Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 2

‘Few know that sweepers worked on defined ‘paved crossings’ – indeed, that the Victorians possessed a precursor of the modern ‘pedestrian crossing’.’

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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 2: Forgotten Crossings

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’.

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.

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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