‘The great cholera epidemic of 1831/32 would offer the first proof of the disastrous consequences of mixing water and sewage – and worse would follow.’
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 3: The Disastrous Toilet
At the start of the nineteenth century, the typical London house had a outdoor privy, containing a wooden seat atop a drain. There was no water supply/plumbing, but the drain directed the ‘ejectamenta’ towards a brick-lined pit, the cesspool. More cramped central London homes might have privies in their basements; slum-dwellers often had to share communal facilities. Ideally, the cesspool would be emptied of its accumulated ‘night-soil’ by ‘nightmen’ every six months or so (night because the process was legally restricted to the hours of darkness, when the stench of cart-loads of excrement might annoy fewer people). No-one thought cesspools terribly dangerous, even though most metropolitan pits were built porous, so that liquid seeped away (leaving more room and reducing smell). The ever-present danger of bacterial contamination of nearby wells was not understood.
Cesspools would, however, come to acquire an evil reputation – courtesy of the flush toilet. The growing popularity of the water closet amongst the middle-classes in the early decades of the century was at the root of the problem. Toilets were, initially, connected to existing cesspools; but it was discovered that the brick pits could not cope with the additional input of water. Foul-smelling liquid began to saturate gardens, or soak basements, before it could seep away. The stench was reminiscent of the worst slums. There were fears that this ‘miasma’ generated disease. The flush toilet itself might easily have been blamed, but it was a novel and convenient luxury. Rather, the cleanly WC was said to reveal the dangerous vapours ‘reposing’ in the cesspool system.
Enterprising plumbers came up with a solution – why not connect the cesspool, or even the toilet itself, to the capital’s sewers? Existing sewers were only intended to remove ground water, not human waste. Nonetheless, the idea quickly caught on. Local authorities forbade such interference; it made little difference. By the late 1820s, immense quantities of human waste were entering the sewer networks – and ultimately ending up in the Thames, the source of piped domestic water for much of London.
The great cholera epidemic of 1831/32 would offer the first proof of the disastrous consequences of mixing water and sewage – and worse would follow – but leading doctors and scientists could not fathom cause and effect. Some twenty years later, John Snow used groundbreaking epidemiological studies to show the relationship between contaminated water and cholera – but few contemporaries were convinced. Instead, it would be the long-standing fear of ‘miasma’ that ultimately drove a campaign for sanitary reform.
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.