Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 12

‘The disease was much feared. There was no known treatment; no obvious cause; symptoms were hideous; visitations sudden and frequently fatal.’

Throughout thijackson-blog-click thrus 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 12: Into the Slums

It’s often assumed that the 1840s saw the first systematic investigation of London’s slums, under the watchful eye of the civil servant Edwin Chadwick. Certainly, it was Chadwick –  also the architect of the New Poor Law – whose 1842 Inquiry in the Sanitary Condition  of the Labouring Population of Great Britain roused the nation into a frenzy about public health. Nonetheless, there were earlier significant forays into the back streets – not least the work of ‘local boards of health’ during the cholera year of 1831/32.

Cholera travelled swiftly across eastern Europe during the summer of 1831 and its arrival in the UK, via trade with the Baltic ports, seemed inevitable. The disease was much feared. There was no known treatment; no obvious cause; symptoms were hideous; visitations sudden and frequently fatal. The government’s Central Board of Health – composed of leading physicians –  recommended a raft of precautionary measures, which included the establishment of ‘local boards’. These parish committees were to consist of ‘the chief and other magistrates, the clergyman of the parish, two or more physicians or medical practitioners and three or more of the principal inhabitants’. Cholera seemed to thrive in dirty slum districts. The boards, therefore, were instructed to enter the worst alleys and courts, seek out cholera cases, and remove any accumulations of filth (whether by supplying slum dwellers with cleaning materials, or employing labourers to remove the worst nuisances).

Their work has been largely forgotten, partly because they were organised at a parish level. They were decried by contemporary supporters of ‘small government’ for their interference in private homes; and  for supposedly making work for themselves at parish expense. Moreover, their efforts at cleansing did not prevent the arrival of cholera (no-one realised the disease was passed on through contaminated water). There was also little enthusiasm amongst penny-pinching parish vestries, or national government, to continue this expensive sanitary work after the epidemic had passed.

Yet these obscure parish bodies conducted systematic investigations of slum conditions  – extensive records survive from the City of London, for example, of the foul privies, cesspools, dust-heaps et al. which were uncovered – and their work deserves to be remembered as a milestone in the history of public health. This recognition is particularly deserved because the Central Board of Health’s guiding lights – Dr. William Russell and Dr. David Barry, who had observed the progress of cholera in Russia – outlined the work that was required of local boards, thus:

‘To endeavour to remedy, by every means which individual and public charitable exertion can supply, such deficiency as may be found to exist in their respective districts, in the followingprimary elements of public health, viz.: the food of the poor, clothing, bedding, ventilation, space, cleanliness, outlets for domestic filth, habits of temperance, prevention of panic.’

They demanded, in other words, a wide-ranging programme to improve the living conditions of the poor, to prevent the spread of cholera – a rather radical idea, which did not chime with the laissez faire attitudes of the period (attitudes which ensured the boards were swiftly disbanded, once the epidemic had abated).

In the following decade, Edwin Chadwick, agitating for public health reform, would come to focus almost exclusively on ‘outlets for domestic filth’ – partly because the New Poor Law was supposed to have taken care of food and accommodation for the poorest in society. Consequently, sewers became the great Victorian obsession. A broader perspective – more akin to the approach of Russell and Barry – would only re-emerge later in the century.

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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