I've just been wallowing in the history of filthy London, courtesy of Lee Jackson's excellent new book, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. It's a wonderful trawl through the history of London's sewers, cemeteries, and street cleaners. Did you know that by the 1890s, London needed some 300,000 horses to keep it moving and that 1,000 tons of dung were deposited each day on the city's streets? No wonder its streets were dirty!
Anyway, here's the first paragraph of my review:
“I have seen the greatest wonder which the world can show to the astonished spirit.” So said the German poet Heinrich Heine in 1827, and the wonder he referred to was London. In the course of the 19th century, London’s population soared from one million to six million. This booming centre of commerce and industry was at “the heart of the greatest empire ever known”, but, as Lee Jackson adds, London “was also infamously filthy”. The Chinese ambassador turned his nose up at this most dynamic city, complaining it was “too dirty”. He had a point, for this was a place whose infrastructure had scarcely changed in centuries. Cesspools were overflowing, the cemeteries were bursting with stinking corpses, the streets were coated with noxious black mud, rotting rubbish clogged its alleys, and its citizens lived in overcrowded, decrepit buildings, breathing air that was heavily polluted with soot and sulphurous fumes. This was the filthy reality of London for most of its inhabitants.
You can read the rest of my review over on the Guardian's website. Or you could even buy the paper tomorrow.
By the way: Happy New Year!