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

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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]

Cholera arrives in London and one woman finds herself in court as a result.

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From early 1832 to the last outbreak in June 1866 Londoners experience the full horror of cholera as it ravaged communities in the nineteenth century. Cholera spread quickly and those infected, if not teated swiftly soon developed the unpleasant and debilitating symptoms associated with the disease (dehydration, diarrhoea and vomiting), before death almost inevitably followed. Thousands died in London and other British cities during the three decades that the water-borne infection affected the British Isles, and many more died overseas, especially in India where the disease first appeared.

In late March 1832 the London press reported  cholera infections daily. On the 28th the were 89 new cases of which 49 people died. Since the outbreak started there had been over 1500 cases with 854 fatalities. The locations of the deaths were also listed, with the highest number for a single parish (16) in Southwark. This was not unconnected as Southwark was close by the river and was London’s poorest area. Three bodies were found ‘floating in the river’ and were added to the 25 the authorities had already dragged from the Thames.

On the same day, over at Guildhall Police Court, Mary Mahoney (a ‘poor Irish woman’) was brought up on a charge of ‘feigning an attack of cholera morbus at the foot of Blackfriars Bridge’. A local watchman (Easley) had found her and told the alderman magistrate, Mr Laurie, that this wasn’t the first time Mary had acted in this way. In fact it was the ‘fifth or sixth time’ she had tried it, and since on each occasion she was revived with a drink of brandy and water one might imagine she kept trying the same thing.

Mr Laurie turned to the prisoner and asked her how many times she had had the disease.

‘Not at all, your Honour, and I hope I never will’, she replied. ‘But this man says you exhibited symptoms of it’, the justice remarked. The poor watchman was perplexed: ‘Yes’, he interjected, ‘she lies down and moans, and won’t speak, and draws her nose and knees together’. 

‘Then you should take her to the Board of Health’, advised the magistrate, ‘they might give you a premium, for some of them are sadly at a discount for want of cases’.

He clearly wasn’t taking cholera very seriously, and certainly not as seriously as he should. He concluded by saying that:

Everything is imitated in this country, from a pound note to the cholera morbus‘, which triggered a laugh from someone in the courtroom.

Fearing that his wife would be punished Mary’s husband pushed himself forward. He was an old army pensioner, and quite blind. He told Mr Laurie that she was his only support and that if she were sent to Bridewell it would ‘ruin the family’. Mary chipped in to say that she really had been ill, albeit not with the cholera, and the justice let her go with just a telling off.

Mary had probably done nothing to warrant a spell in the house of correction; she hadn’t claimed to have cholera but the watchman – on edge and on the lookout for cases, especially by the river – probably misinterpreted the symptoms. This shows us, perhaps, that the arrival of this new and deadly disease in London quickly became the focus of conversation, press coverage, and rumour. As with many things that frighten us the truth of the situation (and therefore the best course of action to follow), often become obscured under in a fog of popular misconception. It took the medical profession several decades to arrive at a better understanding of cholera and a means to prevent it.

In 1854, after an outbreak in Soho, Dr John Snow (who had been investigating cholera since the late 1830s) was able to test a theory he had posited in 1849. Conventional belief held that cholera was spread by air  as a miasma (‘bad air’). Snow rejected this thesis and instead argued (correctly) that the disease was contracted by mouth through water. In Broad Street, Soho a street pump brought water to the local community (these were the days before Londoners had supplies of fresh running water). John Snow studied the outbreak and correctly concluded that the pump was the source of the cholera infections. Having stopped the use of the pump the area saw a significant fall in new cases. While he didn’t convince the medical profession until after his death (in 1858, John Snow’s name will always be synonymous with an effective medical and public health solution to the problem of cholera.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 29, 1832]