The great Clerkenwell stink of 1862: a warning for modern Londoners

Dirty-father-Thames.jpg

Just occasionally the reports from the Police courts of the Metropolis don’t report a crime – a theft, stabbing, fraud or domestic abuse – or even a tragedy such as an attempted suicide or abandoned baby. Instead the police courts are used as a place where the visitor knows he or she will be able to grab the attention of the reading public if their story is sensational enough to make the newspapers.

This was what happened in February 1862 when a ‘respectably attired man’ presented himself at Clerkenwell Police court and asked the magistrate to help him. He wanted to raise awareness of an issue that affected everyone in London, but the children of the poor in particular.

The man, whose name wasn’t recorded, stated that ‘should any person wonder why the mortality amongst children runs so high at the present time, they have only to take a walk to the church of St Peter, Great Saffron Hill’.

If they carried on towards the rear of St Peter’s – ‘across the ruins of to the arches of Victoria Street’ they would find ‘an issue of sewerage of the most abominable description, not a mere oozing but a bona fide flowing out at the rate of several gallons per minute’.

The effluence had filled the arches around Victoria Street for 100 yards  and created a ‘pool of large dimensions, into which has been thrown dead dogs, cats, fish, etc., till no words can convey an idea of the abomination that exists’.

The pool was next to a school and daily 100 or more school children breathed in the ‘fever-engendering miasma’ from the swamp. Of course in the 1850s and early 60s the Victorians did not yet quite understand how disease was speared but had a belief that airborne particles might spread disease.

The anonymous complainant said the pool had now existed for over a month and nothing was being done about, and it was a disgrace.   The magistrate agreed but merely told him to take up his complaint with the parish. Meanwhile the gaoler told him that fever had broken out in the nearby house of correction. One prisoner, Jemima Smith who was being held for a felony, was too sick to be brought up to court to be charged.

Clearly this was a wider problem but it took the Victorians into the second half of the century to properly address it.  A lot of children and adults died in the meantime.

I think there is an echo here with today’s polluted air in the capital. Plenty of activists have been campaigning about it but it has taken Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty to really address it. This year a new ultra low emission zone comes into place in April with the aim of helping a long-term project to improve air quality. Every year thousands of Londoners die from respiratory problems that can be directly related to pollution. We need to ban traffic from the capital as much as is possible and clean up the underground. If not we are simply dirtying our own backyard in a modern version of the Clerkenwell sewerage pool of 1862.

[from Daily News, Thursday, 6 February, 1862]

The polluter pays in an early version of the ‘clean air’ act.

steamer

On Friday, July 6 1855, a foreman operating one of the companies of river boats on the Thames appeared in court at Bow Street. Henry Styles was charged under an Act for the Prevention of Smoke in the Metropolis (or more properly, the Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Act 1853), which was the first attempt to tackle the problem of air pollution in the UK.

The company Styles worked for ran ‘halfpenny steam-boast’ between London Bridge and the Adelphi (or what would now be the Embankment) so their route is replicated today by the modern Thames Clippers. Styles explained that he was in court on behalf of the captain of the Curlew, the boat that had been accused of breaking the terms of the act. He told the Bow Street justice, Mr Jardine, that he would be pleading guilty to the charge.

Mr Bodkin, the counsel for the prosecution, was not content to let the matter rest however because, as he went to explain, this was not the first time that the Curlew’s captain, Thomas Shearman, had broken the law in this regard.

‘the boat in question had repeatedly been cautioned before any proceedings were taken…  [but still] the nuisance was permitted to continue, and thick volumes of black smoke were suffered to escape from the funnel in open defiance of the law, to the disgust and annoyance of all whose avocations took them to the vicinity of the river’.

Moreover, Bodkin, continued, none of this was necessary. A ‘very simple apparatus’ used by other steam boats that worked the river could have been deployed on the Curlew.  The company had even fitted it to some of their other vessels but not this one. So the captain could not plead ignorance, or argue that nothing could be done. The act had been in place for over a year and so their was simply no excuse for non-compliance with it.

The foreman agreed and said they had been experimenting with a device but so far it wasn’t working properly. The only way they could avoid the noxious smoke that polluted the river was to ‘use more expensive coal’, and they evidently didn’t want to do that all the time.

They were evading the act and hoping they wouldn’t get caught and having found themselves in court they tried to ‘come clean’ and hope for mitigation. In doing so they probably avoided a heavy fine as Mr Jardine imposed one of just £3, at the bottom end of the scale available to him. Styles was warned that the nuisance must stop however, or further charges and penalties would follow.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 07, 1855]