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]

A brothel madam falls foul of the law

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In Victorian London overcrowding was common and tensions often flared between occupants of lodging houses and those that owned them. Disputes over non payment of rent were frequent and overcrowding and the demand for somewhere to sleep meant that landlords were able to kick out their tenants with relative ease. If they didn’t immediately evict those who were behind with the rent it was rarely out of any consideration for their welfare. More likely they were aware that if someone owed several weeks’ rent then evicting them was hardly likely to get the debt settled.

One option was to distrain their goods against the value of the debt. This was what happened to a young woman that lived in a house owned by Mary Lawson near the Gray’s Inn Road.

Mary’s unnamed tenant owed her the small sum of 2s 6d, or about £5 today. It wouldn’t buy you that much and helps illustrate how cheap the lodgings Mary ran were. Was this a week’s money, a month’s, we don’t know. What we do know is that the girl didn’t have the money to pay it and so Mary Lawson employed a broker named Chase (from nearby Saffron Hill) to seize her possessions.

The girl was obviously poor but she also had a child to support and so ‘was driven to wander about in great want’, until her former neighbours undertook to support her. The property she lived in at George Court,  Gray’s Inn Lane was home to many other people. Nothing remains of this property today and the space is occupied by Fox Court a modern office building which is home, a little ironically perhaps, to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (Social Security and Child Support).

In 1845 George Court was a brothel, and a large one. It had ‘accommodation for 46 girls’ in no less than seven houses, all of them owned by Mary Lawson. This ‘elderly woman’ was a madam on a large scale. The girl who she was in dispute with was a prostitute; we know this because when she came to the Clerkenwell Police Court to complain that Lawson had assaulted her she was described as ‘unfortunate’, Victorian code for a sex worker.

When Mary had heard how the other residents had clubbed together to help the girl she went into a rage, shouting at them and threatening to evict them all or seize their property. She couldn’t have her authority undermined in so direct a manner.

In court the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, saw an angle to challenge both Mary and her practice of extorting money with menaces. He called the broker over and told him, as one lawyer to another, ‘that no money can be due arising out of such places of immorality’. In short, Mary Lawson couldn’t charge her residents rent or distrain their goods for non payment because she was in effect living off their immoral earrings. He said he would inform the parish authorities (at St Andrew’s, Holborn) and have them put ‘down the nuisance’.

He added that it had already been allowed to be ‘carried on for too long a period, to the annoyance of the more peaceable and respectable inhabitants in the vicinity, as disturbances and robberies were the constant result of the nuisance, which had frequently been complained of’.

As for Mary Lawson, he took note of her relative wealth and how she had come by it and fined her the princely sum of 50s for the assault plus costs, and sent her on her way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, July 20, 1845]