- Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson
Many of us know of Lee Jackson because of his work on the website, The Dictionary of Victorian London, which he created and currently maintains. The Dictionary, a subject catalog on Victorians and their culture, is a wonderful site for serendipitous browsing. In recent years, Jackson has also published a handful of historical thrillers, and, in 2006, a book of non-fiction, Victorian London (New Holland). His latest project, Dirty Old London, published by Yale University Press, marks his first foray into the world of mainstream academic publishing, and it’s an impressive one.
The book’s subtitle – The Victorian Fight Against Filth – is perhaps more revealing than its main title. It’s the material reality of filth, in all its many forms, that occupies center stage, as well as the public health movement that undertook to clean up London and to make life more sanitary for its citizens. Jackson’s focus is on the complexities and difficulty of disposal – the disposal of human waste, at home and on the streets; and of human bodies in churchyards; and of the dust and soot that covered everything. According to Jackson, he will “explain why, far from cleansing the great metropolis, the Victorians left it thoroughly begrimed” (2). This resistance to major sanitary reform is evident throughout Dirty Old London – even though the [End Page 153] consequences were immediate and dire. Fears of centralization, ignorance of bacteriological science, and pure pigheadedness retarded progress for decades, as did the rebarbative personalities and quixotic schemes of some of the reformers. Even after cholera arrived in London in January 1832, little was done on a lasting basis (59). In 1899, fully fifty years after the “sanitary” decade that marked the beginning of the clean up, the Chinese ambassador could still say tersely of London, “too dirty.” In the face of such obstacles, a number of reformers stood out. These included the relatively familiar figures of Edwin Chadwick, Thomas Southwood Smith and Joseph Bazalgette, as well as more obscure ones, such as John Martin, George Frederick Carden and Thomas Willson. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, Martin, the popular painter of apocalyptic biblical scenes, conceived of a sewage plan involving intercepting sewers on both sides of the Thames long before Bazalgette; Carden insisted on the public-health benefits of a garden cemetery like Père Lachaise in Paris; and Willson whimsically hoped to build a giant pyramid-shaped mausoleum that would tower over London (it would have been twice as tall as St. Paul’s Cathedral).
Dirty Old London is especially illuminating when it comes to the practical problems of the public disposal of human waste. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Londoners had few choices if they needed a public bathroom. There were common privies that served entire tenements, but these were not really public. Public houses and coaching inns were sometimes accommodating, though this was far from certain. Men would predictably use the alley to urinate but equally predictably this led to complains, warning notices, and worry about “respectable conduct” (156). Property owners would even booby trap problem areas with “barricadoes and shelves, grooves, and one fixed above another, to conduct the stream into the shoes” (157)1. Women had even fewer options: they might urinate in the streets, although this was thought degrading and presumably was quite rare, even among the working class. Women of a higher status would enter a confectioner’s or milliner’s shop, purchase some small item, and ask to use the bathroom. Or, if they had a coach, they might carry their own “bordalou” or chamber pot with them, and use it behind closed blinds.
Although public bathrooms had been discussed and promoted by interested parties from early in the century, it took decades (into the 1880s) before they became widespread. The earliest accommodations – for men of course – were rudimentary urinals, simple slats or stones located against the external wall of public houses, often without drainage, and sometimes with...