Mr. A’Beckett’s courtroom at Southwark was packed in late September 1854 as the Bermondsey Improvement Commissioners brought a series of ‘health and safety’ actions against local businesses. We tend to think of ‘H&S’ as being a modern thing, often something forced on society by European bureaucracy. The reality is that it has a very long history in Britain, at least as far back as the Victorians.
The complaints, presented by Mr Ballantine of Messrs. Drew and Gray, solicitors, lasted several hours and focused on activities being carried out underneath the railway arches of the South Eastern Railway Company, near Russell Street.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century this area of south London was associated with the leather trade. There were numerous tanneries and curriers in this ‘Land of Leather’ and some of these trades, such as Garner’s jappanning workshop, were operating from under the arches of the railway.
This was a problem for locals because the fumes were, according to the commissioners, causing a nuisance. By nuisance Mr Ballantine meant illness, injury and death. Not only to locals but to anyone travelling on the railways above, and especially those coming into London from the countryside.
James Oates operated a bone boiling works under the arches and this was particularly unpleasant to travellers. At present it was, the prosecution alleged, ‘dangerous in the extreme’:
‘and parties coming in from the pure air in the country […] were sickened by the noisome effluvia emitted from the defendant’s premises below’.
Jane Prior’s work involved melting used cooking fat and the smell was obnoxious. The commissioners condemned her trade as ‘filthy in the extreme, and dangerous to the health of the locality’. Ralf Sockhart had a similar business. His involved boiling offal to make pet food and was equally disgusting and offensive to locals.
The magistrate listened carefully as a string of cases were brought against the occupants of the arches, many of whom must have been practicing their trades for several years. The second half of the nineteenth century was witnessing a coordinated effort to remove ‘nuisances’ from the densely occupied parts of the capital. The cattle market at Smithfield – part of London life since the medieval period – was moved out of the centre to clear the thoroughfares. This series of actions against the ‘dirty trades’ of Bermondsey has to be seen in the context then of ‘improvement’.
In all the cases the magistrate sided with the Commissioners even if he sympathized with the businesses, none of whom were rich. All were given time – a month – to find new premises, hopefully far away from the homes of residents. Mr Ballantine hoped that press coverage of the proceedings would also warn the railway companies that they were expected to take more responsibility in letting out the arches they owned.
‘It was monstrous’, he declared, ‘that these arches should be kept for such purposes, merely for their profit, much to the injury of the public health’.
And there of course was the point of these proceedings and, I might suggest, the point of health and safety legislation. The laws existed (indeed exist) to protect the public from dangerous practices. When chemicals and gases are being used in enclosed premises there is a risk of diseases, fire, explosions and the Victorians recognized that some trades had to be separated out and placed a long way from peoples’ homes. The people concerned were, more often than not, those that could not afford to bring private prosecutions against large companies and rich businessmen. So the Commissioners, for all their interference and accusations of ‘nannying’, were standing up for those who were otherwise rendered silent.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 28, 1854]