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“utterly engrossing in its own right, Dirty Old London also serves as
an illuminating companion to Victorian literature”
New York Times

“thoroughly researched and absorbing”
London Evening Standard

“a tightly argued, meticulously researched history of sanitation, that reads like a novel”
The Times

“a fascinating work that will engage both those interested in
the Victorians in general and London in particular”
BBC History Magazine

"vivid, scholarly, illuminating, funny, well written and beautifully illustrated,
a model of its kind"

"a triumph of popular scholarship"


(published by Yale University Press)


Sample the book in my



“So much meticulous research packaged into such a vividly readable narrative. I loved it.”

Liza Picard, author of Victorian London

“I can't think of a better companion with whom to explore London's underbelly - expert, engaging and approachable.”

Sarah Wise, author of The Blackest Streets

Dirty Old London is a treat – truly Victorian, in that it is shocking, entertaining, educational and grisly by turns.”

Catharine Arnold, author of Necropolis: London and its Dead

“The squalor of Victorian London was proverbial. Lee Jackson’s revelatory clean-up goes behind the headlines to allow us to see not just what, but why, London was so dirty.”

Judith Flanders, author of The Victorian House



Chapter 1: The Golden Dustman
Rubbish and recycling

Chapter 2: Inglorious Mud
Mud on the streets

Chapter 3: Night-Soil
The cesspool and water-closet

Chapter 4: Removable Causes
Chadwick, sewers and sanitation

Chapter 5: Vile Bodies
The overcrowded graveyard

Chapter 6: The Great Unwashed
Public baths and washhouses

Chapter 7: The Public Convenience
The public toilet

Chapter 8: Wretched Houses
The slums

Chapter 9: The Veil of Soot
Chimney sweeps and fog





LEE JACKSON is a Victorian enthusiast, who has spent the last decade exploring the social history of Victorian London, through his popular website www.victorianlondon.org, seven historical crime novels, and various other works (most recently a walking guide to Dickens' London). He lives in Stoke Newington with his partner and daughter.

You can follow him on twitter @victorianlondon for London history and more general nonsense.



7 October 2015   Barts Pathology Museum   |   6.30pm

"Playing Skittles with Skulls and Bones"

An event at Barts Pathology Museum, featuring Lee Jackson, author of Dirty Old London.

The graveyards and burial-grounds of early nineteenth-century London, full to the brim with human remains, presented many a grisly spectacle. But there was a great reluctance to address the problem of the capital's overcrowded, stinking churchyards: clergymen wanted to retain their customary burial fees and the government was unwilling to interfere. In this talk, Lee Jackson will explain the 'sanitary' origins of the Victorian cemetery, from the cholera epidemic of 1832 to the horrors of Enon Chapel, and the Spa Fields scandal of 1845. He will focus on two little-known figures - George Carden, self-styled 'Founder of the system of ex-urban sepulture', and the burial reform agitator George Walker - explaining how, after decades of struggle, London finally obtained a decent burial for most of its citizens.

book a ticket here
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18 November 2015    St Andrew Holborn   |   1.10pm-1.50pm

Dirty Old Holborn

A lunchtime talk based on Lee Jackson's book, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth.

In this event, Lee Jackson will discuss the strange (in)sanitary history of Holborn, from its infamous slums and gin shops, to the building of the Holborn Viaduct and the highly contentious introduction of public toilets.

further details - FREE EVENT




In 1899, the Chinese ambassador was asked his opinion of Victorian London at the zenith of its imperial grandeur. He replied, laconically, ‘too dirty’. He was only stating the obvious. Thoroughfares were swamped with black mud, composed principally of horse dung, forming a tenacious, glutinous paste; the air was peppered with soot, flakes of filth tumbling to the ground ‘in black Plutonian show'rs’. The distinctive smell of the city was equally unappealing. Winter fogs brought mephitic sulphurous stinks. The summer months, on the other hand, created their own obnoxious cocktail, ‘that combined odour of stale fruit and vegetables, rotten eggs, foul tobacco, spilt beer, rank cart-grease, dried soot, smoke, triturated road-dust and damp straw.’ London was the heart of the greatest empire ever known; a financial and mercantile hub for the world; but it was also infamously filthy. The American journalist Mary H. Krout, visiting London for the Diamond Jubilee of 1897, found Londoners’ response to the dirt strangely apathetic. She felt sure that, if the same conditions were visited upon Washington or New York, some solution would have been found.
    This was a peculiar state of affairs. The Victorians, after all, had invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and considered cleanliness the hallmark of civilisation. Moreover, they had not been idle. London had seen millions of pounds invested in a vast network of modern sewers. This was a gargantuan project, planned and managed by Joseph Bazalgette of the Metropolitan Board of Works, brought to fruition in the 1860s – a concrete testament to the importance accorded ‘sanitary reform’. Indeed, mile upon mile of meticulously executed brickwork still survives beneath modern streets, and popular histories regularly credit Bazalgette as ‘the man who cleaned up London’ – which only makes the filthy condition of the late-Victorian metropolis all the more baffling.
    In fact, the Victorian passion for sewerage – and latter-day awe at Bazalgette’s engineering genius – has obscured the true history of metropolitan dirt. The fight against filth was waged throughout Victoria’s reign on many fronts, with numerous battles ending in stalemate or defeat. Reforming zeal was frequently met with neglect or plain indifference. The stench of overflowing dustbins, dung-filled thoroughfares, the choking soot-filled atmosphere – even the peculiar history of the public toilet – these are as much part of the (in)sanitary history of Victorian London as the more familiar story of its sewers. The aim of this book is to give these overlooked aspects of ‘dirty old London’ their due; and to explain why, far from cleansing the great metropolis, the Victorians left it thoroughly begrimed.
    The capital’s century-long struggle with filth was intimately connected with its unprecedented growth. Between 1801 and 1901, the population of London soared from one million to over six million. Suburbia replaced green fields, ‘crushing up the country in its concrete grasp’. Waste products multiplied in due proportion, whether smoke from household fires or mud from ever-increasing horse traffic. Some types of dirt posed a challenge in terms of the sheer volume of unwanted matter; others contained a real or perceived danger to public health. Nuisance and discomfort abounded. Some saw metropolitan dirt as the harbinger of moral decay. Filth implied social and domestic disorder; and, when discovered in the home, inculcated immoral habits – for it was widely agreed that working men, faced with poor housekeeping, sought refuge in the glittering comforts of the gin palace.
    The worst types of filth, solely in terms of volume, were human excrement; mud on the streets; and ‘dust’ (cinders and ash from coal fires). In the eighteenth century, their disposal had been less problematic. Human waste was stored in household cesspools, emptied occasionally by ‘night soil men’, who sold it to farmers as manure. Mud was swept up by parish contractors, and, likewise, sold as fertiliser. Ashes and cinders were collected by dustmen, and sold to brickmakers, who added the ash to their bricks, and used cinders as fuel. These tried-and-tested recycling arrangements, however, were not suited to the expanding nineteenth century metropolis. The brickfields, market gardens and farms grew ever more distant; the country more separate from the town. Transport costs mushroomed; and the sheer volume of refuse produced by Londoners began to outstrip any possible demand – ‘such a vast amount of sheer useless rubbish’. Simply finding somewhere to put the mess became a problem.
    Nineteenth-century Londoners also grew increasingly apprehensive about the health risks associated with dirt. This heightened awareness is generally associated with the ‘sanitary movement’ of the 1840s – when public health reform became the subject of intense national debate – but its roots go further back. Doctors at the London Fever Hospital were attempting to organise systematic cleansing of the slums, to eradicate typhus, as early as 1801. The smoke from factories and furnaces was damned in parliament as ‘prejudicial to public health and public comfort’ in 1819. Fears about water pollution were first raised in the 1820s, when wealthier households began to connect more and more water-closets to the main drainage, which ultimately fed into the Thames. In 1827, a pamphlet was issued which was pointed out that a west London water company was drawing its domestic supply from the river at Chelsea, within a few yards of a sewer outfall. When a doctor examined the resultant murky-looking tap water, ‘the very sight of the turbid fluid seemed to occasion a turmoil in his stomach.’ The gentlefolk of Westminster, although accustomed to a degree of mud and sediment, were shocked to discover they had actually been imbibing a solution composed of their own ‘ejectamenta’.
    The important link between drinking-water and disease would, admittedly, not be fully recognised for several decades; and even Bazalgette’s sewers would be built on the widely-held, mistaken assumption that ‘miasma’ (foul air, generated by decaying matter) was the cause of cholera and typhoid. Indeed, the connection between dirt, smell and disease was a source of ongoing anxiety, not limited to sewers. The refusal of dustmen to remove household waste from slums (largely because slum inhabitants could not provide tips) generated its own worrying stench. Many a back-street contained ‘a sort of pigstye’ accommodating the refuse of dozens of households: ‘cinders, bones, oyster-shells, broken bottles and rag, flavoured by a sprinkling of decaying vegetable matter, or a remnant of putrefying fish, or a dead and decomposing kitten.’ The repellent odour from over-crowded, poorly-maintained metropolitan burial grounds sparked a lengthy campaign for the introduction of out-of-town cemeteries.
    The sheer public nuisance occasioned by dirt should not be underestimated. Again, foreigners marvelled at the grim resignation of locals in filthy streets (‘An American town-bred lady would as soon think of swimming up the Thames against tide as walking far in such ankle-deep mud.’). 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, relics recovered from a train allowed to drag along the Piccadilly 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, ad.lib.’
    The air, meanwhile, was vitiated by smoke. Ladies of refinement were advised to wash the face repeatedly, to remove the fine patina of soot that accompanied every sojourn outdoors (‘if one lives in dear, dirty old London, or in any smoky city, three times a day is none too often’). Clothing was continually sullied by cascades of ‘blacks’, i.e. soot-flakes. Public buildings, parks, gardens, statuary – everything outdoors acquired a dull, dirty coating, making London ‘a city in which no beautiful thing, on which art and trouble has been bestowed, can long keep its beauty’. When winter came, there was the additional danger of soot-drenched fogs. Tourists marvelled at a population that could accustom itself to days spent in complete darkness; doctors noted the rising mortality from bronchitis and other pulmonary complaints. The capital ended the century with the nickname of ‘The Smoke’ – a city named after its most enduring pollutant.

There were various bodies responsible for clearing up this mess, some more serviceable than others.
     Managing dust and mud fell to London’s vestries – the backbone of local government – parish committees composed of eminent rate-payers. Vestries, in turn, usually employed private contractors to remove refuse, largely because contractors were often willing to work for free. The potential profits from selling on dust to the brick trade were such that entrepreneurs vied for exclusive rights to empty household bins. Many even paid for the privilege, or cleaned the streets at a discount. Unfortunately, whilst vestrymen congratulated themselves on the economy of this arrangement, the public often suffered. When demand for bricks dropped – e.g. when the stockmarket bubble of the mid-1820s burst, and the building trade slumped – the demand for dust plummeted. Contractors went bankrupt; dustmen and street cleaners disappeared; complaints about unemptied bins were legion (‘Bribes offered to the dustmen, complaints lodged at the Court-house, and appeal to Hobbs, the dust contractor, have all alike been utterly futile’). Construction booms – e.g. during the railway mania of the 1840s – which encouraged brick-makers to over-produce and stockpile, with the inevitable drop in prices, had a similar knock-on effect.
    The vestry system was reformed in the mid-century, amalgamating smaller authorities into ‘district boards’, and abolishing various antiquated arrangements. Some of the new vestries began to take over cleansing work from contractors. Rate-payers, however, were skeptical that officialdom could provide a better service. Lord Shaftesbury damned local government as full of ‘obstinate and parsimonious wretches’; others preferred the Dickensian catch-all of ‘Bumbledom’, with its overtones of pomposity and self-interest. In truth, sanitary enthusiasm and activity varied from the district to district. Some local authorities were better organised than others; some were simply wealthier. Revenue from the rates would not be put into a collective metropolitan pot until the 1890s. For most of the century, therefore, West End parishes had considerably more money to spend on sanitary matters than their pauper-ridden counterparts in the east.
    London’s sewerage, unlike dust and mud, was not parish business. At the start of the century, sewers were mainly the responsibility of eight ancient Sewer Commissions, each with their own portion of the capital. Londoners, however, had no more respect for these officials than for vestrydom. Their work would be derided in the 1840s as ‘a vast monument of defective administration, lavish expenditure and extremely defective execution’. They would ultimately be replaced by the Metropolitan Board of Works, which would commission Bazalgette’s masterwork, incorporating 82 miles of tunnels, ornate pumping stations, and the Thames Embankment. Yet even this much-vaunted improvement was imperfect. The new sewer system removed filth and stink from central London, only to shift it upstream to Beckton and Crossness. When sewage was discharged, twice a day, the river seemed to revolt against the imposition, ‘hissing like soda-water with baneful gases, so black that the water is stained for miles, and discharging a corrupt charnel-house odour’. In the 1850s, this was not terribly troublesome – the new sewage outfalls were several miles beyond London’s boundaries. By the 1880s, the volume of sewage had grown and the spread of the East End had outpaced Bazalgette’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ solution. The inhabitants of new working-class suburbs, like East Ham, found their lives blighted by the same stench of decomposing excrement, which had once troubled the inhabitants of Westminster. Worse still, more and more filth was swept back on the estuarine tide towards central London.
    Smoke proved an equally intractable problem. Legislation was introduced in 1853 to reduce factory emissions, with some success; and the police were deputised to watch factory chimneys for infractions. Yet the voluminous filth poured into the atmosphere by tens of thousands of domestic coal fires went completely unchallenged by parliament. Prolonged, black winter fogs prompted reformers tried to persuade householders to invest in ‘smoke consuming’ grates. The English, however, were too fond of the cheery, blazing hearth, the symbol of cosy domesticity, and content to take the consequences, even as the soot filled their lungs. The overwhelming public response to agitation on the ‘smoke nuisance’ was the grim resignation which Miss Krout found so mystifying, on the eve of the Jubilee.

There were, of course, some worthwhile reforms. The introduction of extra-mural cemeteries put a definitive end to noxious, overcrowded burial grounds, and the gruesome churn of bodies by gravediggers (‘I have severed heads, arms, legs, or whatever came in my way, with a crowbar, pickaxe, chopper and saw.’) The London County Council, established in 1889, took an interest in all things ‘sanitary’ and would prosecute local authorities for failure to carry out regular collections of rubbish. There were also magnificent new facilities for communal cleansing, including public baths and public toilets (although the latter were a long time coming). The improvement of slum housing, principally through social housing schemes, established by various ‘model housing’ charities, also had a modest but measurable impact on the filth-ridden lives of some working-class families.
    Nonetheless, at the very end of the Victorian era, it was remarkably difficult to gainsay the damning, undiplomatic remark of the Chinese ambassador. London was, without question, ‘too dirty’. This book will examine the nature of that dirt; tally both the successes and failures of reformers; and consider why filth emerged triumphant.



Dirty Old London will be published by Yale in October 2014

Yale University Press
47 Bedford Square, 
London WC1B 3DP
Tel: 020 7079 4900  Fax: 020 7079 4901

Publicity for Dirty Old London: Heather Nathan (Yale U.P.)

or contact Lee Jackson directly: