Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson brings to live the filthy Victorian age of raw sewage, cesspools, and rotting corpses.
Jackson describes the battle between refuse collection for a profit and as a general matter of health. Each has its consequences for the economy (healthy workforce) so politics play a huge role in allocating money, oversight, and the execution of plans. But where the stakes are high there’s corruption and fraud.
We learn about specific spots in the streets that were kept relatively clean by sweepers who created gaps in the mud. For a tip, people could cross (hence the word: crossings) there. This practice became so established that in an 1862 ruling a judge denied compensation in an accident between a pedestrian and a carriage because the pedestrian was not on a crossing.
The sweepers’ services expanded to helping the elderly across the street, carrying packages, and holding horses while “clients” shopped. In doing so they forged bonds with the upper classes often leading to a somewhat steady employment.
Charles Cochrane began tackling the failing workhouses of the poor. He promoted public baths, wash houses, and presented his idea of street orderlies. He envisioned that aside from cleaning duties they could function as auxiliary police helping catch pickpockets and keeping order (hence orderlies) on the streets.
Neglecting refuse collection leads to serious health scares. The 1831 Asiatic cholera pandemic led to linking the disease with clean water. There was no law regulating proper sewage connections or the filtering of raw sewage before entering the rivers.
John Martin wanted to intercept the raw sewage before it entered into the river and recycle it for a profit by selling it as manure. He failed but decades later Joseph Bazalgette succeeded. The difference? Martin had the idea but not being an engineer he could not execute the plan. Bazalgette was an engineer and drew up the plans needed to make the idea visual.
The book covers the problems of burial grounds, personal hygiene, laundry, public toilets, and air pollution.
Highly recommended but only if you can stand the smell.