Three cheers for health and safety as the ‘filthy’ reality of Bermondsey is exposed.

Russell-Street

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]

‘The stench was horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’: the Spa Fields scandal of 1845

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Clerkenwell Police court was crowded on the morning of the 25 February 1845 and the magistrate must have quickly realized that local passions were running high. Most of those present either lived or worked in the near vicinity of Exmouth Street, close by the Spa Fields burial ground.

Burials no longer take place in Spa Fields and nowadays the gardens are an inner-city paradise on summer days as visitors eat their lunch, walk their dogs, or sunbathe on the grass. The London Metropolitan Archives is nearby and in Exmouth Market gourmands can enjoy a wide variety of food from the stalls and cafés that trade there.

The crowd in Mr Combe’s courtroom were represented by a pawnbroker and silversmith called Watts. He stepped forward to explain that he and his fellow ratepayers were there to seek an end to ‘practices of an abominable nature’ that had been taken place in the graveyard.

What exactly were these ‘abominable practices’?

The magistrate listened as  Mr Watts told him that while the burial ground was less than two acres in size and was estimated to be able to hold 3,000 bodies. In reality however, in the 50 years of its existence on average some 1,500 internments were taking place annually. In sum then, something like 75,000 people had been buried in a space for 3,000 and more and more burials were taking place, indeed there had recently been 36 in one day the pawnbroker said.

However, while the graveyard was crowded and this would have meant digging into extant graves and disturbing them, ‘not a bone was seen on the surface’. He (Mr Watts) would provide his Worship with evidence that the bodies of interned persons were routinely being dug up and burned to make room for fresh burials. Moreover many of those coffins removed were new, the wood ‘was fresh’ he added, and witnesses had seen human body parts hacked off by diggers.

The desecration of graves was one thing but the root of the complaint was actually the effect that this practice had on local people and their businesses. According to Watts:

‘The stench proceeding from what was called the “bone-house” in the graveyard was so intolerable that many of the residents in Exmouth–street, which abutted on the place, had been obliged to leave it altogether’.

Surely, the magistrate asked him, a prosecution could be brought against the parochial authorities that had responsibility for the place? Mr Watts said that the parish of St James’ was well aware of what was happening but were doing nothing to stop it.

‘The custom is’ he explained, ‘to disinter the bodies after they have been three or four days buried, chop them up, and burn them in this bone-house’.

Then he should certainly bring a charge against them Mr Combe advised. The clerk to the local Board of Poor Law Guardians was less sure however; since the burial ground was not subject to rates he didn’t think the parochial authorities could be held liable for it. The magistrate said that if the Guardians couldn’t interfere the matter should go to the Poor Law Commissioners and, if they didn’t not help, he would apply directly to the Homes Secretary (who, in February 1845, was Sir James Graham – a politician who, by his own admission, is only remembered by history as ‘the man who opened the letters of the Italians’ in the Mazzini case).

Police Inspector Penny (G Division) testified that he had visited the bone house after being presented with a petition signed by 150 locals.

He found ‘a large quantity of coffins, broken up and some of them burning…the smell was shocking, intolerable. There were coffins of every size there, children’s and men’s’.

The court heard from Reuben Room, a former gravedigger who’d left two year’s previously after ‘a dispute’. He said he’d often been asked to disinter bodies after a couple of days to make room for fresh burials. John Walters, who kept the Clerkenwell fire engine, gave evidence that he had twice had to attend fires at the bone house. He had found it hard to gain admission (suggesting that the authorities there were not keen for people to see what was going on inside) but when he had he’d seen ‘as many coffins as three men could convey, and a great deal of pitch was fastened to the chimney’ [i.e. blackening it], resulting from the burning of coffins.

The smell, he agreed, was ‘horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’. A large crowd had gathered that night and were ready to pull the place to the ground.

More witnesses came forward to testify to the horror of the bone house and the ‘abominable practices’ carried out there. Catherine Murphy, who lived in a house which overlooked the graveyard had seen grave diggers chop up a body with their shovels, and had intervened to admonish them when one of the men had lifted the ‘upper part of a corpse by the hair of the head’.

‘Oh, you villain’, she cried, ‘to treat the corpse so!’

Mr Combe  again advised Mr Watts and his fellow petitioners to make a full statement of their complaint to the board of guardians so that they could take action against whomsoever was to blame. Satisfied with this, the crowd emptied out of the courtroom.

Even by early 1800s the pressure on London’s graveyards was acute. The small parish burial grounds simply were not designed to cope with the huge numbers of burials that a rapidly growing population required. The local authorities recognised that larger cemeteries needed to be laid out so that room could be found for new internments. In 1824 a campaign began to build large municipal cemeteries on the edge of London, away from crowded housing and the danger of disease.

From 1837 to 1841 Parliament agreed to ‘the building of seven commercial cemeteries’ at Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Nunhead, Abney Park, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. By mid century (not long after the horror of Spa Fields) these were already filling up.* Acts in the 1850s caused most of the old seventeenth century burial grounds to be formally closed, some of these are now public gardens.

So the next time you take a stroll in Spa Fields enjoying your lunch or coffee, and taking in the antics of the local canines, you might try to imagine what this place smelled like when the bone house’s fires were in full operation.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 26, 1845]

*Weinrebb & Hibbert, The London Encyclopædia (p.129)

for other posts about the problems of London’s dead see:

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

A grave legal dispute in Essex

‘Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’: an East End landlady is brought to book.

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In August 1849 Mrs Isabella Blaby was summoned before the magistrate at Thames Police court to answer a charge that she was exposing her neighbours to a most ‘intolerable odour’.

The now widowed Mrs Blaby was well known to the court as her husband had worked there until his death a few years earlier. But any sympathy that Mr Combe (the sitting magistrate) might have had for her quickly evaporated as he heard the evidence against her. Mrs Blaby ran a number of lodging houses in East London: one in Batty Street (a street later to become infamous as home to Israel Lipski, hanged for murder in 1887, and Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the ‘Ripper’ case) and two others in Charles Street.

A cess pit at the rear of her properties in Charles Street was overflowing into the yards at Phillip Street nearby via damaged wall, and the stench was unbearable. This caused the tenants there to complain and Thomas Overton, the local inspector of nuisances, was sent round to investigate.

He had already had dealings with Isabella having previously ordered her to deal with a similar problem at her Batty Street tenement, but she clearly hadn’t taken his orders seriously enough. He now discovered that as well as the smell there were potentially fatal health consequences associated with the ‘nuisance’. Given that there had been several outbreaks of cholera in the area, and she seemingly wasn’t  dealing quickly enough with the problem, Overton had no alternative but to bring Mrs Blaby to court.

At the Thames Police court hearing Mr Combe was told that two people were in hospital and the surgeons had warned that unless the cesspit was emptied immediately, and thereafter more regularly, there was a very real risk of further outbreaks.

In her defence Mrs Blaby said she had ‘compoed’ the wall that surrounded the pit (which was was found to be in a poor state of disrepair thus causing it to leak into the adjoining yards) and added that the cess pit had been emptied just six months earlier.

Six months ago? Asked the justice, that was ‘too long, too long’, he told her. ‘Empty them immediately, or you will be liable to a fine of 10s a day’.

Mrs Blaby said was happy to get someone to empty the cess pit of ‘night soil’ the following day, but this was not good enough for Mr Combe.

‘I can’t give you authority to remove night soil in the day time’, he insisted, ‘You must do it this very night, and before five o’clock tomorrow morning. Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’.

The landlady left court agreeing to sort out the issue straight away but her cavalier attitude towards her tenants and her neighbours can’t have filled the bench or the local health inspectors with confidence and it speaks volumes about the conditions people in the East End were living in at the time.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 17, 1849]

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]