Victorian London - Health and Hygiene - Pollutants - Factory and industrial pollution


Sir, - The Times has on various occasions published letters and itself commented on the great necessity which exists for the Government and police magistrates, as well as the parochial authorities, to insist on the removal of such nuisances as are prejudicial to the inhabitants of this great metropolis and its environs.
    Various manufactories of an obnoxious kind, besides places for the collection of night soil and other offensive matters, although 30 years since they might have been considered at a sufficient distance from inhabited houses, are now, from the great extent of buildings, much too near for health and propriety, being situated as it were in the very midst of our habitations.
    In my own neighbourhood, that of the East India-road, a place exists called Bow-common, which is a nuisance to all the east end of London, but more particularly to the parishes of Stepney, Bow, Bromley, Poplar, and Limehouse, in which live about 80,000 inhabitants. On this spot are manufactories of the most noxious and injurious kind, carried on by chymical compounders, as they call themselves; and amongst whom are some who manufacture ammonia from night soil, a process which deserves special notice. The soil goes under the operation of boiling, and the liquid which exudes from it is allowed to run into the common sewer, whence it emits, through the gratings in North-street and High-street, Poplar, as also in Limehouse-causeway, the most horrid stench polluting the atmosphere until it enters the river at Limekiln-dock.
    What the authorities, public and local, are about, to allow such nuisances to exist, I am at a loss to guess. The said Bow-common belongs, as I am informed, to the lord of the manor; and as for building or other common purposes that would increase its value, a good title cannot, it appears, be given. The land under these circumstances is let for purposes the most offensive. In fact, advertisements have at different periods appeared, drawing attention to the eligibility of the spot for manufactures of such commodities as would be deemed nuisances in other neighbourhoods and representing that they might here be carried on with impunity.
    Owing to the laxity of those who should interfere in these matters, manufacturing chymists, bone collectors and burners, patent night soil manure manufactures, night and dust men, as well as other obnoxious trades, are now establishing themselves in Mile-end and Limehouse, alongside the Regent's-canal and River Lea-cut, to the serious inconvenience of the inhabitants as to their health and to the detriment of vegetation.
    Within the last two or three years a very sensible difference has been apparent in our gardens; the smells are even greater during the night than in the day, and many inhabitants in the surrounding and immediate neighbourhood of Bow-common are awakened from their sleep by a suffocating feeling arising from the stench thence when the wind sets from that quarter, and which sometimes even reaches the densely populated parish of Whitechapel.
    No wonder the people complain of the impurity of the Thames water, or that but a small quantity of fish are now caught in the river, or that it is quite abandoned by smelts and salmon which abounded in it 40 years ago - Thames salmon was then considered a great luxury, but is now rarely heard of.
    Now that most of the commissioners of sewers for London and its suburban neighbourhoods are renewed by authority, and a single board for all the divisions has been named by the Government, I do trust the Legislature will invest the new commissioners with such power as will enable them to compel all landlords of houses near to common sewers to open communications to them, and also to prevent the filth from gas works and other obnoxious manufactures (which filth should be carted away) running into the sewers, thereby causing pestilence to rage in every house communicating with the sewers, owing to the exhalations arising from them. The late commissioners of sewers failed in completing the salutary arrangements necessary to be taken, owing to their want of sufficient authority; the outlay which has been complained of having arisen from the expensive mode the commissioners had to pursue in levying rates under the authority invested in them to execute the commission, and their not being allowed when large works had to be carried out to borrow the money on the rates, and distribute the collection for expenditure over several years, as it is not just that present occupiers of houses should make improvements for the gratuitous benefit of posterity. This has been the cause of very many sewers not being made that otherwise would have been.
    The object of my making these remarks is not only to get rid of the crying nuisances that now exist, but to cause them to be removed to a safe distance from London and its immediate neighbourhood, by an act of the Legislature; and at the same time to call the attention of the House of Commons to the subject generally, when the Sanitary Bill is brought prominently forward by Lord Morpeth.

letter to The Times, December 11, 1847


Immense excitment prevails among an important class of manufacturers - those engaged in the manufacture of that atmospheric canopy, the sable expanse of which extends over London and its environs, serving the inhabitants of the whole metropolitan district as a parasol. The cause of the commotion is the Smoke Nuisance Bill - so called; against which a number of gentlemen and others, professing the principles of Free Carbon, met last night to protest, at the Hole-and-Corner.
   The chair having been taken by Mr. Sutkins, the business of the meeting commenced with uproar. Comparative silence having been obtains,
    Mr. LONGSHAFT, brewer, rose to move a resolution, that the principle of the Smoke Bill was at variance with the constitution of England. At a time when London was much more smoky than it was now, it was said that "Liberty is like the air we breathe." Could any atmosphere be more salubrious than air? Smoke possessed curative properties, especially in reference to hams; and the very essence of smoke was applied for the cure of kippered salmon. He had sent some bottles of smoke from his own brew-house to a celebrated German chemist, who had written him a certificate in the form of a letter, to the effect that he had analysed the smoke, and found it to consist principally of carbon, which possessed antiseptic properties; sulphorous and carbonic acid gases: the former of which acted as a tonic, whilst the latter constituted the enlivening element of bottled ale and stout, ginger beer and soda water. The philosopher had accompanied this statement by a declaration that he, for his part, liked the smoke as a perfume, and would be glad to be supplied with a few more bottles of it for his personal use. Hitherto this beautiful smoke had been alloed to waste its sweetness on the London air, which was now threatened with the deprivation of that singular advantage. The loss of the smoke would not affect him individually much, as he lived some distance out of town; and could only indulge in a whiff now and then, when he went to his place of business. He regarded the attack upon their chimneys as the commencement of an invasion of their heartths; and exhorted all who meant to defend the latter to rally round the former. (Great applause.) ...

Punch, July-December 1853