In Victorian London, filth was horse traffic filled the streets with dung, household rubbish went uncollected, cesspools brimmed with "night soil," graveyards teemed with rotting corpses, the air itself was choked with smoke. In this intimately visceral book, Lee Jackson guides us through the underbelly of the Victorian metropolis, introducing us to the men and women who struggled to stem a rising tide of pollution and dirt, and the forces that opposed them.
Through thematic chapters, Jackson describes how Victorian reformers met with both triumph and disaster. Full of individual stories and overlooked details—from the dustmen who grew rich from recycling, to the peculiar history of the public toilet—this riveting book gives us a fresh insight into the minutiae of daily life and the wider challenges posed by the unprecedented growth of the Victorian capital.
I can't think of a better subject to choose as my Summer Holiday reading than the filth and squalor of Victorian London. It was always reputed that approaching London you could smell the city miles before you reached it. As I sat by the pool in the sunshine enthralled by a chapter entitled 'Night Soil' I did wonder about my reading tastes. But this book really was fascinating! Victorian London's problems in dealing with sewage, rubbish, over flowing graveyards etc are well known. What this book does is really get behind the scenes to show what was done - the Victorians were very aware of most of the issues but they could rarely agree on how to tackle them. Lee Jackson's research is impressive although occasionally I did feel a little overwhelmed with facts and figures, and some of the chapters could have been edited to cut out repetition. But on the whole this was an entertaining and informative read for anyone interested in Victorian London. I liked the way that Jackson was able to inject humour into the book too.
A very enjoyable journey through Victorian filth, which was at points almost unimaginably disgusting. Really informative, filling in a lot of gaps on subjects from which most histories avert their eyes, and written in a thoroughly lively, engaging way. Great stuff for London-lovers and anyone who enjoys reading history about how people lived. Extremely useful reference for the historical writer as well. /adds grime to WIP/
Sometimes when writing reviews, the reviewer ends with who ought to read the book in question. In this case, I am going to start with it. Who should read this book? The answer is everyone who will ever make decisions about city planning, or housing. Actually, it would probably be easier to recommend it to anyone involved in politics, local or national.
Dirty Old London - The Victorian Fight Against Filth is a history and a monument to all the people who agitated, bickered, invented, planned, obstructed and constructed in London from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The book is divided into chapters regarding which type of filth and nuisance it is dealing with, which gives us separate chapters on subjects like sewage, soot, wretched housing and household refuse. This may seem arbitrary to more important subjects in society, but I think upon reading this book, everyone can agree that one of the foundations of society is that the filth and dirt humans produce (and we produce a lot) are dealt with in an organised fashion. If not, well, the evidence of what that does to our health and very lives is there in history. A lot of that, too, is dealt with in the appropriate chapters, and we gain quite a lot of insight into how the Victorians of the 19th century slowly began to link poor sanitation to poor health and increased mortality. What is more, the book also provides a unique insight into how the politics of the time, both on the national and various local levels, interaction to help, and often hinder, the development of modern sanitation.
The greatest testament to the ingenuity, creativity and belief in progress of Victorian London is perhaps Joseph Bazalgette's great sewer network, built in the late 1850s and early 1860s. In fact, these sewers remain still standing and serving London in this day and age. While some may laugh at this as there are far more interesting and much prettier works of architecture and construction, Bazalgette's and the Metropolitan Board of Works' sewers were both monumental for its time and have stood the test of time better than almost anything else constructed, with the proof in the pudding: they are still used to this day and age, over 150 years later, in the same fashion. Perhaps surprisingly, this book on filth and the efforts to clean it up is one of the most convincing political statements I have ever read. It is almost completely free of ideology, apart from perhaps some small bits where the writer seems impressed by George Bernard Shaw, which seems to be a completely natural and sensible stance to take in me eyes; no, instead it is the documentation of the political bickering and back-and-forth that speak louder than anything else. The political responsibilities when it came to city planning and oversight were largely left to local vestries and paving boards; local government dealing with their own areas which parliament rarely meddled in. As London grew, the filth accumulated, cesspools overflowed, soot filled the air, yet the local authorities were more concerned with their own income and power and refused to relinquish anything to central authority. Coupled with laissez faire capitalism, this created a huge inertia which took decades to overcome, and in the meantime, London got dirtier, filthier and more unhealthy to live in. If anything could convince those promoters of the great qualities of local government to drop those huge axes they are grinding and support stronger centralised government, this should be it. Here, it is at times an actual matter of life and death that strong, collective action is taken, yet the different local government are as always dependant on their citizens and their purchasing power, making the rich more comfortable and the poor not only condemned to a life in discomfort, but one where the very environment they live in threaten their lives.
Of specific interest to today's decision makers should be the chapter on Wretched housing, which deals with how housing for the less fortunate looked before the advent of social housing. As we are again, in today's world, back to a society in which social housing built at a loss to the state is an ugly and shameful thing (and even potentially illegal), it is worth looking back at history and how people lived in society where capitalism dictated the rules of the day. And it ain't pretty.
To conclude, this is a very interesting book on an often forgotten subject: filth, and its accumulation. While the difficulties our sanitation-minded ancestors faced in their fight against filth were many and varied, one cannot help but admire their fortitude, ingenuity and thoroughness. Without some of these people, London and other parts of the UK would be very different places today. If nothing else, they helped save numerous lives which would otherwise have been lost to diseases such as cholera and typhus.
If you would excuse me, I am now going to scrub my kitchen with lime and then fumigate my house to get rid of the build-up of miasma.
This is a remarkable book because Jackson is able to weave a massive amount of research into a very readable format. The fact that Jackson, on occasion, interjects humour and wry comments on topics such as rotting corpses, human waste and countless reasons for disease is a testament to his skill as both a researcher and a writer.
One of the great strengths of this book, besides its very readable format, is the extensive footnotes gathered at the end of each chapter. By working with so many primary sources, Jackson is able to lead the reader through the muddy, foggy stench of London's streets and make the ramble enjoyable rather than an oppressive research paper. In addition, there are pages and pages of bibliography to assist the reader in further inquiry.
This book is a must read for anyone who enjoys Victorian history or the Victorian novel.
I'm half way through this. It's so freakin' dry...like the desert and there is no water in sight. This is really not for the casual reader (in my opinion). I'm fascinated by the gross stuff but so NOT interested in everything Mr. P did and said that failed so Mr. Q decided to do this and so on and so forth. I'm writing this even though I'm not finished b/c I fear that I'm so freakin' DONE with this book even though I'm not done. I will finish this though...or try anyway.
Extended review pending. I still have to go through the Notes and Bibliography. This was so much fun to read. I love books on the history of cities, sewer systems, plumbing, public health. One of my favourite history books ever is a micro history called Poop Culture. I think people might bypass it based on the cover art, but it’s well-researches and written and covers so many exciting developments in human social history! I loved Dirty Old London. What a putrid magical place.
A Lady in Victorian London, wearing the typical "train" to the dresses of Victorian time, found the following in her dress after walking:
"..2 cigar ends,9 cigarette ditto; A portion of pork pie; 4 toothpicks; 2 hairpins; 1 stem of clay pipe; 3 fragments of orange peel; 1 slice of cat's meat; Half a sole of a boot; 1 plug of tobacco (chewed); straw, mud, scraps of paper and random street refuse."
This gives you an idea of the horrid state of Victorian London's roads. This book details the struggles of the Victorian era London in trying to clean up the city. From covering the dustmen to dealing with mud, nightsoil and dust this book can be sometimes unpleasant, but it is an interesting look at the issues facing Victorian London and the measures they took to combat it. There is interesting tidbits about the economic value of mud and dust, not to mention the various jobs that came into being to combat refuse.
The book can sometimes lean towards the dry, but that is understandable considering the topic. Still, it is a great view of the various issues plaguing London. Makes you appreciate the saying "E Pulvere Lux Et Vis" (From dust, light and power), which was emblazoned on a new factory in 1897 in London that converted some refuse into power.
An interesting addition to the history section of my library. While not for everyone, anyone interested in Victorian London's fight against refuse will appreciate this book.
This book was great and really interesting! It talks about a number of health and contamination problems in the 1800s in London. Dead bodies, cess pools, ash, smoke, disease, bathing, mud, poop, clean water...It was really interesting. My complaint was that is was a little dry and hard to get through at some points. Still, well researched and has opened my eyes to a whole new world behind my historical romances I so love to read.
In the few moments I have had over the past six weeks to read for pleasure, I have been (finally!) entertaining myself with Lee Jackson’s wonderfully disgusting work of weird history, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The subject of the book is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: the disgustingly dirty state of London through the nineteenth century and the attempts by various “sanitarians” and social reformers to find a way to clean it up.
This book has all the best thing one looks for in a book about Victorians (at least if one is me)—petty political dramas, bizarre personalities, lots of excerpts from primary sources with all the weird spelling and punctuation intact, some people dying horribly, overblown moralizing, old cartoons, racist garbage about the Irish that I can get insulted at, and old photographs of people with majestic moustaches. We get to meet such quintessentially Victorian personalities as Edwin Chadwick, who, in addition to being a prominent sanitarian and mid-level politician, had a name like “Edwin Chadwick.” I mean, seriously, Victorians. The book is quite sensibly organized into categories of filth rather than straight chronological order, making it essentially a series of smaller, more tightly-focused history explorations, rather than one big sprawling narrative on London filth. Chapter subjects include garbage collection, human sewage, soot, slum housing, street mud, public toilets, and—my favorite, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me and my tastes in weird history reading—cemeteries and corpse disposal. Some personalities show up in multiple subjects, and later chapters are well fitted into the pictures painted by the previous ones, so it’s fairly easy to follow how it all comes together, even if you’re me and your ability to remember the different decades is more or less limited to “1840s—Irish Famine. 1860s—Sensation novels. 1890s—Oscar Wilde.”
Jackson is also a very entertaining narrator, in an understated, unobtrusively funny way that consists partly of his own commentary but in greater part of being able to find and juxtapose just the right examples of Victorian absurdity, hypocrisy, silliness, and just plain WTF-ery.
This book is also just super British, especially because Yale University Press doesn’t seem to have done an American copyedit and just printed the exact same book they have for sale in the U.K., logical punctuation and single quotation marks and British spellings and all. This is a choice I approve of one hundred thousand percent; I honestly think something would be lost if the style were Americanized at all. I do think that the most adorably British moment is right at the end of the “public convenience” chapter where Jackson gives a brief update on the modern state of the public toilet and warns that it is “under threat” and “falling prey to twenty-first century ‘austerity’.” This is because, as a youngish American, the closest thing to a “public” toilet I am familiar with is the one at the nearest Starbucks. British people and their quaint notions of public infrastructure! They’ll be talking about “public health insurance” next oh wait.
Honestly, this book was right up my alley—I’d recommend it to anyone not too easily grossed out as a really interesting history book, but for me, this was straight-up comfort reading: it was exactly what I expected it to be, it hit every “genre trope” I like of books in this “genre” (if “Victorian weird nonfiction” is a genre), I learned a lot of the sort of stuff I like learning. Does this make me a huge nerd? Probably. I’m probably also a big nerd who will be checking out Jackson’s other work pretty soon.
What a completely fascinating book! Post Victorian Era America and England is my absolutely favorite time period to learn about, and though this takes place place a bit before that (roughly from the 1830's-1880's) I have still come across mentions of how vile a place London was to live in and visit during this time. This book went in depth discussing the reasons why it was so filthy, and how the lack-luster "sanitation movement" tried to fix some of these issues with mixed success.
And I mean in depth. The one area I might complain about is just how much detail you get on the political dealings that went along with trying to push these improvements through. Not that they weren't important and fun to read about, but there were a couple of spots where I felt a bit bored by exactly how much detail was being given that didn't necessarily have to do with the main point of the piece.
Even so, the topics covered are wide and varied and could honestly be read by themselves for the most part (though most chapters mention Chadwick who was heavily involved in a lot of the issues). For example, Lee Jackson covers: - The dust, mud and other nastiness on the roads. - The water supply and how waste was disposed of Easily the most disgusting moments of the book are found in this section. - Graveyards and burial practices Must see Abney Park now! - The bathing and cleanliness (or lack thereof) at every class level, but especially the poor - Public restrooms, and the lack of such for women. Probably my favorite chapter! It's incredible how reluctant they were to create these "conveniences"! - The prevalence of soot from homes and the industrial complexes that were springing up. This was obviously worse in the north of England, but in London it was pretty bad as well apparently. - The first attempt at government subsidized housing. Probably the least successful chapter for me personally.
So all-in-all this was an absolutely fascinating read, and I would highly suggest it to anyone who is interested in the subject or the time period. Otherwise, you probably wouldn't enjoy it because it is quite dry, and not in narrative form, but it truly is an interesting time in history.
Copy courtesy of Yale University Press, London, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
This book takes us into the wonderful world of Victorian London; warts, dirt and all. For people like me, who love to read Dickens every now and then, it is a kind of must-read. There is quite a lot of thoroughly researched information in there, written in a captivating way; it is not only interesting, but well written too. It already helped me understanding some literary questions I didn't even realise I had!
If you are fastidious, don't like filth or stench, then you would have not wanted to live in Victorian times as there was plenty of both and even if you were wealthy it was no protection as there was no avoiding either! This is a really well researched book, filled with everything you could possibly want to know about this subject. There was a lot of fascinating information about grime, soot, toilets, housing, washing clothes and bodies etc, but there was also a lot about this or that committee, so and so said/did this, somebody else did that which wasn't nearly so interesting and I ended up skim reading these sections. The photos don't work too well on a kindle which is a shame. It is still worth reading this title to get a great insight as to how our forebears lived. I was given this ARC by the publisher and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Ugh. How'd you like to live in London in the 18th, 19th century? London grew so fast in population that its filth got out of hand before humans were willing or able to do something about it. Poor people lived extremely crowded, horribly filthy lives, living cheek by jowl alongside masses of sewage and slops. Horse dung and human feces and urine coated the streets. Factory smokestacks, slaughterhouses, leatherwork, dirt yards, coal fires in every poor hovel to the upper classes multiple fireplaces in their homes choked the air with miasmatic pollution. Poor people with little money for properly burying deceased members of their families would find that the corpses would be chopped up and burnt so the churchyard could resell the coffins. It makes you wonder how far London and other megalopolises will explode with the cockroach-like humans before capitalists and the religious right will allow something to be done about irresponsible breeding. This book makes you squirmy while reading it, but is endlessly, morbidly fascinating.
I am a big fan of Lee Jackson's work - both fiction and non-fiction - and of his Twitter feed. The man is incredibly prolific and manages to be authoritative at the same time. He has an excellent writing style in all genres. The subject here is fascinating but I have to say I found this book on the dry side as much of it focuses on the men (they were generally men) who tried to improve the filthy conditions in London rather than the social conditions themselves. Nevertheless, I recommend this as a wonderful reference work or perhaps something to dip into rather than read straight through.
I freely admit to judicious skimming of this one-- there is simply so much information for each subject/chapter! I found the topic gruesomely fascinating. I picked up Jackson's book after hearing and interview with the author, not expecting it to be so thorough and well-researched. It wades well into scholarly territory, so I enjoyed the first 1/3 of each chapter before skimming through the copious details. It is perhaps a tad too much for someone with a casual interest, but an excellent book just the same.
This book was fascinating and well researched. I enjoy learning about how people lived in earlier times. This book made me very grateful that I live in present times. If you are a trivia or sociology enthusiast, this is a book you’ll enjoy.
Dirty Old London is a catalogue of the filth that blanketed and saturated London through the 19th century. The book is overflowing with example and evidence, leaving little doubt but that Jackson is an authority on the topic and has written the definitive text to London crud of the 1800s. The nine chapters each focus on a specific filth and the government legislation, commercial enterprises, or philanthropic movements that pushed for reforms to clear the city of the scum in question. Chapter 1 concerns ash 2) mud, 3) household excrement, 4) home cesspools, 5) corpses 6) bodily grime, 7) public sewage, 8) slums, and 9) soot. The picture that emerges is of a shockingly begrimed and fetid London that is difficult to reconcile with my previous mental images of the capital of the British Empire and society of Victorian lords and ladies.
The book is scholarly, densely packed with old comics, newspaper advertisements, public notices, trial proceedings, legal documents, debate transcripts, and then-contemporary literature excerpts. On a spectrum with an encyclopedia at one end and an engaging narrative on the other, Jackson's history scores far toward the encyclopedic. The decision to organize the material topically instead of chronologically is partially responsible for this. While each chapter has its own organizing principle and perhaps sub-narrative, there is no overarching thesis to the history. In compiling this detailed history on filfth, Jackson touches on numerous topics that would permit provocative theses: the question of centralization versus local management, moral improvement societies, the laissez-faire and state management debate, the increasing role of medical experts and science, and corruption. The relationship between each of these and the subsequent sanitation program would be interesting topics, worthy of their own books. Jackson, though, didn't focus on any of these; he resisted the pull to organize, streamline, and narrate and instead detailed. The upside to this is that Jackson comes off as neutral, unconcerned about the implications for current policy debates, interested only in documenting the historical facts of the matter. The downsides to this are that it makes for dry reading and leads to no convincing lessons-learned.
The pedantry was evident in the writing style as well. Jackson was never one to use a ten-cent word when he could dig up a twenty-dollar one, and the account is suffused with obscure vocabulary. His style of scholarship, too, was unnecessarily didactic. It was as if every remotely relevant quotation or anecdote was included in the book. Jackson was going to find a way to squeeze the information in, regardless of the damage done to the flow, direction, or narrative. This meant tangents aplenty and evidence that was regularly of questionable relevance. It all served to build up a picture of London's filth, but it was a constant reminder that Jackson's only delimiting criteria was that it somehow had to do with "Dirty Old London." The final point one takes from the book is that the programs that failed, the technology successfully developed, the movements that garnered support, and the diseases combated, all happened as a consequence of some complex intermingling of profit, philanthropy, lay medicine, improving medical science, religion, class, corruption, grandiosity, personal grudge, and political gridlock. Ultimately this was less a history written for and accessible to the general public than it was the starter resource for anyone wanting to do research on urban public health. Trivia-lovers, however, will find much here to surprise and entertain.
Summary: Researching Cholera and the John Snow study. A great reference for sanitation reform in big European cities. I did not know. Yuck. Maybe don't read this if you're going to be eating.
p. 39 - I had no idea that London grew from 1mm to 6mm from 1801 to 1901. p. 40 - super gross. It lists what was found in one woman's dress train after walking down the street and includes: mud, old newspapers, cast-off shoes, crownless hats, broken glass, moldering food, cigar ends, cigarette ditto, a portion of pork pie, toothpicks, hairpins, a stem of a clay pipe, fragments of orange peel, a slice of cat's meat, half a sole of a boot, plug of chewed tobacco, straw, scraps of paper, and other misc street refuse i.e. poop.. YUUUUUUUUck!!!!
In general, this chapter talks about the fact that people were selling off refuse. Those in better areas made better waste. Later it talks about the fact that those in better areas also tipped so they would have their trash cleared earlier. This created unequalness to how clean the city was and later had implications on who got sick.
P. 73 starts the story of how the water closet starts to take off as a thing among the rich in the late 1700s. this causes all kinds of problems as it increasingly becomes available in the 1800s. People were attempting to deal with it via a cess pool only emptied 1x per year. That obviously could not handle the extra fluid. Then they attached to city sewage, but there is no sewage treatment. SOOOO gross!!!!
P. 81, even worse, the poor areas were only getting their refuse held via a cesse pool that were not linked to city sewage, i.e. no drainage during overflow. YUCK!
There is just so much gross stuff as the book goes on, that I can't even write it. Things like burying people in the city get banned b/c it causes all these problems. I mean, if you barely have water flowing in sewer vs. the street... just think about it... eeeccckkk....
By the end of the book, basically the establishment of what is the UK version of the dept of health and safety comes into existence (as relates to slums). They actually teach people things like p. 201 "Bad smells always have a cause, search for it at once..."
My main thought while reading this was the more things change, the more things stay the same. The Brits are a funny group of people. They seem to want things to happen but only if someone else does it all for them. Whether it's getting various types of muck off the street or having clean water pumped into all homes and available freely for all, it seems we should expect a decision to take decades. Honestly, without intending to, Jackson has explained the approach being taken with Brexit. People voted to leave and are now abrigating their responsibility to inept politicians while those who voted remain are pushing for other inept politicians to do something when they're happy to back away and say, ih no, not us. . Anyway, this isn't supposed to be getting political. . Jackson has taken no prisoners with this book. The book is thorough, readable and very, very human. It shows us that human nature remains as it ever was. For every individual who wants to help, there are even more ready to cash in on the problem. Dirty Old London isn't for someone wanting a taster (perhaps not the best word) of Victorian cleanliness but for anyone with the stomach for some pretty gross history, this is definitely for you.
Read this fascinating book on history of sanitation and public health reform in London (a city of 6 million then). It took close to 100 years for the city to deal with its filth: overflowing cesspools, raw sewage flowing through streets, carpets of dust, and the utterly dismal state of Thames. Miasma, the unbearable putrid stench of decaying waste and fecal matter was believed to be the cause of cholera and typhoid. The book provides a rich history of important legislative and governance reforms, breakthroughs in public health and the persistent efforts of various people who became the pioneers of sanitation. It also describes the wretched conditions of city slums in great detail, and also the indifference of middle classes to the living conditions of the poor. Puts the problems that Indian cities are currently dealing with in perspective, helps us be more optimistic about solving those. Do read.
I enjoyed this enough to finish it. The book is about the many attempts during the Victorian era to improve sanitary conditions in London in various ways. These included the sewers, burial, trash disposal, and other things.
The thing that was simultaneously interesting and frustrating was how familiar some of the political maneuvering was. Some things, it seems, really don't change.
If you're interested in English history, London in particular, this is a fairly interesting read about a topic that doesn't often get a lot of coverage - but one that had and has huge impacts on daily life. It was interesting to read about what things were like when things we take for granted simply didn't exist. Not always pleasant, but interesting - I would say that this is probably not for the squeamish.
It's a grim read, but "Dirty Old London" does provide a vivid, if at times grotesque, depiction of daily life for London's working class in the Victorian era. Jackson also documents in detail the political squabbling and self-interested parochial maneuvering that left potential sanitary advancements in a structural quagmire for decades.
The book is eye-opening, even shocking, but it can also be laborious to read. I almost gave up on it halfway into it. To be fair, that could also be a function of the subject matter. Regardless, I'm glad I pushed through.
I'm not a fan of reading non-fiction, although I am a collector of it (oddly enough), and I picked this book up with the intention of adding it to my home library under "books of interest." Honestly, though, it's not interesting enough for that. Not a bad book; however, I did end up speed-reading and scanning at least half of it, while "yeah, yeah, yeah ... get on with it ..." scrolled by on the marquee sign in my brain. Donating this one to our local library.
Magnificent. Exactly how a history should be written. Jackson must know more than anyone on this subject, yet has managed to turn all that research into a wonderfully readable and absorbing book. Here is Victorian London and here are its residents, with all their dirt, disgusting water, their smoke and sewers, their personal uncleanliness, their rich, their poor, their bureaucracy - everything, in fact, that you don't get in those misty-eyed film and TV attempts at recreation.
A very thoroughly researched book on the various aspects of waste and pollution issues in London during the 19th century. This book paints an accurate picture of life in a dirty city, and the issues faced. It's hard to wrap our heads around just how terrible the conditions were, and how anyone could live with the daily assaults to health and well being. This is a great resource book for the historical fiction writer. I intend to put my knowledge to good use.
A book about the fight against Victorian era pollution and the effects of it, and the people involved might seem like it could be hard to read and not very involving. And that is exactly what it is. There were some parts of interest, but even at its relatively short length it was tough going, and not very engaging.
Pretty fun and interesting--I learned a lot. The first half of the book is more entertaining than the second half, however. I had no idea of how much engineering and politicking was behind the filth of Victorian London!