'Dirty Old London': A History Of The Victorians' Infamous Filth In the 1800s, the Thames River was thick with human sewage and the streets were covered with horse dung, the removal of which, according to Lee Jackson, presented an "impossible challenge."

'Dirty Old London': A History Of The Victorians' Infamous Filth

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This is FRESH AIR. In the 19th century, London was the capital of the largest empire the world had ever known. It was also infamously filthy. Its residents choked on soot-drenched fog, traveled down streets covered with muddy horse excrement and drank water from the Thames River, which was thick with human sewage. Just how dirty the city was and how its citizens attempted to deal with it is the subject of the entertaining and sometimes disgusting new book "Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth," by Lee Jackson. Jackson has written several nonfiction and fiction books about Victorian London. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Lee Jackson, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's hard for us to imagine just how filthy the city of London was in the Victorian era. What would it be like just walking through the streets? What would you be stepping in? What would you be smelling? What was it like?

LEE JACKSON: Yes, well, I think stepping in it is definitely the point. I mean, the first thing you'd notice if you stepped out onto the streets would be the mud. The mud that lined the carriageways it were. But of course it wasn't really mud - mud was something of a euphemism. It was essentially composed of horse dung. There were tens of thousands of working horses in London and with the inevitable consequences for the streets. And the Victorians never really found a really effective way of removing that unfortunately. The air itself was generally filled with soot and smoke. It was - I think it was famously said of the sheep in Regent's Park - there will still grazing sheep in Regent's Park in the Mid-Victorian period - that you could tell how long they'd been in the capital by how dirty their coats were. They'd gotten increasingly - from whites to black over a period of days. And, you know, if you're a respectable person you had to wash your face and had several times during the day to make sure that you looked half decent. So you had the sort of the mud on the streets, you had the fog and the smoke in the air, you had the stench probably from blocked drains and cesspools below houses. It wasn't really a pleasant experience.

BRIGER: Well, you write in the 1890s that there were about 300,000 horses in the streets and producing a thousand tons of dung a day?

JACKSON: Yes, I mean, and - you know, imagine the sheer amount of labor that would be needed to collect that. The City of London came up with a scheme of using basically boys - boys age 12 to 14 whose job - they were called street orderlies and their job was to dart between the traffic and try and scoop it up as soon as this stuff hit the street as it were. But it was an immense and impossible challenge. And urine of course from the horses was also another problem - it soaked the streets. There was an experiment in I think Piccadilly with wood paving in the mid-century. And it was abandoned after a few weeks because the sheer smell of ammonia that was coming from the pavement was just impossible. And also the shopkeepers near by said that this ammonia was actually discoloring their brass shop fronts as well.

BRIGER: So you write that cesspools weren't outlawed in London until 1855. What were the cesspools like in the city?

JACKSON: Well, this is the thing that's often forgotten - that yeah, you know, London in the start of the 19th century - it was basically filled with these cesspools. There'd be brick chambers, there would be a - maybe about 6 feet deep 4 foot wide - and every house would have one. They would be ideally in the back garden away from the house. But equally in central London and more crowded areas it was quite common to have a cesspool in the basement - below the house. And this - you know, above the cesspool would be where your household privy would be. And that was basically your sanitary facilities for lack of a better term. And that actually worked quite well for little while. But then people got very interested in this new invention - the water closet. And it's often ignored that actually the water closets were initially connected to these cesspools - not the sewer system that existed in the start of the century - that was just for rain water. So you get water closets coming in - they're connected to cesspools and they don't really fit because of the extra large volume of the flushing water. You get these sort of surges of waste and dump and smell. And people start getting very concerned about what's in their cesspools 'cause the sort of stink that's rising from them in the back gardens and in their houses - the idea that this sort of stench is coming into the house - seeping through the house and possibly bringing in diseases like say cholera or typhoid into your home, into your family is actually one of the great sort of driving forces of sanitary reform in the 19th century.

BRIGER: Who were the night soil men and what was their job?

JACKSON: Well, yes - so you're quite right. You know, the cesspool would be in your back garden, it would be under your house but eventually the waste had to be removed. Now, actually cesspools were built to be porous so the liquid part of the waste was meant to just seep away into the ground. There was no knowledge of bacteriological contamination although there was plenty of it happening. Nevertheless, you have this residue of solid matter left at the end. And it was removed by so-called night soil men. This wasn't actually a sort of full-time job for people. They were often dustmen or laborers or brick layers who made a little extra money on the side. And they would come in the middle of the night to your home - and it was by law in the night because the stench venting a cesspool was considered too disturbing during the day. And they would unfortunately have to clumber down into this pit and shovel out the muck - get it into a wicker basket, get it into a cart - and at the start of century, that was actually reasonably productive labor because the cart could then be taken out to the countryside and the maneuver could be sold to farmers. So there was actually some profit in selling things on as well.

BRIGER: You say that the night soil men would take the muck out and then bring it to their yard and just let it dry there which must have just created an awful stench for their neighbors.

JACKSON: (Laughter). Yes, I mean, the - you know, there's these sort of complaints and, you know, sometimes at the start of the century - London is still relatively small, you know, it' only - it's only really 3-4 miles across basically. And these night soil men and the people who managed - their yards would be actually, you know, really - often just in like a back street adjoining some very respectable houses. And if you look at the sort of parish records of the early 19th century, people, you know, complaining that their neighbor is, you know, literally got this mountain of human excrement building up in their backyard which they are planning to sell on, you know. So yes, it was horrible and there was no easy way of dealing with it. So, I mean, you just complain to your local vestry, your local parish authority and hope they could persuade the person in question do something about it.

BRIGER: You say that the Victorians created public toilets. How big was that a need at the time?

JACKSON: Well, you know, the Victorians were very keen on public health. What they called sanitary science, you know, trying to eradicate disease and dirt from London. And they introduced a massive sewage system in the midcentury. And you think as part of that you might provide some kind of facilities for the general public who had, you know, the need to use the toilet. And yet it was a strain long saga basically. It's often said that the first public toilets were at The Great Exhibition which was this sort of, you know, the first world expo as it were held in Hyde Park - it had 6 million visitors in a matter of months and there were indeed public toilets set up within the exhibition. But there was a great debate after that closed as to whether London needed such facilities actually on the street. And it was tied up with notions of sort of shame and respectability. It is particularly said that women would just be too embarrassed to enter a public toilet in the public street. This whole thing went on for basically decades arguing about whether the capital should have such facilities.

BRIGER: Right, so before the Victorians got over their prudishness about female anatomy - what options were available for women?

JACKSON: Well, for women - well, the options were very limited. If you were a very well-to-do person - if you had your own coach you could draw the blinds and use - if you're a lady - use something called a borderloo, which is basically a sort of an elongated sort of gravy boat. This was basically something that, you know, if you were a very respectable person you could have this just tucked under the seat in your coach and if you're absolutely desperate you could do that. The middle class is more expected to go into shops. And they, you know, the idea was that if you knew a confectioner shop or maybe your milliners you would just have a quiet word with the servant and say, well, can I use your facilities, you know? But for the average person - for someone of the working class who was moving about the city - there really was nowhere to go. And the idea was that basically you either didn't, you know, you just sort of restrained yourself or, you know, the back alleys of London were fairly filthy anyway. And if you lived in the slums, often the sort of - the toilet facilities that were provided were basically nonexistent or entirely blocked. So it wasn't unusual for sellers or back streets just to be used as sort of ad hoc toilets unfortunately.

BRIGER: That's right, you say that the men had very little compunction about using the alleyways as urinals and you described this thing - I think you coin it as a urine deflector. What was that?

JACKSON: Well, it's a great invention. I was reading a very obscure early 19th century journal and it mentioned how hostile London is to the tourist and to the visitor. And it said that even to the extent that there were - I think the phrase he used was barricardos,(ph) you know, as in barricades against relieving yourself in the street. And I wondered what that meant - I didn't take much notice of it but in researching the book, I found another source which basically said the same sort of thing - that there were sort of grooved and angled bits of metal that would prevent you urinating. I thought, what? I don't quite understand what this is about. And believe it or not, about a week after I read that I just happened to walk through an alleyway off Fleet Street - Clifford's Inn Passage - it's a very old part of London. And I've been there a thousand times before - I used to work around there. And along the wall were a set - of about 45 degrees to the wall - were these iron strips with grooves running down them about two or three feet off the ground. I looked and I realized this is it. This is exactly what they'd been talking about. And they were there to prevent people urinating against your wall if you had a business or a shop and you didn't want members of the public nipping into the alley around the side. You would put this groove against your wall - this sort of sloping thing against the wall and of course if someone was to relieve themselves there, the slope meant that the urine fell straight into their shoes. And apparently these were all over London. And there's just this one set left on Fleet Street.

BRIGER: So we spent a lot of the time today talking about just how dirty London was. But how did it get so awful, I mean, is it just a case of the city growing beyond its means of controlling itself?

JACKSON: I think there's a great quote, I think, towards the end of the century. Someone says that basic London has sort of a village organization still even by the end of the 19th century. And certainly at the start, the local government of London is parochial in the sort of literal or metaphorical sense, you know? It really is parishes with their local clergymen and a couple of, you know, the sort of worthy businessmen and, you know, so forth who were actually running things at a very localized level and these sort of tiny Balkanized parts of London. There are even some landowners who obtain a sort of special acts which would allow them to run particular streets or squares as separate government entities. And so London is made up of this patchwork of tiny authorities. And that perhaps works okay in the Georgian period when it's relatively - still a relatively small city. But yes, as it grows - massive immigration from the provinces from Ireland. These sort of small bodies just can't cope with the sheer scale of the challenge - just the sheer amount of dirt and the sheer amount of rubbish that has to be moved. You know, rubbish is a great sort of logistical problem as well as sort of a public health problem. And it just becomes too much of a challenge for them and the problem is as well the Victorians were great believers in what we would now call small government. They didn't believe in centralization - there was great hostility to national government coming in telling Londoners what to do. And the irony of setting up even some kind of municipal London authority was immensely politically contentious. And this really set back any sort of - any hope of cleaning London for much of the 19th century.

BRIGER: How did things actually get better in London? I mean, we talked a lot about how filthy it was - I mean, I think London today is not the same city. How did things improve?

JACKSON: Well, I mean, you know, the Victorians did achieve something. They built this - the famous, great sewer network of the mid-19th century built by Joseph Bazalgette - now sort of renowned civil engineer, you know? And that did achieve a lot. It basically took away the possibility of wholesale cholera epidemics in the city. Typhus and typhoid - they all were reduced. And basically it's only until the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century that you get a sort of an effective central authority for London that you actually start to see change. London County Council is set up in 1889. And it takes decades for people to accept that the state perhaps has a role in, you know, how they manage their household, how they manage their rubbish, you know, their toilet facilities even, you know? But the state basically does intervene. And it is - that's the idea of, you know, sort of central authority that is actively concerned, what the Victorians would've called inessential municipal socialism. And that was sort of almost politically unacceptable at the start of the 19th century, but by the end, it was seen as just absolutely necessary. And that sort of mission to improve people's lives in a very sort of day-to-day basis was carried on basically throughout the 20th century.

BRIGER: Lee Jackson, thank you very much.

JACKSON: Thank you.

GROSS: Lee Jackson is the author of "Dirty Old London." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. You can read an excerpt of "Dirty Old London" on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers one Wikipedia editor's war against the use of one phrase. This is FRESH AIR.

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