- Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson
When I read of street muck that was like a “tenacious, glutinous paste,” my interest was piqued. By “sulphurous stinks” I was hooked—and I was not yet past the first page of Lee Jackson’s new book, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The book proves to be a treasure trove of words and phrases for filth. Some are acutely descriptive; others are wonderfully euphemistic. Take, for example, “night soil,” “cesspoolage,” and “ejectamenta” (all terms for sewage), or “dustman” (garbage collector), “convenience” (toilet), or even “the big smoke” (a metonym for London itself). But for all its concern with these felicitous phrases, Dirty Old London is not primarily about language (although Lee Jackson’s experience as a novelist shows through to great effect). The book’s main concern is with Victorian history, albeit of a very specific kind. In Dirty Old London we see not the triumphant global empire of Victorian Britain, but rather the more embarrassing and more intimate effort on the part of Victorians to manage their own filth as it overflows and accumulates on streets, in homes, in the air, and even in or on Londoners’ bodies (and corpses). Although this endeavor might seem as simple as taking out the trash, it involved important developments in the discourses of sanitation, morality, science, and government. Jackson’s book, then, ends up providing both a history of the way filth was represented as well as how it was actually encountered and managed. [End Page 137]
Jackson is not the first to take on the history (and historicity) of filth. His book follows on the heels of works like William A. Cohen’s Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life (2004) and Emily Cockayne’s Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600–1770 (2008). Jackson’s is the first book, however, to offer a comprehensive account of the uniquely Victorian—and, more specifically, the Victorian metropolitan—project to identify and manage filth.
Jackson aims to revise a common misconception about the Victorian era’s sanitation efforts—namely, the misconception that they worked. Jackson points out that we remember the Victorians as the inventors of “sanitary science,” who built, for example, the extensive sewer system that still serves London today. Similarly, pleasant Victorian garden cemeteries like those at Highgate and Abney Park present an Arcadian image of peaceful and sanitary burials. These monuments of the Victorian era represent important, hard-won successes. But they do not tell the whole story. Jackson recovers and analyzes those filthy problems of the Victorian metropolis that refused to go away, even after almost a century of effort.
So, just how dirty was London in the Victorian era? Jackson reports that 1,000 tons of horse dung entered the streets each day from the city’s 300,000 horses. The air was thick with smoke and soot and could produce “gravy”-like fogs that sometimes proved fatal for those with respiratory problems. Filth was beneath Londoners’ feet as well in the form of sewage from leaking cesspools that entered the Thames and drinking water supplies. There was also stench coming from overcrowded graveyards, uncollected trash heaps, and “the great unwashed” (another Victorian term), many of whom could not afford to bathe.
Thus, the main question for Victorian Londoners was not “What is filth?” or “Where is filth?”; it was “Whose problem is it?” Answering that question proved to be the main cultural and municipal project of the era. Not all forms of filth were created (or managed) equally. It was easy, for example, for wealthy Londoners living in the West End to identify the dirty bodies and dilapidated homes of the poor as a moral problem rather than a social one. By a kind of circular logic, they saw the dirt caused by poverty as proof that the poor were not capable or deserving of cleanliness. But other forms of filth were not so easy to compartmentalize. Take, for example, the case of “night soil,” or sewage. At the beginning...