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Dirty Old London by Lee JacksonDirty Old London: the Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson.

In 1850, 13 years into Victoria’s reign, London’s population had doubled over the previous 50 years, to over two million people. By the end of her reign in 1901 it had trebled again to over 6 million. The waste products of such an immediate post-industrial popluation explosion – faeces and urine of course (ex-both human and beastly), soot, smoke, grime, mud, food, corpses, general filth – can barely be imagined by the Londoner of today. This new book takes a very decent stab at helping us to do so.

Next time you see some dog shit on the pavement or an overflowing public waste bin or some illegal fly-tipping, count yourself lucky: our eyes and noses have never experienced the assault on the senses as endured by our Victorian ancestors.

In the early 19th Century, the modern world had taken London by surprise; the difficulty was that the metropolis was still run largely by essentially medieval institutions: the vestries. Added to this, local paving boards, local sewer commissions, and dozens of other bodies with position and status and agendas to protect. Localism was such as that your ardent libertarian of today could only dream of. The book describes the gradual transformation from vestrydom to “municipal socialism” by the end of our period. Many of the problems had been solved or alleviated, some had not.

For the “big” problems, the solution was to move the waste out of town: sewage through Bazalgette’s massive bores and pumping stations; corpses to new suburban burial grounds; the livestock market from Smithfield to Islington; and so on. Smog, soot, slums, personal hygiene needed different approaches.

All the solutions described in the book were hard-won and driven by campaigning reformers for which the period is characterised. Most of us have heard of the likes of Edwin Chadwick (who inevitably looms large throughout), Lord Shaftsbury and Octavia Hill; this book casts the spotlight of dozens of others, MPs, doctors, engineers, churchmen and the new (then) Medical Officers of Health, fuelling the rise of statistics. All these individuals and their groups influenced, cajoled, shamed and lobbied Parliament into passing dozens of improving Acts from outlawing the use of climbing boys (chimney sweep helpers) to providing public loos for women.

"Important Meeting of Smoke Makers" from Punch Magazine addressing the Smoke Nuisance Abatement Bill.

“Important Meeting of Smoke Makers” from Punch Magazine addressing the Smoke Nuisance Abatement Bill of 1853.

Some of the well-meaning provisions of these Acts worked or partially worked, others did not. For there were entrenched attitudes and vested interests which were hard to budge. Many felt that poor people weren’t interested in being clean, for example. Damaging too were outdated beliefs dogmatically adhered to, such as miasma theory, a blind alley which took decades to back out of.

The story that Jackson has taken on is complex. He has organised each filth difficulty into its own chapter, some of which have witty titles (e.g. Vile Bodies for corpse disposal). Each, therefore reads as an independent essay in its own right. The author has marshalled his material superbly and written economically but with total authority, so that the academic and the layman will read Filthy Old London with equal pleasure. Yes, pleasure: odd, so you would think, given the subject matter. But there is much humour here and worthy trivia too: did you know that the illuminated signage on the first public toilets in London were not Ladies or Gentlemen, Men or Women, but HALT? Fabulous. But on a more macabre note, I was amazed to learn that parishes would often surreptitiously place the corpse of a poor baby in someone else’s coffin as a free service. Basic humanity in a cruel existence.

There are two sections of images comprising 40 photos, cartoons, illustrations, plans and portraits which are very generously captioned. At the back of the book there are a full 50 pages of Notes, Bibliography and Index. In short, a history book just how I like it.

This much-needed treatment is one of the best London history books I’ve read this year : I recommend it to all social historians and London historians alike and doff my hat to Mr Lee Jackson.

Dirty Old London: the Victorian Fight Against Filth (293pp) by Lee Jackson is published by Yale with a cover price of £20 although available for less (e.g. £13.60 at time of writing).

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Lee Jackson is a writer, author and blogger specialising in Victorian London. He is a frequent tweeter as @victorianlondon.


David Brown is a London Historians member of long standing and a multi-qualified London guide who is attached to the excellent Footprints of London guiding co-operative.

 

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