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Posts Tagged ‘19th c. London streets’

Copyright @ Jane Austen’s World.  Looking back 200 years (the precise date that the formal Regency era began was 1811) we tend to view Jane Austen’s Regency world wearing rose-tinted glasses.

Early 19th century London street scene

Imagine the traffic in London back then:

In July 1811,

it appears that there passed over Blackfriars bridge in one day: 61,069 foot passengers, 533 waggons, 1,502 carts and drays, 990 coaches, 500 gigs and taxed carts, and 822 horses. On the same day, July 1811, there passed over London bridge: 89,640 foot passengers, 1,240 coaches, 485 gigs and taxed carts, 769 waggons, 2,924 carts and drays, and 764 horses.  – Leigh’s new picture of London: or A view of the political, religious, medical, literary, municipal, commercial, and moral state of the British metropolis (Google eBook), 1827, p. 251

Then imagine the animal droppings. I have not the mathematical wherewithal to calculate how much manure and urine these vast numbers of animals traversing London’s streets would generate on an average day, but I do know this: when a horse feels the need to relieve itself, it does so on the spot, releasing the end result of its digestion in a most spectacular fashion.

London, detail of Islington toll gate

And thus London’s streets were littered with dung. Not only did horses generously contribute their feces to London’s throroughfares, but so did the vast number of feral dogs and cats roaming the streets, and the cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, and fowl that were driven to London’s markets. Add on a hot summer’s day the smell of slops that were carelessly tossed out of windows, and the stench of contaminated water, backed-up sewers, over-filled privies, and rotting garbage, and you get the drift. The assault on one’s olfactory nerves must have been overpowering.

The rich had a choice – they left London in droves at the end of the Season to wile away the summer on their country estates. But those who were left behind had to suffer the fetid stench of thousands of evacuations that cooked in the heat and turned into gaseous rot. (I traveled through a similar malodorous area when driving past the slums of Jakarta one summer.)

Streetsweeper assists a lady crossing the street, 1818, after Vernet. Image @Wikimedia.

Rain showers did not help much to relieve the situation. By 1841, when the metropolis was vastly larger, Henry Mayhew calculated that the refuse from butchers that washed into rain water approximated 24,000,000,000 gallons per annum. As for dung, let’s face it, wet poo sticks like glue, and once the offending substance adhered to boots and shoes, the unfortunate wearer would trod the vile stuff into carriages and on door stoops, which is why boot scrapers were essential.

Sunny weather was not much more helpful, for when poo baked and dried on dusty streets, it tended to crumble and turn into dust. A brisk wind would blow odiforous grit under door crevaces and through open windows, landing on furniture, floors, curtains, rugs, and hanging laundry. A person walking along the streets on a blustery day, would have it blown onto their clothes and in their hair. (Let’s not even imagine how much of these offensive granules landed on their faces and inside their mouths and noses! Achoo!)

Carle Vernet, detail of a gust of wind

As for hygienic habits, if English Regency gentlemen felt comfortable urinating in chamberpots in the diningroom after dinner in full view of their companions, one can imagine that they thought nothing of relieving themselves in back alleys. And where were the poor urchins who lived on the streets supposed to “go”? Or the individuals crammed into overcrowded tenements who shared a common privy with hundreds of others and who, due to pressing circumstances, could NOT wait?

If peeing in front of others (left) near food stuffs inside one's home was permissable, one can only imagine the habits of this gentleman outside of a tavern.

There were attempts to combat these continual eliminations and excretions by animals and humans, which will be discussed in the next Fawlty Regency London post. Until next time, gentle reader, I am signing off. I hope I have not offended your tender sensibilities (or activated your gag reflexes) too much. Part 2 of this fascinating series will discuss The Removers, or those who worked tirelessly to keep London smelling as fresh as a daisy (well, at least like day old cat litter).

For those who are equally as fascinated with topics of an earthy nature as I am, here’s another post: Urea, a 17th & 18th Spot Remover, or Pee as a Cleansing Agent

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