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

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist