Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 7

‘In 1849, the notion of modest females requiring such public conveniences was almost inconceivable; or perhaps Bazalgette merely thought such matters too unseemly to discuss with a potential employer.’

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 7: The Bazalgette Public Convenience 

In 1849, Joseph Bazalgette applied for the post of Assistant Surveyor to the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers. This would be the job that ultimately led to his appointment as chief engineer for the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855 – and, under his direction, the creation of a massive ‘intercepting sewer’ scheme for the metropolis, an engineering marvel that still functions to this day. Unusually, we have Bazalgette’s 1849 job application preserved – for it came in the form of a plan for the sanitary improvement of the capital. Bazalgette’s plan, however, was not a prototype drainage scheme – which was probably what his prospective employers expected, when they asked applicants for ideas – but, rather, a plan for universal public toilets.

The existence of Bazalgette’s plan gives the lie to the widely-disseminated myth that public toilets were ‘invented’ by the plumber George Jennings, for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Indeed, London was already replete with rough-and-ready urinals – often no-more than an unscreened slab of stone, attached to a pub wall – and Bazalgette was not the first to moot more seemly public water closets. He was, however, possibly the first to draw up such detailed plans. Indeed, if they had found greater favour with the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, he might well have constructed  dozens of discreet neo-classical conveniences, throughout central London. The MCS, instead, limited themselves to publishing the scheme, for wider consideration by the government and public – and nothing more came of Bazalgette’s proposals.

The plan included the retention of urine in tanks, which would be periodically emptied into enormous sumps at strategic locations (to be converted into ammoniacal manure). What would Londoners – particularly sensitive in the 1840s to ‘miasma’ –  have made of such reservoirs? The toilets were not to be roofed over – ‘to admit light and air’ –  except in the deluxe ‘private closet’. An attendant would maintain the structure, making a living ‘from the sale of papers and the hire of private water-closets to those persons preferring them to the free use of the public ones’. Toilet paper would cost a halfpenny. Excrement – unlike urine – was to be flushed down the sewer (anything else would smack too much of the household cesspools which the MCS had promised to abolish).

There was one glaring omission from the proposal  – women were not included. Either, in 1849, the notion of modest females requiring such public conveniences was almost inconceivable; or perhaps Bazalgette merely thought such matters too unseemly to discuss with a potential employer. Both these factors would certainly play a part in local authorities’ refusal to countenance public toilet accommodation for women in the following decades.

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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