Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 30

‘The fact that sewers and cesspools brought miasma into the home was an important factor, creating powerful anxieties. Fear of miasma – fear, in particular, of cholera – meant that it was easy to persuade the government and the public that something must be done.’

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Throughout 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 30: The Love of Filth

The colour of life is grey and drab.  Everything is helpless, hopeless, unrelieved, and dirty.  Bath tubs are a thing totally unknown, as mythical as the ambrosia of the gods.  The people themselves are dirty, while any attempt at cleanliness becomes howling farce, when it is not pitiful and tragic.  Strange, vagrant odours come drifting along the greasy wind, and the rain, when it falls, is more like grease than water from heaven.

Jack London, The People of the Abyss, 1903

The Victorians focussed on improved sanitation, public health and personal cleanliness from the 1840s onwards – and yet Jack London found the poor of Whitechapel ‘unrelieved and dirty’; the streets covered with filth; the very air noxious. How can we explain this disconnect between the Victorians’ much-vaunted sanitary enthusiasm, and the condition of London at the start of the Edwardian Era?

In part, the problem was a skewing of priorities. Edwin Chadwick, who started the mid-century ‘sanitary movement’, was so intent on removing miasmatic cesspools, and promoting his pet theories on sewerage, that other forms of urban filth were treated as insignificant; the wider sanitary problems of the metropolis downplayed. Chadwick, an ardent miasmatist, famously stated that, ‘All smell is, if it be intense, immediate acute disease’ but his intense, blinkered focus on sewerage alone meant that household refuse, mud and smoke all received comparatively little attention. Some stinks were more equal than others.

Why did Chadwick have such a narrow focus? The fact that sewers and cesspools brought miasma into the home was an important factor, creating powerful anxieties. Fear of miasma – fear, in particular, of cholera – meant that it was easy to persuade the government and the public that something must be done.  The focus on sewerage was also intensely pragmatic. Chadwick believed in the efficacy of central government; and wanted power to effect change. The capital’s ancient Sewer Commissions were the low-hanging-fruit of metropolitan local government, most easily plucked. They had already been the subject of two parliamentary inquiries; they were much disliked by the public; they had no great political supporters; and they had even been blamed for the spread of cholera in 1832. Thus, focussing on drains and miasma, Chadwick would systematically denigrate them throughout the 1840s, highlighting their failures without recognising their achievements – and assume their mantle.

Conversely, Chadwick would carefully avoid the challenges posed by the accumulation of mud and dust precisely because they were the direct responsibility of local authorities. Parish vestries had a collective identity and political influence. Chadwick knew full well they would fight his centralising agenda tooth and nail. In the 1840s, the parishes were successfully auctioning off the rights to collect rubbish; money was flooding in from Henry Dodd and his fellow entrepreneurs. This made it almost impossible to argue that there was any serious parochial mismanagement of ‘scavenging’.

Local authorities themselves were also at fault. Before the advent of late-Victorian municipal socialism, with some honourable exceptions, these were largely conservative, reactionary bodies, whose greatest wish was to ‘keep down the rates’. They were enthusiastic about ‘scavenging’ whilst receiving pay-outs from the ‘golden dustman’;  less so, when it became clear that rubbish collection and street sweeping would increasingly entail heavy costs. They had little interest in the living conditions of the poor, unless fever despatched too many paupers to the workhouse. They were widely condemned as being too close to their contractors, proverbial for their ‘trading, jobbery, meanness, and middle-class exclusivism’. They talked much of  the virtues of ‘local self-government’ but the benefits of this much-vaunted independence were not necessarily extended to the poor, weak and vulnerable.

The general public, in turn, was not simply a struggling mass of humanity, victim of an incompetent ruling class. Many complained, with good cause, about the state of their bins, or the mud on the streets, or their neighbour’s cesspool; but the self-same people – rich and poor –  might simultaneously deny that they should have to pay sewer rates; or that they should contribute towards the drains of Londoners in the next parish, or even the next street. Furthermore, there were those who simply did not welcome the reforming zeal of Chadwick and his successors. The narrow, parochial, penny-pinching ‘small government’ mind-set of the archetypal vestryman existed amongst a large swathe of the middle-class, not merely the individuals who took public office. Reformers tried to persuade the reluctant that improved sanitation, public baths, public toilets, model housing et al., would improve the physical and moral well-being of their fellow citizens. But there were many members of the property-owning classes who considered such reform an unnecessary and even undemocratic interference. Others were only swayed by appeals to blatant self-interest. No-one, after all, wanted the contagion of the slums to spread to the elegant townhouses of Mayfair, or the leafy suburbs of Highgate or Norwood.

There was also, remarkably enough, some perverse enjoyment of the pervasive filth – a certain fondness for its familiar, distinctive, urban texture. Authors wrote rather wistfully and indulgently of ‘dear, dirty old London’. Claude Monet, an obsessive painter of the fog-heavy Thames, its bridges and the Houses of Parliament, rhapsodised, ‘without the fog, London wouldn’t be a beautiful city … It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth.’ The Canadian journalist, Sara Jeanette Duncan, even hymned the taste of London fog: ‘it gave a kind of solidity and nutriment to the air, and made you feel as if your lungs digested it. There was comfort and support and satisfaction in that smell’. There were other fringe benefits. ‘Walter’, the infamous pornographic memoirist of My Secret Life,put matters bluntly:

Foggy weather is propitious to amatory caprices. Harlots tell me that they usually do good business during that state of atmosphere, especially those who are regular nymphs of the pavé, and who don’t mind exercises in the open air. Timid men get bold and speak to women when they otherwise would not.That is my own experience also, and recollect going along a main street on one such night, accosting nearly everyone in petticoats …

At the end of Victoria’s reign, London’s distinctive pall of filth concealed a multitude of sins – some of them rather exciting.

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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