Rear Window: Lore and ordure in the cities: Filthy Streets

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THE GREAT debate about law and ordure, perhaps Britain's favourite topic of conversation, has been going on for 2,000 years. The Romans kept the streets of London well-drained, so that running water carried off the deposits of horses and cart-oxen. But the Romans departed, taking urban efficiency with them, and ever since there have been arguments about who has a duty to remove dung.

Today, it is about dog shit on the pavement. The lamp-posts of British cities are flyposted with appeals to fine pet-owners, or to introduce compulsory pooper-scoopers. Meanwhile, any busy street has its man or woman hopping on one foot and volleying obscenities. It is hard to realise that this disgusting hazard did not always exist, and that people have not always walked with their eyes down.

For most of the Victorian years, the problem was horse manure in the street. (In poorer quarters, it was human excrement as well, often emptied from buckets into the open gutter.) Today, pedestrians feel quite sentimental when they see a police horse doing its 'natural, organic' job in the street; some may even inhale with pleasure.

The Victorians, however, thought that horse manure smelt horrible, and as urban traffic thickened and then clogged up, they were often up to their ankles in it when they tried to cross the street.

Then came the car. Hard as it is to believe, the car was welcomed for its cleanliness. It was shiny, manoeuvrable and equipped with quiet rubber tyres rather than iron-bound wheels and horseshoes. The scent of petrol was found exotic and delicious. And, above all, cars did not crap: they left the road clean. The job of crossing sweeper, the man paid to keep open a channel between mounds of manure so the middle classes could cross the road without fouling boots and hems, became redundant.

But there was, it turned out, one noxious side-effect. A correspondence in the Times in January 1904, just 90 years ago, centred on the new menace of dogs' mess on pavements - caused, the letter writers said, by the displacement of dogs from street to pavement.

Until then, the dog had been a street creature or a lap-creature, roaming freely among carts and coaches or carried in its owner's arms. But now the car - uncannily speedy, soaring past dogs with a loud horn blast - had frightened dogs off the street. 'The advent of the car has allowed dogs to take pavement rank,' one correspondent observed, making the pavements 'abominably filthy'. The silly female fashion for long sweeping skirts, he went on, was sweeping up the unmentionable; 'the discovery must be manifest to the ladies' maids very soon afterwards'.

As a member of the English upper crust, the letter writer saw a solution close to hand. 'The great group of apparently loose hands who pose as beggars might be employed in scavenging the pavements to some purpose.' Perhaps the next Conservative Party conference will take this idea up and offer it to the homeless. Why sell the Big Issue when you can clean up behind a Rottweiler?

Dirty dogs campaign, page 22

(Photographs omitted)