Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 15

Remember, a filthy person indicates filthy habits; dirty in his apartments, he will be dirty in his mind; profligate in his amusements, unfit for a higher sphere.’

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 15: The Purpose of the Baths

The most uncomplicated and successful ‘sanitary campaign’ waged in the nineteenth century was undoubtedly the fight for public baths. In 1844, the Bishop of London, inspired by similar work in Liverpool, started a campaign for public baths and washhouses in the metropolis. The typical working-class household had very limited access to clean water – but, argued Bishop Blomfield, local authorities could provide communal facilities. Within two years, a Baths and Washhouses Act was in place. St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields was the first parish to take out a government loan to establish baths and a laundry for the general public.

There were various reasons for this swift progress. The merits of cleanliness were familiar to the respectable classes; the proposed solution seemed practicable and uncontentious (unlike, say, the seemingly endless debate about how to improve London’s sewerage); there were no powerful vested interests. Baths also had a valuable moral purpose. Cleanliness was ‘next to Godliness’. Dirt, on the other hand, bred depravity and distracted the poor from the message of the Gospel. A typical propaganda poster from the 1840s gives an idea of the manner in which the working classes were encouraged to bathe:

To raise yourselves to the proper position in the social scale, you must practice sobriety, morality and cleanliness … Remember, a filthy person indicates filthy habits; dirty in his apartments, he will be dirty in his mind; profligate in his amusements, unfit for a higher sphere. If you have any feelings for your present and eternal interests, or for those connected with you, think on these things.

This moral purpose, however, would be diluted as the century wore on. As one commentator noted of the Golden Lane Swimming Baths in the 1870s, with some amusement, ‘The sides of the walls are painted over with pious texts, with which the language of the bathers at my visit did not correspond’. Indeed, the working classes sought out public baths more for the luxury of hot water, than spiritual purification –  and, increasingly, with local authorities building larger communal pools from the 1870s, for the exercise and amusement of swimming.

Swimming matches and other sporting contests were often held in public pools, with crowds filling purpose-built spectator galleries to capacity. The Daily Mail was moved to remark in 1898 (perhaps with a degree of exaggeration) ‘amongst the Lambeth youths, water-polo is almost as much of a hobby in summer as is football in winter’. There was even a vogue for ‘water chutes’ (i.e. slides into the pool), complementing diving boards. There were still earnest instructions on the walls, but not necessarily of the morally improving variety:

1. Get yourself into position by the use of the ropes.

2. Do not hold the sides of the chute while sliding.

3. Keep the head well down and the body stiff

4. Do not run down the chute.

5. Not more than two persons must use the chute at one time.

6. Do not crawl up the chute.

The slides were named after a log-flume-style amusement ride, ‘The Chute’, which had opened at Earl’s Court pleasure-ground in 1893. And whilst water polo, ‘springboards’ and ‘chutes’ did not necessarily contribute to the ‘eternal interests’ of the working man –  they were fun.

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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