John Marriott is a professor and senior associate at Pembroke College, Oxford. Among recent publications is Beyond the Tower: a History of East London, published by Yale University Press in 2012.
Dirty Old London. The Victorian Fight Against Filth, by Lee Jackson, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014, 293 pages, illustrated (hardback), £20, ISBN: 978-0-300-19205-6.
That London streets are paved with gold is surely one of the most enduring of myths. It was, of course, never to be taken literally. Rather, in suggesting that the metropolis was the place of opportunity, the myth found root among, and gave hope to the thousands of dispossessed migrant workers who made their way to London in search of a better life during the long nineteenth century. The vast majority soon discovered with what must have been a deep sense of irony that, far from being paved with gold, the streets of the metropolis were in fact filthy and pestilential.
Lee Jackson has mapped the darker side of the metropolitan landscape in a lively and informed manner. Better known to students of London history as the curator of the wonderfully instructive website, www.victorianlondon.org, Jackson has now put together into a coherent narrative intimate details of the filth which affected the lives of so many Londoners, and the various attempts to mitigate the worst of the evils. The scope is comprehensive. Thus we learn of the often futile attempts to remove rubbish, dispose of bodies, clean the air, provide water that could be consumed without fearful consequences, and cleanse the bodies of the poor. Parts of the story are already familiar enough. Much previous work has been done on the sanitary movement led by Edwin Chadwick, for example, and we have a pretty good understanding of the problem of working-class housing. Less if known, however, about other themes including the provision of public toilets and the lack of suitable burial plots, and here the details not only about the nature of the problems, but also on the various schemes proposed to deal with them, are fascinating.
Take a couple of typical examples. In the 1890s, local authorities found great difficulties in disposing of household rubbish. Contractors who had previously been employed to undertake the task were now prohibitively expensive, and because of the high levels of capital investment needed, were reluctant to assume responsibility under the guise of municipal socialism. The increased use of domestic gas fires had reduced the quantities of refuse but, at the same time, by reducing the amount of valuable cinders for recycling, had rendered its processing uneconomical – it was hardly worth sorting. From the 1830s gruesome accounts began to appear about the state of London’s graveyards. George Walker in particular determined to reveal the hazardous nature of gases produced by rotting corpses. Something of the problem had long been recognized. In 1771, Dr Haguenot of Paris had demonstrated that cats and dogs, thrown into open graves, convulsed and then expired in two to three minutes, birds in a matter of seconds. And it was known that undertakers were often required to drill holes in coffins lying in church vaults to prevent them exploding. But Walker took the matter further. He recorded the effects of leaking gases on the general health of gravediggers, claiming evidence of a range of symptoms from headaches and trembling to sudden death. Not that this seemed to deter the antics of some gravediggers who had been seen playing skittles with the bones from uncovered graves using skulls as the ball. Body snatchers who preyed on human remains were thus not the only ones to be feared.
Spurred by the filthy state of London, and – it has to be said – the promise of considerable monetary gain, several entrepreneurs stepped forward with ready plans to tackle the manifold problems. In their eyes, the streets of the metropolis were dirty, but with the prospect of reward on offer, they were also paved with gold. In the event, few were ever able to profit, and are now largely forgotten. Charles Cochrane, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, eccentric and rich, first demonstrated his public zeal with a scheme to replace the high maintenance macadam surface of Oxford Street with durable granite blocks. Thwarted by shopkeepers who feared the disruption and noise, Cochrane turned with a little more success to the use of wooden paving, and finally to the elimination of the mud which rendered paving so slippery. His plan was to recruit an army of scavengers from the ranks of the unskilled poor to cleanse the streets by removing mud, dung and other detritus as soon as it appeared. Recruits would wear a uniform, receive a small wage, and, in order to make their tasks less degrading, assist the police by arresting petty criminals and helping the infirm across the roads. While the grand plan was financed by Cochrane it worked to everyone’s satisfaction; as soon as local councils appreciated how much it would cost them to maintain, support was withdrawn.
George Carden, another ambitious reformer, focused his efforts on insanitary churchyards. Mobilizing fears about escaped gases, he promoted the idea of the city. In contrast to many rapacious undertakers who exploited grieving relatives to spend money they did not have on lavish funerals, Carden’s company would offer services and burials in neat and elegant environments secured from grave predators by high walls, nocturnal vigils, iron coffins and occasionally spring-loaded booby traps. His scheme met with some success and indeed provided a blueprint for cemeteries such as Norwood, Highgate and Nunhead, but the costs to families of the deceased meant that for the most part these remained the final resting places of members of the metropolitan bourgeoisie and did little to relieve the problems of crowded parish graveyards where the poor continued to be interred.
Few readers will fail to enjoy this highly entertaining and well-constructed account. Were it not for its tragic and alarming consequences, the problem of metropolitan filth and the various attempts to mitigate it could, in retrospect, appear comic. And researchers will find here a ready fund of material trawled from primary sources which can serve further work on this important topic. Given this, it may seem churlish to point to questions which are evaded, probably because they were considered beyond the book’s remit, but I do feel that vital parts of the story of metropolitan dirt have been left untold. Jackson mentions, for example, that in the minds of the metropolitan bourgeoisie dirt was ‘symbolic of a greater malaise’ (p. 32). Quite so, and yet the point is never developed. In the early decades of the century dirt became a marker not only of ills of local administration, but also of cultural boundaries. Medical discourses of the embryonic sanitary movement, and nascent evangelical writings identified a nexus between dirt and a range of human pathologies, notably, degeneration and criminality. Needless to say, as the century wore on, these spread and intensified to the extent that dirt became both a visual clue to potential threats to public health and a racialized symbol of tendencies within the body of the metropolitan poor which threatened the nation, and ultimately the empire. It was these fears which fuelled much of the impulse to cleanse the streets, houses and bodies of Londoners, faltering and ineffective though it was throughout the century. If, and when, London ever managed to clean up its act requires another study.
University of Oxford