I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
During the 19th century, the population of London zoomed up from one million to six million, a growth spurt that left the majority of its inhabitants living in foul grunge and overpoweringly putrid smells. The reality of life for the majority of London’s people was in sharp contrast to the image we get by watching television dramas set in the Victorian era.
Coal in Victorian London
Those that could afford it heated their homes with coal. All the city’s factories were powered by coal. The railway boom of the 1840s led to the building of 19 lines, each with its own terminus station with hundreds of trains running in and out, hauled by smoke-belching steam locomotives.
The fogs to which London is susceptible held in the smoke and its noxious content. Christine Corton, in her 2015 book London Fog, wrote about the effect on the Smithfield Cattle Show of December 1873. She quoted a Daily News report about how “The unpleasant thickness and pungency of the fog-laden atmosphere bore heavily on the fat cattle which stood openly panting and coughing in a very distressing way.” Many of the animals died.
Humans too, of course, suffered from the foul air. Everybody who breathed in the air coughed up black phlegm.
There was nothing more irritating than the unburnt carbon floating in the air; it fell on the air tubes of the human system, and formed a dark expectoration which was so injurious to the constitution; it gathered on the lungs and there accumulated.”
Times of London, 1882
In his 1903 book The People of the Abyss, Jack London observed that for Londoners “The air he breathes, and from which he never escapes, is sufficient to weaken him mentally and physically, so that he becomes unable to compete with the fresh virile life from the country hastening on to London Town to destroy and be destroyed.
“It is incontrovertible that the children grow up into rotten adults, without virility or stamina, a weak-kneed, narrow-chested, listless breed, that crumples up and goes down in the brute struggle for life with the invading hordes from the country. The railway men, carriers, omnibus drivers, corn and timber porters, and all those who require physical stamina are largely drawn from the country.”
The Museum of London notes that “The skin, clothes, and nostrils of Londoners were filled with a compound of powdered granite, soot and still more nauseous substances. The biggest cause of death in London remained consumption or tuberculosis and lung disease.”
By the middle of the Victorian era, the average life expectancy of a Londoner was 37 years.
Horses and Pollution
There was a lot of what was called “mud” in London in the 19th century. Mud was a euphemism for horse poop.
There were horse-drawn omnibuses, hansom cabs by the thousands, and carriages for the wealthy. By the late 19th century, there were more than 50,000 horses needed in London just to carry people. Add to this many thousands of horse-drawn drays and carts transporting goods. By the 1890s, the equine population of London was 300,000.
And, here’s the problem; if you shove hay in the front end of a horse, you get manure out of the back end. A lot of it. Depending on the size of the animal, the output is 15 to 35 pounds a day. In 1894, The Times newspaper warned that “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”
(Of course, the internal combustion engine came along and solved that problem, only to create new ones of its own).
Where you’ve got piles of horse dung you’ve also got disease-carrying flies.
As a working horse breathing the polluted air lasted only about three years a lot of the animals dropped dead each day. Cleaning up the carcasses was seldom done speedily.
Horse urine was another problem, added to which was that of the drivers who were permitted under a special bylaw to relieve themselves in the street rather than leave their animals unattended.
In the middle of the 19th century, an experiment was tried in Piccadilly when the road was paved with wood. Bad idea. Horse pee soaked into the timbers, marinated, and gave off an eye-watering smell of ammonia.
Victorian Personal Hygiene
The middle and upper classes had access to indoor plumbing and soap, but, they formed only a small percentage of the population; for the vast numbers of the common herd, washing and bathing were infrequent events.
“Bathing was seen primarily as therapeutic in the early part of the Victorian era – sponge baths were all the rage, and basically, if you washed you face, feet, pits, and naughty bits once a day, you were FINE. Bathing your whole body everyday? Totally a bad idea” (Vivaciousvictorian.com). Later, public baths appeared that working-class people could use.
The social divide appeared in laundry as well. As noted by Museums Victoria in Australia: “For in a time when the middle ranks used soap for laundry, many labourers’ families still used urine to disinfect their clothes.” A person’s position on the social ladder could be determined by a simple sniff test.
Dental care among the lower orders was primitive at best. “Toothpaste” could be concocted from a variety of abrasive substances such as chalk, soot, coral, or powdered cuttlefish, rubbed on by the fingers or with a frayed twig. The result was a brisk business for barbers and blacksmiths who would remove a decayed tooth for people who could not afford a dentist.
Given all of the above, it’s not surprising that Victorian London and other cities were plagued by outbreaks of disease.
The River Thames in London was an open sewer and it stank to high heaven, giving rise to the belief that the foul smell was the cause of disease. This was known as the “Miasma Theory.” P.D. Smith writes in The Guardian that “… because water companies took their water from the Thames, by 1827 people in places like Westminster were ‘receiving diluted excrement for drinking, cooking and laundering’.”
In the poorer parts of the city, sewage ran along the gutters where it mixed with rotting vegetation, blood and offal from slaughterhouses, and any other noxious substance for which no proper disposal methods had been created. Some human waste was gathered in cesspools, of which there were 200,000, in which methane gas build-ups could lead to occasional explosions. Oh the humanity!
Then, came the cholera outbreaks. In 1831, a Board of Health report warned that effect was worst among “the poor, ill-fed, and unhealthy part of the population, and especially those who have been addicted to the drinking of spirituous liquors, and indulgence in irregular habits.”
So, the folk who lived in poverty brought the disease on themselves. Blaming the victim did not address the real cause, which was that the poor were forced to live in crowded, unsanitary conditions and to drink water that was contaminated by feces.
The first cholera epidemic caused the deaths of 6,000 people in 1831-32. The 1848-49 outbreak took another 14,000. And, in 1853-54, it was the turn of 10,000 more to die from the disease.
With a creative approach to spelling and grammar, someone from a poorer area of London wrote to The Times in 1842: “We live in muck and filth. We aint got no privez, no dust bins, no water splies and no drain or suer in the whole place. If the Colera comes, Lord help us.”
The Cemetery Problem
Those who succumbed to diseases were wheeled off to the city’s graveyards, which became as overcrowded as the slums.
Cremation rarely took place, so pits twenty feet deep were dug and the coffins stacked on top of each other; the uppermost bodies were barely below the surface. Vintage News reports that “Bodies inside were often times cut into pieces to make space for new arrivals, and what couldn’t fit back inside was scattered around by gravediggers.”
I saw them chopping the head of his coffin away; I should not have known it if I had not seen the head with the teeth; I knew him by his teeth; one tooth was knocked out and the other was splintered; I knew it was my father’s head, and I told them to stop, and they laughed.”
Campbell’s Foreign Semi-Monthly Magazine, or Select Miscellany of European Literature and Art, Volume 4 (1843).
One gravedigger is quoted as saying “I have emptied a cesspool, and the smell of it was rose-water compared with the smell of graves.” Men of a certain disposition were called upon to drill holes in caskets to release the gases coming from putrefying corpses lest the boxes explode.
Scavenging vermin would drop by for a feed on whatever was available.
George Alfred Walker was a surgeon who took a particular interest in London’s overflowing cemeteries. In 1840, he contacted the Home Secretary and described the burial places as “laboratories of malaria … so many centres of infection, constantly giving off noxious effluvia.”
After much prevarication, the authorities were persuaded to deal with the issue. The solution was to stop burials within the city and open cemeteries in surrounding rural areas, so the problem became some else’s.
Eventually, of course, it dawned on government that the filth in which Londoners lived had to be dealt with. Funding public health measures and sewers became a priority in fighting back the ravages of disease. Life expectancy increased dramatically so a man born in the early 1930s could expect to live to be 60, and longevity has continued to improve.
- Florence Wallace Pomeroy, Viscountess Harberton, campaigned for dress reform. In 1892, she protested the fashion of wearing trailing skirts. She noted that during a walk through Piccadilly, such a skirt picked up “2 cigar ends; 9 cigarette ditto; a portion of pork pie, 4 toothpicks; 2 hairpins; 1 stem of a clay pipe, 3 fragments of orange peel; 1 slice of cat’s meat; half a sole of a boot; 1 plug of tobacco (chewed); straw, mud, scraps of paper, and miscellaneous street refuse …”
- The German poet Heinrich Heine visited London in 1827 and seems to have failed to notice anything amiss with the living conditions. He wrote that “I have seen the greatest wonder which the world can show to the astonished spirit.” Although, perhaps he intended “greatest” to be taken in a negative sense.
- “London Fog.” Christine L. Corton, Harvard University Press, 2015.
- “Over 200 Years of Deadly London Air: Smogs, Fogs, and Pea Soupers.” Vanessa Heggie, The Guardian, December 6, 2016.
- “Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson – Review.” P.D. Smith, The Guardian, January 1, 2015.
- “The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.” Ben Johnson, historic-uk.com, undated.
- “Health & Hygiene in Nineteenth Century England.” Tracey Grigg, Museums Victoria, undated.
- “Victorian Bathrooms.” Amy Heavilin, Vivaciousvictorian.com, December 27, 2016.
- “The Great Stink of London.” Rupert Taylor, Owlcation.com, November 6, 2019.
- “Cholera Epidemics in Victorian London.” The Gazette, undated.
- “The Curious Case of the Exploding Caskets of Highgate Cemetery’s Egyptian Avenue.” Martin Chalakoski, Vintage News, January 25, 2018.
- “Death in the City: the Grisly Secrets of Dealing with Victorian London’s Dead.” Lee Jackson, The Guardian, January 22, 2015.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 26, 2019:
Yes Kari, it is a bit cringe worthy; especially from the rather antiseptic viewpoint of our times.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 26, 2019:
I cringed throughout this read. Conditions were extremely gross. I cannot conceive of going walking and my dress picking up all that trash. We have come a long way, but we still have far to go.
Susan Edwards on November 25, 2019:
I have a poster of that Gustav Dore drawing of the worst of the worst of the denizens of London.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 25, 2019:
Thanks Suzumiya. If modern Londoners are unconcerned about their surroundings I am unaware of this, so cannot comment.
Ann Carr from SW England on November 25, 2019:
Canada is the one place left on my bucket list. It always looks so inviting in the photos!
I wouldn't miss London if I never went again, which is probably the case. Dullness has its benefits!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 25, 2019:
Thank you Ann. As a 20-something I headed for London every weekend to get away from the dullness of the small town in which I lived in the Midlands. Nowadays, I crave that small town dullness. I live in Canada now and haven't been in London for more than a dozen years. I do not miss it.
suzumiya haruhi on November 25, 2019:
Thanks, I learned a interesting fragment of London history. But I have read modern Londoner are indifferent about their surroundings in a textbook, Is that true ?
Also, as more problem presented, we need judicious and objective thoughts rather sole criticism.
Ann Carr from SW England on November 25, 2019:
I knew we were a filthy lot in London (I still don't like the place even though it's a lot better these days!), but this has brought it all to the fore! So much for being paved with gold. I rarely go there so I'm happy.
It's funny, isn't it, how we often solve one problem by creating another? Still doing it, too. Do we never learn?
Fascinating hub which has made me even happier and more grateful that I live in the country and by the sea.
Your articles are always informative, written with humour, and often down to earth - great!