‘Respectable householders and shopkeepers regularly wrote letters to the parish authorities, describing disused doorways or entrances being used as ‘urinals’, citing the offence to women and children, and demanding action.’
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 16: Continual Annoyance
Parish vestries received a variety of complaints on ‘sanitary’ matters; but one of the most commonplace was male public urination. Within days of the opening of Trafalgar Square in 1844, an angry Londoner complained in the pages of The Times about the fountains being ‘polluted by some brutes in human shape’. Respectable householders and shopkeepers regularly wrote letters to the parish authorities, describing disused doorways or entrances being used as ‘urinals’, citing the offence to women and children, and demanding action.
Vestries were, however, in something of a bind. Whenever they created a dedicated urinal – even the self-contained, rather decorative iron structures which became relatively common in the latter half of the century – they were bombarded with yet more complaints from local residents. The following letter is typical:
To Vestry of St. George Hanover Sq., November 3rd 1857
The Petition of the Inhabitants of Grosvenor St. West and the vicinity against the proposed erection of a public urinal opposite Her Majesty’s private entrance to Buckingham Palace.
Humbly herewith the petitioners view with considerable alarm and strong feelings of disgust the proposed erection for the following reasons:
Firstly, The position is unsuitable and ill chosen.
Secondly, It is not required by the cabmen there being a closet at each Public House at either end of the cab rank there never being more than 12 cabs on the rank.
Thirdly There are several milliner’s establishments overlooking the spot and on account of the young ladies employed it would be open to great objection.
Fourthly, Being in the direct road of Her Majesty and the Inhabitants of Belgravia it would certainly cause a diversion of the traffic to the detriment of many of your petitioners.
Fifthly: The Class for whose accommodation it is designed not having very refined notions of public decency continual annoyance to residents would be an inevitable result.
And for many other and solid reasons which your petitioners could explain personally if permitted they pray that they may be spared the infliction.
[followed by 150 signatories]
It was not uncommon for urinals to be erected, then removed within a matter of months, thanks to public pressure.
Given this chaos, the owners of property that abutted onto ‘polluted’ alleyways often took their own measures. One visitor to the metropolis in the early 1800s noted in the Farmer’s Magazine:
in London a man may sometimes walk a mile before he can meet with a suitable corner; for so unaccommodating are the owners of doorways, passages and angles, that they seem to have exhausted invention in the ridiculous barricadoes and shelves, grooves, and one fixed above another, to conduct the stream into the shoes of the luckless wight who shall dare to profane the intrenchments …
Rare survivals of these ‘barricadoes’ can actually be seen in Clement’s Inn Passage, Fleet Street – the same retired spot where Rokesmith takes Mr. Boffin in Our Mutual Friend. Grooved iron shelves, fixed into the wall at an angle that would, indeed, ‘conduct the stream in the shoes’, with even a double set ‘one fixed above another’ at the entrance to the alley – just as described above. They are only attached to a single building – but that was their purpose, not to prevent the act per se, but to persuade the necessitous stranger to move on elsewhere.
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.