The Cholera Epidemic and Animal-like Conditions – Jack Temple

A VISIT TO THE CHOLERA DISTRICTS OF BERMONDSEY by Henry Mayhew, 1849.

Henry Mayhew was a London-based former lawyer and journalist, who was one of the founders of Punch magazine in 1841[1]. Mayhew became concerned with the impact of cholera on the working classes, particularly following the outbreak of cholera in the summer of 1849 when he wrote this article[2]. He wrote the article in response to the cholera outbreak in the London district of Bermondsey to inform the literate and educated classes of this plight of sufferers in the London slums in tohelp ensure that the outbreak was investigated properly. The area of Bermondsey that Mayhew explored was one of the worst hit in terms of cholera deaths in London, with a total of 161 deaths per 10,000 people in the year of 1849[3]. The cholera epidemic contradicted the notion that London was a centre of pride for many Victorians and highlighted the problems which faced cities as a result of urbanisation, exposing the “evils of modern urban life”.[4].

Mayhew’s article twice makes reference to animals,  as follows.

The water is covered with a scum almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease. In it float large masses of green rotting weed, and against the posts of the bridges are swollen carcasses of dead animals, almost bursting with the gases of putrefaction. Along its shores are heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which tells you of the rotting fish there, while the oyster shells are like pieces of slate from their coating of mud and filth. In some parts the fluid is almost as red as blood from the colouring matter that pours into it from the reeking leather-dressers’ close by.

At the back of nearly every house that boasts a square foot or two of outlet – and the majority have none at all – are pig-sties. In front waddle ducks, while cocks and hens scratch at the cinderheaps. Indeed the creatures that fatten on offal are the only living things that seem to flourish here.

This quotation highlights the poor diets of many within the working class communities of Victorian London and how people such as Mayhew saw it as a sign of desperation and lack of adequate hygiene and nutrition.

In this article, animals are not shown in the cuddly way we often think of cats and dogs living in our more comfortable homes today or indeed the more pampered pets in middle and upper-class homes at the time, as Mayhew describes animals, both dead and living, as they existed in the slums. He refers to rats, mice, pigs and hens, with the first two carrying diseases transmittable to humans and the latter two a source of food for those living in the slums, as they were able to ‘scratch around’ for their own food supplies without having to be looked after by their owners. All these animals add to the squalor of the environment – and Mayhew uses graphic terms such as ‘the gases of putrefaction’, ‘phosphoretted smell’ and ‘coating of mud and filth’ to describe the conditions in Bermondsey. Historian Drew Gray argues that the Victorian middle class ‘shivered in their comfortable homes and turned their noses lest they become infected’ whenever a disease (notably cholera) or horrific crimes were committed in the east end of London[5]. This  gives us a good insight into how particular issues were viewed by those within middle class Victorian England and how they viewed the slums as a separate entity despite living within the same city.

In this article, Mayhew explains the filth and squalor experienced by those living in the working class district of Bermondsey and makes the appropriate connection between these appalling living conditions and the outbreak of diseases such as cholera and typhus which are transmitted by drinking contaminated water or eating food that has been in contact with contaminated water. Pigs live in “pig-sties” but the word is also used to describe very poor and filthy living conditions for people and Mayhew points out that the only creatures which thrive in the slums are ‘creatures that fatten on offal’. By implication, these are not conditions suitable for human beings. Descriptions such as these might be seen as reinforcing class divisions, with the middle and upper classes seeing slum dwellers as filthy and sub-human,  but at the same time it can be argued that Mayhew was simply trying to create sympathy for the working class who lived in these  conditions . As a result of the cholera epidemic during this period the government promoted a public health bill and gradually the attention of the city’s political leaders, such as aldermen Thomas Sidney and Henry Lowman Taylor, who were described by The Times newspaper as “Defenders of the Filth”[6]. This measure ultimately changed public opinion about how politicians could influence public health and sanitary “progress”[7].

Ultimately, Mayhew’s article pinpointed many factors that contributed to the cholera epidemic, such as inadequate hygiene and nutrition, and influenced a middle-class audience by painting an evocative picture of how the epidemic was affecting people within London’s slums. This also highlighted the need for public health reform and raised hygiene standards.

Jack Temple

References: 

  1. Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor (Middlesex: Penguin, 1985), p.xi.
  2. Simkin, John, ‘Henry Mayhew’, Spartacus International, available online: http://spartacus-educational.com/Jmayhew.htm
  3. Bingham, P., Verlander, N.Q., Cheal, M.J., ‘John Snow, William Farr and the 1849 Outbreak of Cholera that affected London: A Reworking of the Data Highlights the Importance of the Water Supply’, Public Health (2004), available online: http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/publichealth118_387_394_2004.pdf
  4. Olsen, Donald J., The Growth of Victorian London (Middlesex: Penguin, 1976), p.54.
  5. Gray, Drew D., London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City (London: Continuum, 2010), p.60.
  6. Porter, Roy, London: A Social History (London: Penguin, 1996), p.297.
  7. Porter, London, p.297.

 

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