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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”
“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)
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Sample the book in my
30 DAYS OF FILTH BLOG
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
I<02 color="#FFFFFF" style="font-size: 16pt">NTRODUCTION02>
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
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
Yale University Press
47 Bedford Square,
London WC1B 3DP
Tel: 020 7079 4900 Fax: 020 7079 4901
Publicity for Dirty Old London: Heather Nathan
or contact Lee Jackson directly: