Lee Jackson loves filth. His new book, Dirty Old London, is full of the stuff, as he explores Victorian London’s attempts to cleanse a city that is swilling in muck. I’ve often wondered what Victorian London would have smelled like, and Jackson’s book comes close to capturing what must have been a frightful stink. I knew about the horse shit and the smoke, but had never considered the mud, blood, unwashed bodies, corpses and human excrement that, collectively, would have made the Victorian city one of the foulest places on earth. It’s astonishing anybody wanted to live there.
Jackson shows how Victorians began to push against the tide of muck, which grew worse as London’s population swelled. Victorians did not consider dirt in itself to be a carrier of disease, but they believed the smell could be lethal as well as deeply unpleasant, so eventually set about doing something about it. They built pavements, sewers, public baths and indoor lavatories, improved housing, dug cemeteries and generally tried to do something about “that combined odour of stale fruit and vegetables, rotten eggs, foul tobacco, spilt beer, rank cart-grease, dried soot, smoke, triturated road-dust and damp straw’. They weren’t always successful – some of those aromatic problems lingered long into the 20th century when they were eventually dealt with, or in the case of horse manure, replaced by something even worse such as exhaust fumes.
In explaining how this happened, Jackson is far more entertaining than anybody has the right to be on such a subject. Rather than focus on the well-trod tales of John Snow and Joseph Bazalgette – both of whom barely feature, thankfully – Jackson resuscitates the lives of less well known figures in this lengthy campaign against dirt, characters like reformer Edwin Chadwick who laid much of the groundwork for what was to follow. In the process, he shows how Victorian London functioned – the haphazard, individual-driven nature that saw things get done, or not, as the case might be.
This is a history with potentially narrow focus, but Jackson – a general historian of the unstuffy, non-academic variety – is removed enough from the subject to be able to show its wider importance and long-term effects. One theme of the book is the way sanitisation – in the form of sewage, rubbish and housing – was the hinge on which London’s social contract turned. For much of the 19th-century, the bewildering array of local authorities that ran London saw their role as, essentially, to keep out the way. They did as little as necessary, thus keeping rates low and relying on private enterprise to fill the gap. But as London grew, getting bigger and smellier every year, this system began to creak. A good example is with the dustmen. Collecting and recycling London’s rubbish was a lucrative job for some entrepreneurs, but not so much for the dustmen themselves, who had to rely on tips to make a living. And given that tips were much more likely to be acquired in rich areas, the poorer streets were increasingly neglected, allowing rubbish to pile higher and higher. Local authorities had to step in to fix this, and it gradually became the accepted role of local authorities in the UK until Thatcherite councils like Wandsworth in the 1980s began to perceive different, pre-Victorian, way of running things.
Jackson also touches on a related angle: the increasing movement of public buildings into private hands. In this case, it’s centred round the Victorian public lavatories, which were only built after ferocious lobbying from some notable figures who recognised the desperate need on the streets for London loos. The story of how those toilets were eventually built is fascinating in itself, but Jackson also notes the fact that so many have recently been closed, flogged, refurbished and then sold back to us as coffee shops, galleries and an “award winning urban spa”. Perhaps this is the fault of the Victorians, for making things so well and so adaptable, but you can’t help feeling that, now as then, it stinks.