Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 11

‘Mud, I fear is immortal. Mud was, mud is, and mud will be. Dig what sewers we may, hollow what gutters we may, the rain will fall, and the dust will receive it, and wheels and feet will churn it into sloughs of despond.’

Illustrated London News, 26 April 1851

Throughout this mjackson-blog-click thruonth, 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 11: The Sweeping Machine

Victorian London was famously swamped by mud, largely composed of horse dung and pulverised granite (from macadam, the principal road surface). There were also iron filings, from wheel-rims and horse-shoes (one City of London survey found that mud, thoroughly dried out, contained a remarkable 13% of iron). These various elements coalesced into a sticky paste – ‘enough to suck off your boots’ – which parish contractors struggled to remove. Then, in the 1840s, a new invention promised to revolutionise the business of street cleaning – a street sweeping machine.

The machine was the brainchild of the northern industrialist and inventor Joseph Whitworth, who first tested his invention in Portland Street, Manchester, in 1841. He brought his machine to London in 1843, with a well-publicised, much-acclaimed trial in Regent Street. The device consisted of a cart, trailing a rotating drum, fitted with rows of brushes. When horses drew the cart forward, the motion of the spinning brushes swept up the mud into a central container. One great advantage was that the machine was self-contained, merging ‘sweeping, loading and carrying’ into one process. The traditional manual system, on the other hand,  involved brushing dirt to the side of the road, creating noisome standing heaps of filth. These were supposed to be removed at the end of the day. In practice, they were often neglected or churned up by traffic, splashing unwary pedestrians in the process.

London’s existing contractors, however, were hostile to the innovation, fearing for their profits. The City of London contractor, Mr. Gore, even rejected an enormous £1200 incentive to assist Whitworth with a detailed trial – with tacit support from his business rivals. The Times noted wrily of a crucial meeting, ‘Mr. Gore was accompanied by several other contractors, and the most perfect understanding appeared to exist between them’.

Ultimately, horse-drawn machines would be used in various strategic locations, throughout the metropolis – but not universally. The size of the vehicles meant that they were only really suited to wide, straight, flat streets; and their heavy machinery tended to create or enlarge potholes in the frangible macadam. They did prove rather more effective when the capital shifted to more durable wood and asphalt paving, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the work of the street cleaner remained, for the most part, a species of manual labour.

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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