‘The capital was increasingly blighted by darker, longer visitations of gloom; and doctors were able to collect more and more data on the public health impact’.
Throughout this month, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The 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 27: The Doom of the Great City
The problem of fog seemed to grow worse in the 1880s. The capital was increasingly blighted by darker, longer visitations of gloom; and doctors were able to collect more and more data on the public health impact (including increased deaths from bronchitis, pneumonia, whooping-cough and asthma). A new generation of sanitary reformers attempted to address the problem, encouraging the public to buy ‘smoke-consuming grates’, or use anthracite or coke, which produced considerably less smoke than regular coal. The public, however, enamoured of the cheery open hearth, broadly refused to ‘condemn themselves and their children to sit by a flameless fire’.
This apathy generated an unlikely riposte from an obscure writer, William Delisle Hay – a dark and lurid novella entitled The Doom of the Great City (1880). Hay’s book is possibly the first modern tale of urban apocalypse, predating Richard Jeffries’ After London (1885) and Wells’ War of the Worlds (1897). It describes in loving detail the entirety of central London being choked to death by toxic fog. Hay works into his narrative a general condemnation of the complacency of Londoners towards pollution:
Londoners were well accustomed to the inconvenience of these fogs, and looked upon them in the light of a regular institution, not caring to investigate their cause with a view to some means of mitigating them … no one seemed to think the “institution” other than a huge joke, and not a serious evil to be earnestly combated by science.
The hero of Hay’s story returns to the desolate metropolis, trying to find his mother and sister, but meets with corpses everywhere, ‘a chaos of heads and limbs and bodies, writhed and knotted together into one great mass of dead men, dead women, and dead children, too’. Finally, reaching his destination, he discovers his family sitting in their comfortable Victorian parlour, tightly embracing each other – in death.
Anyone reading the book who is familiar with apocalyptic tales in modern cinema – whether the agent of doom is a virus, zombies, or alien invasion – will find many familiar tropes. The full disaster is prefigured by stories of a few isolated deaths; the media fails to understand its true nature (‘we must suppose that a gush of foul sewer-gas … produced the fatal effect’); the hero leaves a place of safety to search for his family; vehicles are left abandoned in the street; familiar places and landmarks are desolate and filled with corpses; and, finally, the bleak uncompromising ending (although, the disaster is, at least, confined to the metropolis). The narrative also contains some tedious moralising, with the vices of modern London, prostitution in particular, seemingly demanding this wholesale extinction. Yet, at heart, the novella is a striking cautionary tale, symptomatic of the fog-bound anxieties of the early 1880s – even if that caution went completely unheeded by its original readers.
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.