Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson, book review

An illuminating look at how the capital cleaned up its act

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The Independent Culture

Known as "the Smoke", Victorian London was largely inhabited by "the great unwashed". The smuts from domestic hearths and workplace chimneys filled the air, contributed to pea-souper fogs and contaminated everything. You could tell how long sheep had been grazing in Regent's Park from the blackness of their wool.

It was impossible for the poor to keep clean. The social investigator Henry Mayhew described one woman struggling at a washtub in a room seven feet square housing a family of eight. Added to soot, such heaps of dust, mud, ash, horse-dung and other detritus littered the city's thoroughfares that the rich were also sullied.

Sewage disposal was the main problem, as Lee Jackson shows in this excellent study – vivid, scholarly, illuminating, funny, well written and beautifully illustrated, a model of its kind. In 1800, London relied for the removal of ordure not on sewers but on cesspools directly connected to household privies. In fact, Britain's capital was built over a series of cloacal catacombs. These were emptied by night soil men, who sold what they garnered to farmers as manure. The system worked after a fashion until the advent of water closets and the explosion of London's population.

As cesspools overflowed, sewers had to take the strain. But they poured into the Thames, from which the metropolis took its drinking water. At its worst this was black liquid swarming with vermin, including tadpoles and leeches. But even the affluent drank effluent. Early Victorians blamed miasma rather than bacteria for diseases such as cholera. However, it took the Great Stink of 1858, when MPs were sickened by the river's "poisonous effluvia", to make the government finance the construction of Joseph Bazalgette's intercepting sewer system.

This supposedly cured London's sanitary ills. Actually, as Jackson argues, running sores remained. Sweeps continued to use climbing boys, even inside the Houses of Parliament, long after the practice was outlawed. Bursting graveyards gave up their dead, prompting the construction of garden cemeteries and "suburban Valhallas". Pestilential rookeries survived since slum clearance and model housing merely pushed squalor further down the street.

Gas and electricity helped to clear the atmosphere. Automobiles diminished equine pollution. Council houses were hugely beneficial and their sale was a retrograde step. Indeed, as Jackson suggests, we are now in some ways less enlightened than the Victorians. Public conveniences, their civilised creation, are disappearing. And private water monopolies are back, as rapacious as ever.