6.30pm November 27th 2014
Westminster Arts Library
35 St Martins Street
Admission: £4 / £8 in advance only from WeGotTickets
‘The Great Wen’, ‘The Big Smoke’: some of the epithets used to describe London hint at its grimy past. Though the Victorians invented ‘sanitary science’ and invested millions in a vast network of modern sewers, at the end of their era, the capital remained filthy. Thoroughfares were swamped with tenacious, glutinous black mud; the air was peppered with soot; winter brought choking fogs and summer stirred a ‘coffee-coloured sirocco’ of desiccated muck. Ross MacFarlane and Lee Jackson roll up their sleeves and talk dirty.
Our first speaker, Lee Jackson describes how the Victorians became obsessed with sanitary reform. The story includes little-known ‘fever investigations’ in the slums, beginning at the very start of the century; an infamous scandal involving the West End’s water supply; the scourge of cholera in 1831; the unlikely sewer schemes of the painter John Martin; and, finally, the machinations of the much-despised civil servant, Edwin Chadwick, creator of the New Poor Law, and ‘father of the sanitary movement’
Lee’s new book ‘Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight against Filth’ encompasses not only sewers and sanitation, but the disposal of household rubbish; mud on the streets; dead bodies; and the soot-drenched fog that earned the capital the nickname of ‘the Smoke‘.
Our second speaker, Ross MacFarlane talks about the men fighting the rising tide of filth – the capital’s Medical Officers of Health. Ross shows how many daily concerns of Londoners could be seen through the eyes of these officers and how their reports provide unexpected angles on history including attempts to track and contain disease outbreaks, details of bylaws on the disposal of dead horses, of children inadequately clothed, with head lice, scabies and impetigo, squints and physical disabilities. Their reports reveal how poverty was inscribed on the bodies of London’s poorest and how over time, open sewers, contaminated water, damp bedrooms infested with bugs, tuberculosis-infected milk and high infant mortality rates became less common.
Lee Jackson has written historical fiction set in Victorian London, a guide to Dickens’ London, and is the creator of www.victorianlondon.org, an encyclopaedia of primary sources, including journalism, diaries, newspaper cuttings, photographs, cartoons and more. The Times described his new book as ‘a tightly argued, meticulously researched history of sanitation, that reads like a novel’.
Ross MacFarlane is Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library where he is involved in promoting the Library’s collections, particularly to academic audiences. As an archivist, he has worked at a number of London institutions including King’s College, Tate Britain, the Royal Society and the Reform Club. He has researched, lectured and written on such topics as the history of early recorded sound, freak shows and notions of urban folklore in Edwardian London. He has led guided walks around London on the occult past of Bloomsbury and on the intersection of medicine, science and trade in Greenwich and Deptford.