Think Your City is Dirty? Try Living in 19th Century London.

published Mar 23, 2015
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Some people love New York. And then there are other people, like my mother, who enjoyed visiting, but couldn’t help asking, as we strolled through midtown — “is it always this dirty”? I’ll admit that New York streets are often home to garbage bags, or the occasional windblown trash, although I’ve almost stopped noticing it. But New York has nothing on London in the 19th century, which was perhaps the filthiest city of all time.

I stumbled across a story on NPR (ironically, on their ‘Fresh Air’ program) that featured British author Lee Jackson, the author of the new book Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, discussing some of the more disgusting aspects of life in London in the 19th century.

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In a time before cars, London was full of horses — 300,000 of them, to be exact. Horses are nice, but they come with certain er, side effects that are not so nice. According to Jackson, the first thing you’d notice, if you stepped out into the street in 19th century London, is that everything was covered in ‘mud’. Only it wasn’t really mud at all.

A few bags of trash aren’t looking so bad now, are they?

City authorities tried to fix this by hiring young boys to dodge traffic and pick up the steaming horse turds as soon as they were deposited, but it never worked particularly well. It was, Lee says, “an immense and impossible challenge.”

In addition to the mud, there was also the soot — enough to turn the fleece of the sheep which still grazed in Regent’s Park from white to black in a matter of days. London residents were forced to wash their face and hands multiple times a day in order to maintain a respectable appearance.

And if you thought being a horse pooper-scooper was a terrible job, consider the plight of the so-called ‘night soil men’. At the beginning of the 19th century, before the sewer system, each London house would have what was called a ‘cesspool,’ a pit about four feet wide and six feet deep, above which the home’s privy was located. Liquid waste would be absorbed back into the soil at the bottom of the hole, but solid waste had to removed by the night soil man, who would come around at night (opening a cesspool during the day was illegal, as the smell was considered to be too horrifying) and climb down into the cesspool to shovel out the accumulated muck. (Lest you feel too sorry for these men, Lee points out that many of them made extra money on the side by carting the manure out of the city and selling it to farmers as fertilizer.)

Of course the story has a happy ending, when the Victorians finally decided that having one’s waste disposed of should be a municipal good, and not something left to private enterprise. They built a sewer system, which cut down significantly on water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid, and presumably also cut down significantly on horrifying smells. And the horse was eventually replace by the car, which was much less romantic and also produced pollutants, but not in solid form.

So there’s something to contemplate. The next time you’re walking down the street and see a garbage bag blowing in the wind, you can remind yourself that it could be a lot worse.

You can listen to the full story about London’s epic filth on NPR. Or you can buy the book!