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  • Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England
  • Bernard Capp
Emily Cockayne . Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. xiv + 336 pp. index. illus. map. bibl. $35. ISBN: 978–0–300–11214–6.

The title says it all, with a Hogarth engraving on the cover depicting a crowded, noisy, and squalid street scene in eighteenth-century London. Emily Cockayne offers an original and rewarding perspective on life in England in the two centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution. She poses a single question: how did contemporaries experience their world through the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste? To answer it, she draws on a wide range of commentators, some well known, such as Samuel Pepys, the satirist Ned Ward, and the clergyman James Woodforde, others less familiar, such as the hat-maker Thomas Tryon and the Bath milliner Mary Chandler. Their writings are supplemented by court records, corporation minutes, newspapers, and pamphlets. As Cockayne acknowledges in her conclusion, this is emphatically not a Whiggish history of progress. Instead she has opted to focus on the unpleasant aspects of life, and evokes a vivid sense of the noise, smell, and filth of Stuart and Hanoverian England. The chapters are broadly thematic, with titles such as "Ugly," "Itchy," "Noisy," "Gloomy," and "Grotty" (a mid-twentieth-century coinage). This rich material, presented with relish, is often memorably disgusting. Many people, including the rich, suffered from blackened teeth, skin blemishes, and sometimes the ravages of smallpox and syphilis. Birth defects had to be endured for a lifetime, and poor hygiene, rudimentary sanitation, and terrible working conditions threatened indignities from which few could hope to escape. Cities were crowded, streets narrow and dirty. Traffic noise and congestion and road accidents, were problems in early modern cities as much as today. Horses and carts had no reverse gear, and in the absence of traffic-lights a London traffic-jam might be resolved instead by fights among the draymen. City air was polluted by the smoke from thousands of coal-fires and the stinking industrial processes involved in tanning, brewing, chandlery, and many other trades. Early umbrellas were black to conceal the inevitable stains from soot-laden rain. [End Page 277]

This is essentially an urban study, drawing primarily on London and three provincial towns, Oxford, Bath, and Manchester. All were expanding, and for much of the period London was essentially a city of migrants. Newcomers arriving from villages and small market-towns in the provinces must have found their senses almost overwhelmed by the noise and bustle of a teeming humanity. It is worth recalling, though, that much of the population continued to live in the country-side, and their very different world features little here. Those living in small rural communities experienced plenty of mud and animal smells, but very little hubbub. Within the cities themselves Cockayne acknowledges progress over the period on some fronts, especially in city centers. Streets were paved, and sometimes widened, new houses no longer permitted to have overhanging upper storeys; water supplies improved, and we find fewer complaints about noisome dungheaps and pigs allowed to roam the streets. In some other respects conditions deteriorated, with crowded, dark tenements for the poor springing up in narrow alleys just as the rich were enjoying their cleaner, brighter houses in the fashionable new squares. But Cockayne focuses here on continuities rather than change, and this is a survey rather than a history. She does not explore in any depth the balance between progress and deterioration, or how far contemporary perceptions changed on what was acceptable or desirable. As she rightly observes, most people adjusted to the world as they found it. Campaigners like John Evelyn, appalled by London's polluted atmosphere, remained isolated voices, largely ignored. As Cockayne notes, most contemporaries grumbled about their world but accepted it, much as today's Londoners grumble as they endure the horrors of the crowded rush-hour Underground, an experience as horrendous as anything described here. Hubbub offers a treasure-house of material for scholars, and it will make an ideal present. It makes us reflect too on the parallels as well as contrasts between our own age...


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pp. 277-278
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Archived 2009
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