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Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth

3.77  ·  Rating details ·  356 ratings  ·  79 reviews
In Victorian London, filth was everywhere: 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 ...more
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published November 25th 2014 by Yale University Press
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Sep 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: london
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 do
K.J. Charles
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/
Oct 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Shelves: non-fiction
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, obs
Jun 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
For anyone who has interest in the underbelly of 19C London and everybody who enjoys a tightly researched, well-written and engaging book, Lee Jackson's Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth is a must read.

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 testam
Cold War Conversations Podcast
Sep 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: uk
Not one to read after you have eaten!

Whilst not a subject for the faint hearted Lee Jackson describes the filth and squalor of Victorian London with great humour.

If you like your Conan Doyle, Dickens or family history research then this gives you real insight into the true living conditions of Londoners prior to any real efforts at sanitation.

The story of reform is a fascinating one and Jackson pieces the story together with combinations of primary sources, political machinations and some unbeli
Stacy Bell
Jan 30, 2016 rated it it was ok
I'm half way through this. It's so freakin' 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. ...more
Dec 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jun 01, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
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 struggle
Dec 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical
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.
Oct 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: netgalley
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
Feb 08, 2017 rated it liked it
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, ...more
Dec 22, 2018 rated it liked it
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 fireplace ...more
Naomi Clifford
Jan 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Apr 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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 ju ...more
Mar 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Rachel Pollock
Jan 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
If you are interested in exactly how gross London was in the 19th century, this book makes it repellently clear. Good bibliography too.
K.T. Katzmann
Jun 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Absolutely fascinating. Filled with the bizarre, the disgusting, and the little known. A literally inspiring book for writers and role-play gamers.
Composition: 2/5
Evidence: 5/5
Writing Style: 2/5
Balance: 5/5

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 ref
May Ling
Dec 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-european
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 porti
Jan 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Vani Herlekar Bhatt
Jul 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Jan 15, 2019 rated it liked it
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 tha
Feb 20, 2021 rated it really liked it
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
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. ...more
Russell James
Mar 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
May 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Sean Harding
Jan 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
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.
Ann Michael
Feb 21, 2018 rated it liked it
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!
Interesting social history of what it was like living in Victorian London, especially how people living then were affected by smoke, cesspools, and general filth. Then, as now, political will to improve conditions was hampered by denial, ignorance, and obfuscation of facts.
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L.M. JACKSON lives in London with his partner Joanne. His first book, London Dust, was shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. He is fascinated by the social history of Victorian London and spends much of his time on the ongoing development of his website.

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