Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson – 50 Years in 50 Books

Dirty Old London was published in 2014. Lee Jackson’s book tells us how Victorian reformers struggled to stem a rising tide of pollution and dirt. Full of individual stories and overlooked details—from the dustmen who grew rich from recycling, to the peculiar history of the public toilet—this riveting book gives us a fresh insight into the minutiae of daily life and the wider challenges posed by the unprecedented growth of the Victorian capital.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Lee Jackson outlines how the research for a work of historical fiction led him to uncover a wealth of untapped information on everything from dustbins to toilets, which help to tell the story of Dirty Old London.


Article by Lee Jackson

In 1899, a Chinese ambassador was asked what he made of London. Surveying the glories of the great metropolis at the heart of the British Empire, he answered, ‘too dirty’. This laconic verdict was accurate enough. Atmospheric pollution rendered everything black and greasy, even down to the ‘mud’ on streets – a rather euphemistic description of a glutinous layer of horse dung, sticky enough ‘to suck off your boots’. The Victorians prided themselves on being the inventors of ‘sanitary science’. They lauded Joseph Bazalgette as the mid-century creator of a vast network of sewers which had rid the capital of contagious diseases like cholera and typhoid. But immense amounts of filth remained and the East End slums seemed little improved. Jack London, immersing himself in the daily life of Whitechapel to write People of the Abyss, found a city that was ‘helpless, hopeless, unrelieved, and dirty’.

The contrast between our image of the Victorians as hygienic reformers and the dire conditions which prevailed at the end of Victoria’s reign provided the impetus to write Dirty Old London. The true story, I would discover, was not a steady Whiggish progress towards a sanitary city, the inevitable product of social science, philanthropy and good governance. The Victorians’ fight against filth, rather, involved a series of stops and starts – and some utter failures – where greed, indifference and self-interest frequently won the day. Moreover, much-vaunted successes – the sewers and schemes to remove domestic rubbish – relied on the age-old sanitary principal of ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’. By the end of the century, rubbish was dumped in landfill sites in remoter parts of the Home Counties; sewage sludge, albeit chemically treated, voided into the North Sea, a few miles off Southend. One of the sludge boats was proudly named ‘The Bazalgette’.

I first became interested in Victorian social history whilst writing historical crime fiction, building up my own database of primary sources www.victorianlondon.org (still much used by fellow writers). The factual research, however, always interested me more than the fiction; and I began to cast around for a way of exploring nineteenth century history in more detail. I originally envisaged creating a series of e-books about Victorian jobs, starting with the humble dustman and other dirty trades – something that might appeal to family historians. But I soon realised there was a wealth of untapped information about the likes of rubbish collection, street cleaning, sewers, burials and slums, both in public archives and online. Indeed, online resources were particularly important. A vast number of Victorian newspapers have been digitised in the last couple of decades, revealing astonishing amounts of detail for the budding social historian. Dirty Old London took me a couple of years to research and write – whereas, without digital tools, it would have taken years longer.

The trick with database exploration, of course, is to find the right keywords. The early Victorians did not talk about ‘toilets’ but ‘privies’ and ‘closets’. They later had ‘lavatories’ but this meant hand-washing facilities, within a toilet, rather than the place itself (lavatory, in turn, becoming something of a synecdochic euphemism for the unmentionable locality).  William Haywood, Surveyor of the City of London, toyed with the idea of dubbing the City’s first public facilities ‘halts’ (reminiscent of stopping at a coaching inn). Some of the first commercial loos, decorated in a ‘Swiss cottage’ style, were simply called ‘chalets’. Toilets, in fairness, have always attracted the greatest number of synonyms and euphemisms. Nonetheless, throughout the book, I swiftly found that locating the right language – e.g. both cesspools and cesspits, and dustbins and dustholes – could magically open up whole new lines of enquiry.

‘Urine Deflectors’, which can still be seen today on Cliffords Inn Passage, off Fleet Street.

Archival research, of course, was also important. The most fascinating reading were the minutes of the vestry of St. Andrew’s Holborn, held by Camden Archives, from the early decades of the nineteenth century. Written in an often barely decipherable script, they showed everything from the rewards of ‘scavenging’ contracts (public street sweeping and rubbish collection), to early experiments with standardised street ‘tablets’ (street signs) and even the cost of cleaning out new-fangled public urinals (amounting to three shillings a week, after paupers from the workhouse failed to perform the task with sufficient enthusiasm or ability). My most unexpected discovery, however, came whilst walking through the city – finding urine deflectors on Fleet Street. Readers can relive my unadulterated excitement in this post for my personal blog.

Views from the slums at Tyndall’s buildings, Gray’s Inn Lane, London, British Museum Collection

Dirty Old London, naturally, had its precursors and inspirations. The academic work of Anthony Wohl, particularly Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian and Edwardian England (1983), had already examined the ‘sanitary question’ in forensic detail; James Winter’s London’s Teeming Streets (Routledge, 1993) had likewise touched upon street cleansing; and Barbara Penner had explored the (lack of) provision of public toilets for women. More generally, I was inspired by the work of Judith Flanders and Sarah Wise, contemporaries who had produced engrossing innovative works of deeply researched popular history. On balance, I was particularly lucky that several of the stories in the book had never been thoroughly explored or recounted to a general audience. Even in the case of slums, potentially a well-worn subject, I found a fascinating new case study: ‘Spread Eagle Court’, later known as Tyndall’s Buildings, in Holborn. This obscure yard was the subject of one of the first metropolitan ‘public health’ interventions, carried out by the London Fever Hospital in the early 1800s (rooms were cleaned and whitewashed to prevent typhus); then converted into ‘model dwellings’ in the mid-century; and finally demolished as part of street improvements – i.e. running the gamut of nineteenth century responses to urban poverty.

But Dirty Old London will probably be best remembered for its investigation of water-closets, public and private. If I learned anything from its reception amongst readers, it is that people are more fascinated by cesspools and toilets than they dare admit.


About the Author:

Lee Jackson is a well-known expert on Victorian London. His book Dickensland, a history of Dickens’s London, will be published in August. He is also the author of Dirty Old London, Walking Dickens’ London, and Palaces of Pleasure. Lee has lectured on Victorian topics for libraries and museums throughout London and is an academic advisor to the Dickens Museum.


About the book:

Dirty Old London
The Victorian Fight Against Filth

Lee Jackson

In Victorian London, filth was everywhere. In this intimately visceral book, Lee Jackson guides us through the underbelly of the Victorian metropolis, introducing us to the men and women who struggled to stem a rising tide of pollution and dirt, and the forces that opposed them.

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Books by Lee Jackson:

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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