Victorianist Jackson (Walking Dickens’ London, 2012) demonstrates the unimaginable filth that permeated London during the 19th century.
During the industrial age, it was not just dust and smoke from factories that affected life in the city; in fact, 19th-century reformers felt that was just a part of life. London was plagued year-round by manure, ash, mud and rotten garbage, and the summer months, which “created their own obnoxious cocktail,” were especially bad. The generally accepted thought was that the source of sickness, including cholera and typhus epidemics, was miasma, the foul smell of degrading organic material. The sewers and cesspools of London continually overflowed, and while the “night soil” men pumped out waste and sold it for fertilizer, they couldn’t keep up with a population that increased sixfold in the period from 1800 to 1900. Finally, with Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890) leading the sanitary movement, a great sewer project was built to divert raw sewage and eliminate cesspools. The situation regarding ash and cinders ran into a similar problem, as dustmen sold the waste from coal fires to brick makers but couldn’t keep up with the population explosion. Reformers managed to curtail the output of smoke from the many factories, but the domestic grate of a “man’s castle” continued to fowl the air well into the 20th century. The author thoroughly covers the various pollutants plaguing the city, including the most prevalent in the early years: manure. London required 300,000 horses to keep the city moving, and their manure, mixed with ash and mud, created a vile substance covering nearly every street.
A well-researched, if unpalatable, picture of a filthy city and the different factions fighting for and against reform using class distinctions, gender inequality and horrendous poor laws. Jackson strongly warns us that the problem isn’t solved; the great sewer project is desperately outdated, and the “clean air” is anything but.