Sanitising the streets of smallpox, 1877. Photo: John Thomson/Getty Images
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Sooty and sweep: how the Victorians cleaned up the country

There is much we could learn from the Victorian fight against filth. A new book by Lee Jackson clears the path.

Dirty Old London: the Victorian Fight Against Filth
Lee Jackson
Yale University Press, 304pp, £20

In 1849 the journalist Henry Mayhew visited the “cholera district of Bermondsey”. There, he met a barber in his shop. The man had survived typhus twice, but his child had died of cholera and his wife was in the workhouse with the same disease. And no wonder, “. . . for as the man sat at his meals in his small shop, if he put his hand against the wall behind him, it would be covered with the soil of his neighbour’s privy, sopping through the wall. At the back of the house was an open sewer and the privies were full to the seat.”

Filthy old London, its streets covered with the dung of 300,000 horses which stuck to your feet because it was mixed with melting macadam. The air was soot and smoke. The Thames was full of shit and therefore so was the drinking water; the graveyards were overflowing. Yet this was the century of Victoria, a time famed for sanitary achievement. As Lee Jackson demonstrates persuasively, our historical assumptions are sometimes as dense as a peasouper. The great Victorian sanitarians existed. They schemed, in a good way. But often they were less successful than history thinks, or succeeded far more slowly.

Jackson, “a noted Victorianist”, has put in time in archives all over London, as one can see from the depth and breadth of the book’s detail. We plunge into the workings of vestries (local boards), parishes, reports and committees, each better named than the next. (I can’t decide whether my favourite is the Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor, or the Society for Superseding the Necessity of Climbing Boys. The Victorians didn’t do snappy.) His thematic chapters cover a spectrum of London’s filth, from dust (rubbish) to sweeps (exploiters of those poor climbing boys, child sweeps, deformed into an S shape by a short life spent in chimney flues).

The trajectory is often similar: initial efforts in the early part of the century, then better efforts in the 1840s, the decade of the Public Health Act and of Edwin Chadwick, the best-known sanitarian of all. Jackson likes Chadwick, the “barrister and penny-a-liner” who stormed his way through the obstinate Bumbledom of vestries and vested interests and into positions of power. But then, usually, the reforming zeal faced difficulty and obstacles for a few decades until proper reform happened in the latter years of the century.

To cleanse London involved cleansing the poor. This was agreed, although Chadwick was no humanitarian, wanting instead to reduce how much money the poor were costing the Poor Law unions with their illness and death and trouble. And my, there was trouble. Jackson’s opening chapter on dustmen is his least compelling, so let us fall instead into the stinking graveyards, privately run by parishes and profiteers. Once a metal rod could be sunk easily into a grave, the dead were dug up, chopped and sometimes burned. A resident near Spa Fields burial ground saw “what appeared to be mash, which seemed to me to be the bowels of a corpse, which the gravedigger attempted to gather up in a shovel”. By the end of the century, garden cemeteries on the city’s outskirts became a pleasant burial alternative for the middle and upper classes, but the poor were still forced to pay a fortune to be buried. And they still are.

Present-day London is not as clean as we think. Sewage runs through the book, but two chapters concentrate on it, introducing us to the artist John Martin, who devised a plan to instal a great system of sewers into the metropolis, and to the more renowned Joseph Bazalgette, whose sewers still run under London’s streets, though now so overloaded and fragile that Londoners are paying £4bn for a “supersewer” that will probably last only a hundred years. Bring back Bazalgette. And Chadwick. And the Cheap Trains Act of 1883, while we’re at it.

Other peasouper-puncturing revelations: George Jennings’s public toilets at the Great Exhibition of 1851 neither gave us the phrase “to spend a penny” (as most of them cost only a ha’penny) nor immediately brought in a great age of marvellous public conveniences. Instead it took another few decades before public toilets, once moved into acceptably discreet underground quarters, became standard. (Sanitary improvements would often run into objections from vested interests, such as slum landlords, who did not want improvements in slum housing. Only bathhouses and swimming pools seem to have met no resistance.) Yet in clean new London, 50 per cent of public toilets have been shut down in the past decade.

There are many riches in this book – the Times, for instance, commenting on one ref­ormer’s efforts by saying that “Mackinnon’s Smoke Prohibition Bill has ended in smoke, just as his Interment Prohibition Bill ended in its own burial”; smog providing cover for “love in the fog”; and the Beckwith Frogs, a family that performed wonderful skills of “natation” as swimming pools multiplied.

Yet there are curious absences. Where is John Snow? From his blog, I know Jackson thinks Snow’s influence on sanitary history is overrated, as his discovery that cholera was waterborne was ignored for decades by the prevailing miasmatists, who thought that disease came from smell and air. But for such a magnificent epidemiological milestone to be reduced to a sentence in the epilogue seems perverse. Another puzzle is cholera itself. We are told repeatedly how powerful a trigger it was for change, yet we are given no sense of why it was so feared. How many did it kill? In what manner? The answer is: many hundreds of thousands, and rapidly and horrifyingly, because you could eat your breakfast happily and be blue and dead by supper. To confine these facts to endnotes is surprising.

By the end of the century, much had been sanitised. Sewers took London’s sewage away to the sea (though dumping human waste in the ocean is now banned). Cesspools and child sweeps were gone. Drinking water was no longer black and turbid, containing leeches and tadpoles. The poor could now wash their clothes and themselves affordably. Cholera was under control, and typhus diminished. Even so, despite all these eminent Victorians and their cleansing ideas and zeal, when the Chinese ambassador visited London in 1899 and was asked his opinion of this magnificent city, the jewel of a vast empire, “He replied, laconically, ‘Too dirty.’” 

Rose George’s books include “The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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A hatchet job on the Daily Mail: Peter Wilby reviews Mail Men

Peter Wilby on Adrian Addison’s expletive-strewn history of the Daily Mail.

The Ukip leader Paul Nuttall recently claimed that he was among the crowd at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and that he lost close personal friends there, statements which suggest, at best, a flexible relationship with the truth. David English, the Daily Mail editor from 1971 to 1992, went one better. He claimed to have been in Dallas in November 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. He was, he told Mail readers 25 years later, “part of the inner press circle which the Kennedys courted so assiduously” and: “We lived and travelled well, we President’s men . . . in brand new special planes.” In Dallas, he “witnessed the whole unbelievable scenario”. In fact, English, then based in New York for the Daily Express, was 1,600 miles away having a coffee break near his office. Adrian Addison’s riotously entertaining book is full of similar stories.

The present editor, Paul Dacre, has never been caught out in such flamboyant untruths. Yet, as Addison explains, the very appearance of the Daily Mail is based on a more subtle lie. Flick through its “human interest” features and you find “typical” Britons talking about their experience of relationships, crime, hospitals, schools, and so on. “Typical” in the Mail’s world means Mail readers as envisaged by its editor – white and middle class, not too fat or too thin, with smart but sensible clothes, hair and shoes, and free of tattoos and nose rings. A story does not, as editors say, “work” unless a picture shows the subjects conforming to this stereotype. If they don’t, make-up artists and hair stylists are despat­ched along with the correct clothing.

Addison, a BBC journalist for much of his career, has experience of tabloid journalism, though not at the Mail. Well over half his book is devoted to the editorships of English and his direct successor, Dacre, with the Mail’s first 75 years – including the familiar but still shocking story of its proprietor’s admiration for Hitler in the 1930s – dismissed in just 150 pages. The paper’s Sunday sister, launched in 1982, is mentioned only briefly.

In many respects, the book is a hatchet job. Dacre emerges, to quote Stephen Fry, as “just about as loathsome, self-regarding, morally putrid, vengeful and disgusting a man as it is possible to be”; English comes out very slightly better, thanks to personal charm and lavish parties; and the Mail Online’s publisher, Martin Clarke, who gets a chapter to himself, is portrayed as a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Fred West, redeemed, like Dacre, by demonic energy and undeniable success in attracting readers.

Like a good tabloid editor, Addison varies the tone, giving us occasional tear-jerking passages to show that even Mail editors have a human side. English befriends an ­office messenger boy, promises to find him a job in journalism if he gets an A-level in English, and proves as good as his word. Dacre, shy and socially clumsy, summons a features editor who had said the previous night, “You are mad, you know, Paul,” and asks, “I’m not really mad, am I?” Addison even deploys that old tabloid staple, the faithful, prescient dog. It belonged to Vere Harmsworth, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere and fourth Mail proprietor, who died in 1998 just 12 weeks after English, some said of a broken heart because the two had become so close. The day that Harmsworth, tax-exiled in France, was leaving home for London, where a heart attack killed him, his dog Ryu-ma refused to accompany the master to the airport in the chauffeur-driven car as it usually did.

The Harmsworths command a degree of admiration from many journalists. Of all the great newspaper dynasties – the Beaverbrooks, the Astors, the Berrys – they alone have stayed the course. The present proprietor, Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, is the great-great-nephew of Alfred (“Sunny”) Harmsworth, who co-founded the paper in 1896. The Mail’s masthead hasn’t changed in 121 years, nor have several other things. Just as Sunny had only one Daily Mail editor until his death in 1922, Jonathan sticks by Dacre, allowing him to get on with his fanatical Brexiteering despite being a Remain sympathiser himself. So, too, did his father allow Dacre to denounce Tony Blair while he himself moved to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Again like Sunny and Vere, Jonathan keeps accountants at arm’s length, giving the editor such generous budgets that the Mail scraps roughly two-thirds of the features it commissions yet still pays higher “kill” fees for them than other papers pay for the articles they print.

Other aspects of the Harmsworth legacy are less admirable. Most papers worried about the militarisation of Germany in the years before the First World War but, Addison writes, the Mail “raged”. Today, it is rage against immigrants, liberals, Greens, benefit claimants, human rights lawyers, the EU, overseas aid and a host of individuals from Polly Toynbee to Gary Lineker that oozes from almost every paragraph of the paper.

Many among what Dacre calls “the liberal elite” will find that Addison has written the exposé of the Mail that they always wanted to read. The inside story, with its unexpur­gated f***s and c***s, is as bad as you thought it was. But remember: the paper sells about 1.5 million copies a day, second only to the Sun. Its faults and virtues (there are some of the latter) owe nothing to marketing constructs, the proprietor’s business interests, party loyalties or anything other than the editor’s judgement as to what people will read. Denounce it by all means, but remember that millions of Britons love it.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the NS from 1998 to 2005

Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail - the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison is published by Oneworld (336pp, £20)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain