Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 20

‘Many respectable women wore goloshes – rubber overshoes – which allowed them to ‘enter a friend’s drawing-room in the smartest of patent foot-gear, instead of … mud bespattered boots’.’

Throughout this mjackson-blog-click thruonth, 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 20: Clean Clothes

The mess on London’s streets was not only mud. In the 1890s, Lady F.W. Harberton, a staunch campaigner for ‘rational dress’ would catalogue the assorted filth in minute detail:

One day last week a friend of mine walked down Piccadilly behind a lady who was wearing a dress fitted with the long train now in vogue. Opposite St. James’s Club she got into a cab. She consequently left behind her on the pavement all the rubbish which her skirt had collected as it swept down Piccadilly. My friend, being of a scientific turn, proceeded to make an inventory of the collection, and he has been good enough to send it to me for publication. I give it below. In the days when germs and microbes play such an important part in social life, I question very much whether these trains should be permitted by law. This lady left her street sweepings on the curb-stone; but it might be remembered that many convey them into their own or their friends’ houses:

2 cigar ends.
9 cigarette do.
A portion of pork pie.
4 toothpicks.
2 hairpins.
1 stem of a clay pipe.
3 fragments of orange peel.
1 slice of cat’s meat.
Half a sole of a boot.
1 plug of tobacco (chewed).
Straw, mud, scraps of paper, and miscellaneous street refuse, ad.lib.

The ‘long train’ was particularly vulnerable; but even regular ankle-length skirts and crinolines would inevitably accumulate dirt. Balancing fashion, modesty and practicality was a difficult business. Dr. Edward Tilt, an 1850s writer on rational dress, amusingly divided London’s lady pedestrians into three classes, when crossing the road:

  1. Those who never raise the dress, but walk through thick and thin, with real or affected indifference to mud. These are generally country ladies, who have never been abroad and but little in town.
  2. Those who raise the dress, but allow the mass of underclothes, like the mud-carts in Regent Street, to collect the mud and beat it up to the middle of the leg. This class is the most common.
  3. Those chosen few, who, without offending the rules of modesty, which of course must take precedence of all others, know how to raise both dress and petticoats, so as to protect both.

Moving around the metropolis inevitably took its toll not only on fabrics but shoes – not least when out shopping. The most wealthy females could remain in their carriages, whilst milliners and shop-girls brought out samples to their coaches, avoiding the pavements and roads altogether. Many respectable women wore goloshes – rubber overshoes – which allowed them to ‘enter a friend’s drawing-room in the smartest of patent foot-gear, instead of … mud bespattered boots’.

Men, naturally, suffered fewer problems with their sparser attire; but they still had to make their own accommodation with the filth. It was said that a Londoner could always be recognised abroad by his ingrained habit of turning up his trousers.

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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