Victorian London - Health and Hygiene - Sewers and Sanitation - Cesspools

        So far as I can calculate from very imperfect materials, I should conjecture that some thousands of houses within the City still have cesspools connected with them. It requires little medical knowledge to understand that animals will scarcely thrive in an atmosphere of their own decomposing excrements; yet such strictly and literally speaking, is the air which a very large proportion of the inhabitants of the City are condemned to breathe. Sometimes, happily for the inmates, the cess­pool in which their ordure accumulates, lies at some small distance from the basement-area of the house, occupying the subsoil of an adjoining yard, or if the privy be a public one, of some open space exterior to the private premises. But in a very large number of cases, it lies actually within the four walls of the inhabited house; the latter reared over it, as a bellglass over the beak of a retort, receiving and sucking up inces­santly the unspeakable abomination of its volatile contents. In some such instances, where the basement story of the house is tenanted, the cesspool lies—perhaps merely boarded over—close beneath the feet of a family of human beings, whom it surrounds uninterruptedly, whether they wake or sleep, with its fetid pollution and poison.
    Now, here is a remarkable cause of death. These gases, which so many people are daily inhaling, do not, it is true, in their diluted con­dition, suddenly extinguish life; but, though different in concentration, they are identically the same in nature with that confined sewer-gas which, on a recent occasion, killed those who were exposed to it with the rapidity of a lightning-stroke. In their diluted state, as they rise from so many cesspools, and taint the atmosphere of so many houses, they form a climate the most congenial for the multiplication of epidemic disorders, and operate beyond all known influences of their class in impairing the chances of life.
    It maybe taken as an axiom for the purposes of sanitary improvement, that every individual cesspool is hurtful to its vicinage; and it may hence be inferred how great an injury is done to public health by their existence in such numbers, that parts of the City might be described as having a cesspool-city excavated beneath it...

Dr John Simon, City Medical Reports, 1849

see also The Scholar's Handbook of Household Management - click here

see also Hector Gavin's Sanitary Ramblings - click here