Give or take a couple of grand town houses and ambitious parks, nineteenth-century London was essentially a giant shit-smeared refuse heap beer-battered in coal dust.
While London had always been a big, bustling place with a not-inconsiderable amount of ambient fecal matter, growth accelerated as the Industrial age got cranking, bringing a whole host of filthy infrastructure issues. The issue became a great popular obsession, but it took decades to wrangle all the necessary stakeholders, officials and taxpayers for basics like upgraded sewers. Various reformers would emerge and propose grand schemes, but the decentralized nature of local government made it damn near impossible to get anything done. Meanwhile the city just got filthier and filthier. There was a moral dimension to the Victorians’ obsession with cleanliness, but it wasn’t pure prudery—they were sick of walking around ankle-deep in crap and garbage.
Lee Jackson’s Dirty Old London, which just came out in paperback, is a chronicle of the city’s decades-long battle to clean up its streets. Also its homes, its roads, its backyards, its gutters, its alleys, its boots, its various bodies of water. An accessibly written chronicle of a fascinating piece of history, it’s also overflowing with astounding, horrifying facts about Victorian shits. For instance!
Until the advent of sewers, “night soil”—which sounds like a species of beautiful, precious luminescent flower but was in fact their term for human waste, because it could only be carted off at night—went into cesspools somewhere underneath or out back of the home. If you were superrich, you might not even bother cleaning yours out: “In grander houses, when one cesspool became full, it was also customary to arch it over and dig another, ‘to avoid the expense and trouble of removing the soil.’ Some of the best homes in the West End were ‘literally honeycombed’ in their foundations, with chambers full of ancient ordure.”
This becomes more disgusting when you learn that some of these chambers of crap weren’t watertight. They weren’t supposed to be watertight. Because sloshy shit is harder to shovel out.
Many London cesspools, however, were designed to be permeable, so that liquid could percolate from the chamber into the ground below, leaving a more solid sludge behind. In other words, they were designed to leak, with either no proper base whatsoever, or “with open joints, so as to economise the labour of emptying them.” The potential for pollution, in an era when many Londoners still relied on local wells and pumps for water, was considerable—and largely overlooked.
Besides occasional frustration with overflows, mostly everybody was fine with this situation, because nobody understood where all that cholera was coming from. That is, until water closets came along and started dumping too much water into the system. (Think about it—not a lot of water involved in a chamber-pot.) If you had a watertight cesspool, you had to pump it out more often; if yours was porous, you got “a damp, foul-smelling bog.” Stink scared them, thanks to the idea that “miasma” could make you sick. And so London started installing sewers.
Unfortunately, many of those sewers dumped into the city’s primary water source.
Shit in the streets is not ideal, but if you really want stomach-turning, think of the water supply. Jackson cites one of the early ruckuses on the matter, when journalist John Wright published The Dolphin, or Grand Junction Nuisance; proving that Seven Thousand Families in Westminster and its Suburbs are supplied in Water in a state offensive to the sight, disgusting to the imagination, and destructive to the health. He wasn’t kidding:
Here is Wright describing how he showed a sample of tap water to the eminent surgeon John Abernathy, in terms worthy of a cheap melodrama: “Never shall I forget the countenance of this eminent man at that moment! The very sight of the turbid fluid seemed to occasion a turmoil in his stomach. He began pacing the room backward and forward, and the only words I could extract from him were, ‘How can you ask me such a question? There is such a thing as Common Sense! There is such a thing as Common Sense!’”
Please note that The Dolphin was published relatively early in the century, in 1827, and it would get worse before it got better.
While many people were horrified by Wright’s muckraking, it wasn’t enough to get a major push for reform. And some people thought he was being just hysterical:
[His primary target] The Grand Junction Company, meanwhile, made counterclaims, not least that its water, settling in household cisterns, “very speedily becomes bright in repose, and is then the finest water in the world.” Once the water became “bright”—i.e. once floating matter settled—it was considered pure. Opposition to Write was not confined to the boardrooms of water companies. The Westminster Review condemned him as a rabble-rouser, a novice in matters chemical and scientific, ignorantly stirring up ‘hydrophobia.’ The great volume of water in the Thames, and its continual movement, surely diluted and destroyed all harmful substances.
“Looks fine to me! Does it look okay to you, Jones?” “Sure does! No turds here! Drink up!”
Here is perhaps the most amazing image in the entire book:
Passengers on the Thames infamously had to avert their eyes from the riverside slums built over tidal creeks: “so little regard is paid to decency that women may be seen entering and leaving these projecting privies, and the filth dropping into the water, by any passer by.”
Even the rich were struggling to cope with their crap, but poor areas were in a truly shocking state. Jackson summarizes an 1831 report:
The problem was neglect: slum properties with either no toilet facilities whatsoever, or privies and cesspools shared between dozens of tenants, completely ignored by landlords, never emptied. Water closets were all b ut unknown. The worst places were abominably foul: “12 inches deep in soil on the floor and seat and flowing through the gutters.” As the metropolis expanded, landlords had packed more tenants into old, decrepit housing; and tenants themselves sublet their rooms. Filthy conditions had become the norm in numerous gloomy courts and alleys. Emptying cesspools cost money; slum landlords were loath to pay for the service; residents could not or would not pay.
No wonder the upper crust was so worried about the Chartists. They had a tiger by the tail.
One of the logistical problems of a city run on coal was getting rid of the resulting coal dust. But until relatively late in the nineteenth century, there was no municipal trash authority to handle it. Instead, dustmen (who removed all manner of trash) worked for private contractors who in fact paid for the right to haul off a parish’s trash—because it was a valuable commodity. That’s because of the ashes, which in the early 1800s they could sell to brickmakers and turn a pretty profit. That is until London expanded to the point there was too much dust and the construction was too far out in the suburbs to make the economics work. As you might imagine, it was a tremendous pain in the ass to reform this system once it stopped working.
There’s an entire section of the book dedicated to the invention of public toilets—a process that took decades. It started out with urinals, of course, because everyone was sick of drinkers pissing on their walls:
In fact the first widely available “public toilets” in London were not privies or water closets, but simple urinals for men. Publicans led the way, constructing urinal accommodation because they were annoyed by the perpetual pools of urine and foul-smelling brick and woodwork outside their premises. Parishes followed suit, trying to address a public nuisance which caused to many complaints. Bizarrely enough, this often involved sanitary committees of prosperous vestrymen paying visits to particular walls to establish whether they stank sufficiently to merit intervention.
Emphasis mine. Local politics in a nutshell. (Or a urinal cake.)
In addition to everything else, the streets were full of trash. Combine that trash with a fad for long, flowing skirts, and you get stomach-churning nastiness:
Added to mud was general litter, varying from the relatively harmless— “old newspapers, cast-off shoes, and crownless hats”—to broken glass and mouldering food. Lady F.W. Harberton, inveighing against the fashionable “train” in female dress (i.e. a trailing skirt), presented the following gruesome inventory to her readers, of relics recovered from a train allowed to drag along the pavement: “2 cigar ends; 9 cigarette ditto; A portion of pork pie; 4 toothpicks; 2 hairpins; 1 stem of a clay pipe; 3 fragments of orange peel; 1 slice of cat’s meat; Half a sole of a boot; 1 plug of tobacco (chewed); Straw, mud, scraps of paper, and miscellaneous street refuse.”
I highly recommend Dirty Old London, which is now out in paperback, as a holiday gift. It is disgusting and wonderful.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Passengers at Paddington Railway. London slum housing illustration circa 1840. Sewer Hunter illustration circa 1849. Photos via Getty.