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.

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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