Social Impacts of Smell in the Slum – Alex Schofield

During the nineteenth century, London was not only the capital of the United Kingdom but also the hub of a vast Empire. Why, then, did it become infamous for its filth, disease and poverty? Medical reports written in the late 1800s by health officials such as Hector Gavin and John Simon actively condemned the poor sanitary conditions of the city’s impoverished boroughs such as Bethnal Green. Their cramped dwellings forced their inhabitants to live amongst garbage and exposed sewage,  human and animal, inevitably resulting in the spread of diseases such typhoid and cholera.

According to author and historian Lee Jackson, working horses used in London by the Victorians contributed to sanitation issues. Jackson claims that there ‘were tens of thousands of working horses in London … with inevitable consequences for the streets. And the Victorians never really found an effective way of removing that, unfortunately.’[1] With the amount of horses in the 1890s being numbered at approximately 300,000, around a thousand tonnes of waste was deposited everyday on to the streets of London without a reliable method of collection. Adolescents were employed to collect the waste as quickly as it was produced, while attempting to avoid being trampled by the oncoming traffic.

Figure 1: Anon, The Premier Photographic View Album of London, 1907

Throughout the nineteenth century, social investigators such as H. Gavin, J. Simon and W.J. Gordon entered the slums of London to walk amongst those who lived there. They compiled reports and evaluations to submit to those in authority, with suggestions and advice on how to solve the crisis and improve the quality of life of inhabitants. For example, Hector Gavin’s Sanitary Ramblings:  Being Sketches and Illustrations of Bethnal Green: A Type of the Condition of the Metropolis and Other Large Towns provides a first-hand account of conditions in Bethnal Green. His in-depth report, produced in January 1848, was addressed to the Marquis of Normanby, who was the President of the Health of Towns’ Association.  In the report Gavin attempts to convey ‘the present sanitary condition of the pariah of Bethnal Green, [2]  describing the streets as foul, the dwellings as filthy and the people miserable. He pleaded with the Marquis to clear the dust and garbage heaps from the houses and the ‘filthy cesspools that pollute the surface of the parish.’[3] Gavin also describes the houses in one district of Bethnal Green as remarkable in their lack of drainage, describing the odour emanating from the dung heaps and pig-sties in the yards along Cambridge Road as offensive to the senses of those walking in the streets.

Figure 2: Text Reads: Myring Place, Mount Street, Bethnal Green

Air pollution, including smog and smoke, was also a problem. Lee Jackson notes that it ‘was famously said of the sheep in Regent’s Park – there were still grazing sheep in Regent’s Park in the mid-Victorian period – that you could tell how long they’d been in the capital by how dirty their coats were. They went increasingly from white to black over a period of days.”[4] John Simon also refers to the lack of clean air for breathing, caused not only by soot and smoke but also gasses emanating from cesspools athat people were forced to inhale daily[5].

Additionally, as part of his report to the Health of Towns Association, Gavin examined levels of personal hygiene of lower-class inhabitants.  Gavin’s observed the small number of water standpipes located in the slum for the tenants of buildings to use. The supply of water was insufficient for the amount of uses that a family needed to put it to, including washing and cooking which required water to be transported from the pump to a dwelling by bucket[6]. Furthermore there was not constant access to a water pump, with some landlords choosing to turn the supply on for as little as a few hours a week, which inevitably resulted in chaos, with crowds of people fighting over access to the pump i Lee Jackson suggests that “poor working men would actually go anywhere where there was a river, a canal or a lake and strip off and try and bathe.”[7] However the situation did improve during the nineteenth century, following the introduction of London’s great sewage network that attempted to finally replace the cesspools of the slum as well as the diseases, reducing the possibility of a cholera or typhoid epidemic.

Alex Schofield


[1] Jackson, L., Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight against Filth (Yale University Press, 2014)

[2] Gavin, H, Sanitary ramblings being sketches and illustrations of Bethnal Green: A type of the condition of the metropolis and other large towns, (John Churchill, London, 1848)

[3] Gavin, H, Sanitary ramblings 

[4] Jackson, Dirty Old London.

[5] A.N., ‘The Life Work of John Simon’, The Journal of Hygiene (Cambridge University Press, 1905)

[6] Flanders, J, The Victorian City: Everyday life in Dickens’ London, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2014)

[7] Jackson, Dirty Old London


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