily slaughtered. One waggish newspaper reporter noted that, at least, the pigs in the Agricultural Hall ‘stood the fog, so to speak, like Londoners … and the sheep observed a comparatively calm demeanour’.

Londoners, however, were not so robust as the writer suggested. The Medical Officer of Health for Hackney, tallying up his statistics after the fog had passed, noted there had been a fifty per cent increase in mortality. The Lancet found that deaths across the metropolis from respiratory complaints had more than doubled, from 520 to 1,112 cases. There was little support, however, for ‘smoke reform’ despite the best efforts of a few forward-thinking campaigners in the 1880s and 1890s. The familiar homely comforts of a blazing hearth were too great.

You can find out more about Lee Jackson’s Victorian London from his website: Victorian London or read more about the new book at Dirty Old London. You can also find Lee Jackson on twitter @VictorianLondon.

Lee blogs at The Cats Meat Shop.

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