Mayhew, Journalism and Smell – Megan Morris

Smell is a great connector of humans, with the loss of this often-overlooked sense being incredibly rare. Therefore, it is surprising that smell is little spoken about in historical work. Many primary sources relate to smell in some way, allowing the reader to connect with people in the past. Through the examination of a section of investigative journalism by Henry Mayhew, this piece focuses on the smell of the slum.

Why is smell important?

Life in Victorian London was busy, crowded and smelly. Recent renewed interest in the history of the senses has led to more of a focus upon the sense experience of slum life. Looking at smell reveals important information about the lives of those who lived or visited the slums. Smell was an everyday, unavoidable part of slum life, with overcrowding, poor sanitation and manual labour encircling the lives of many working-class Londoners.

“Filth everywhere – a gutter before the houses, and a drain behind – clothes drying, and slops emptying from the windows; … men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.”[1]

Here, Dickens refers to St Giles Rookery, and examines the smell of the area. In the nineteenth century, a rise in middle class interest in the slum areas led to investigations into the conditions of the health and the housing of the British poor.[2]

the-sewer-hunter
Figure One – The Sewer Hunter from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor [4]

Mayhew’s Investigations

Writers such as Henry Mayhew conducted interviews with slum dwellers and wrote about their experiences. In September of 1849, The Morning Chronicle published an article by Mayhew where he wrote of his visit to Bermondsey, shortly after the Cholera outbreaks had subsided:

“London would almost admit of being mapped out pathologically, and divided into morbid districts and deadly cantons”.[3]

 Here, Mayhew’s description of the layout of London links to early nineteenth century medical ideas relating to smell. Ideas surrounding miasma theory defined that diseases, such as cholera, were caused by breathing in bad smells. Although miasma theory was eventually disregarded in the late nineteenth century, in favour of germ theory, popular conceptions regarding disease referred to the ideas of miasma.[5]

It is not only the nose, but the stomach, that tells how heavily the air is loaded with sulphuretted hydrogen; and as soon as you cross one of the crazy and rotting bridges over the reeking ditch, you know… the air is thickly charged with this deadly gas.”[6]

Therefore, the strong and putrid smells of the slum areas were a worry in terms of spreading dangerous diseases, especially with the chance of spreading these diseases into middle and upper class areas. This worry peaked during the Great Stink of London, in the late summer of 1858, which was so potent that it impacted the Houses of Parliament.[7]

Mayhew later published a book , London Labour and the London Poor, which included interviews with members of the poor and engravings, such as Figure One above, of inhabitants of the slums.[8]

The Great Stink of London

london-bathing-season
Figure Two: The London Bathing Season. Punch (18 June 1859). [10]
The smell of the River Thames became so potent that it began to be compared to the unsanitary smells of the slums and its inhabitants. In Figure Two, it is possible to examine how dirty the ‘street urchin’ is, suggesting his lack of access to sanitation and cleanliness. The idea that this boy would be disgusted by the smell of the river shows just how bad the smell of the Thames had got. The water within the source shows numerous floating dead animals, which relates back to the ideas of miasma. The river is seen to have caused the death of these animals, and the neglect of proper disposal of their corpses and their subsequent putrefication is seen as leading to more miasma and disease.[9]

Smell and decomposition

Putrefaction of animal corpses features within Mayhew’s aforementioned work on his visit to Bermondsey, where he described the terrible condition of the river within the area.

“In it [the water] 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 art heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which tells you of the rotting fish there.”[11]

In his description of the lack of sanitation this area experiences, Mayhew manages to depict vividly the smell of the area, with repeated use of words such as ‘filth’ and ‘foul’ showing just how bad the smell of the water and the area itself would have been.  Mayhew’s work on Bermondsey features language that compares the bad smells of the slum he visited to an aura of death. He described the air of the slum as “having the smell of a graveyard”.[12]

This comparison of the slum with destruction relates to nineteenth century middle-class ideas about poverty and the slums. Throughout the early nineteenth century, there were debates about the link between poverty and the ‘moral character’ of the nation. Conditions within which the poor lived had to be improved, so that their moral character itself could improve. It was important for the moral condition of the working class to be improved, as a lack of morals here could cause a lack of morals in the ‘social body’. The notion of the ‘social body’ was constantly invoked and related to the idea that the nation itself could deteriorate morally if the conditions of the poor were not improved.

What of Sanitation?

The smell of the slum was caused by a lack of sanitation, and therefore a lack of cleanliness, which meant the moral character of the area was lacking. Therefore, sources such as Mayhew’s piece can tell us about nineteenth-century definitions of morality.

“Immediately opposite is a narrow-mouthed alley known as Shepherd’s-court, an irregular cluster of human habitations, the sight and smell of which are enough on an August afternoon to make one gasp for breath.”[13]

This account from James Greenwood, which appeared in the Standard in 1875, shows how the conditions of the London poor had little improved as the century progressed. However, by this time ideas about miasma and disease had begun to dissipate, meaning that the fear of smell may also have begun to wane. Social protest relating to the living conditions of the working class also became more significant and led to renewed interest in solving the issues of poverty without stigmatising the poor from the 1880s.  

In conclusion, nineteenth century slum life can be examined through the medium of smell due to the number of sources available for analysis. By focusing upon the 1849 article by Henry Mayhew, this piece shows how smell can be used to navigate a path through the numerous social and moral issues of the time, as well as providing insight into popular scientific and medical opinions.

Megan Morris

 

References:

[1] Dickens, Charles, Sketches by Boz, 1839.

[2] Chadwick, Edwin, Report On The Sanitary Condition Of The Labouring Population Of Gt. Britain (Edinburgh: University Press, 1965).

[3] Mayhew, Henry, “Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Morning Chronicle : Labour And The Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew – A Visit To The Cholera District Of Bermondsey”, Victorianlondon.Org, 1849 <http://www.victorianlondon.org/mayhew/mayhew00.htm&gt; [accessed 28 September 2016]

[4] Figure One – The Sewer Hunter as found in: Mayhew, Henry, London Labour And The London Poor (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985).

[5] Chadwick, Edwin, Report On The Sanitary Condition Of The Labouring Population, p.62

[6] Mayhew, Henry, “Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Morning Chronicle : Labour And The Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew – A Visit To The Cholera District Of Bermondsey”, Victorianlondon.Org, 1849 <http://www.victorianlondon.org/mayhew/mayhew00.htm&gt; [accessed 28 September 2016]

[7] See post by Steve Bruce on this website for more information about The Great Stink of 1858

[8] Mayhew, London Labour.

[9] For more information on miasma see Stuart Bagley’s post on this site.

[10] Figure Two – Image from Internet Archive. Text and formatting by George P. Landon, University of Toronto Library, The London Bathing Season. Father Thames Tells The Street Urchin Holding His Nose Against The River’s Stink, “Come, My Dear! Come To Old Thames, And Have A Nice Bath!”, 1859 <http://www.victorianweb.org/periodicals/punch/publichealth/1.html&gt; [accessed 7 November 2016]

[11] Mayhew, Henry, “Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Morning Chronicle : Labour And The Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew – A Visit To The Cholera District Of Bermondsey”, Victorianlondon.Org, 1849 <http://www.victorianlondon.org/mayhew/mayhew00.htm&gt; [accessed 28 September 2016]

[12] Mayhew, Henry, “Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Morning Chronicle : Labour And The Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew – A Visit To The Cholera District Of Bermondsey”, Victorianlondon.Org, 1849 <http://www.victorianlondon.org/mayhew/mayhew00.htm&gt; [accessed 28 September 2016]

[13] Greenwood, James, “Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism -Low-Life Deeps, By James Greenwood, 1881 – Curiosities Of “Alley” Life”, Victorianlondon.Org, 1875 <http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications4/low-11.htm&gt; [accessed 10 November 2016]

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