Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 - Chapter 9

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    SANITARY and municipal reforms make but slow progress. The London streets were in former days thronged with thieves; scores of peaceable London citizens were robbed, often beaten, and sometimes murdered, and this practice might have continued if the thieves had not made an unsuccessful attempt to rob the queen, and succeeded in robbing a London alderman. Then regular patrols were put on the streets, lights were hung out, and numbers of the robbers hanged. In other instances we find a handful of interested individuals, having influence, continuing certain evil practices, until pestilence or some other interference of Providence alarms them personally, or they are forced into alteration by the strong voice of public opinion.
    The "grave-yard" question was a few years since ably and resolutely agitated by Mr. Walker, assisted by nearly all the ability of the London and provincial press; circumstances of the most revolting nature were placed before the public; and, although seemingly beyond belief, have never been contradicted. Soon after these matters were made known, the cholera paid us a visit, alarming the minds of men by the fierceness of its visitation; many reforms were determined upon, amongst others, the immediate discontinuance of intramural interments: this desirable boon then seemed a certainty which every one might congratulate himself upon. Notwithstanding this hopeful appearance, the grave-yard question is even now scarcely settled. We will not give to any credit for common sense, - we will not give them credit for common honesty, if they say it is right that a monstrous heap of decaying mortality should be placed amongst the living, and opened week by week, perhaps day by day, to receive additions to the mass, and to emit in more concentrated form its destructive gases. Whether the remains be those of rich or poor, all must decompose to the elements that form the human body, which are indestructible, and these must be dispersed throughout the neighbourhood.
    But why argue a matter which has again and again been determined? No one will be bold enough to say that the practice is wholesome, christianlike, or proper, and all must earnestly desire its [-52-] abandonment, if not personally interested in its maintenance. Our large cities are rapidly doubling their population. We live in the times of railways, the steam printing-press, and the electric telegraph; old-fashioned and half measures will only end in disappointment, and eventually in greater sacrifices. The whole system of intramural interments should be at once changed. ĚLet us have no more cemeteries in our streets, even if only one-third filled and "agreeable places;" let us add no more to the stacks of coffins which fill the vaults of chapels and churches; but provide proper places at a distance from towns. Not long since the burial-grounds of St. James's in the Hampstead-road, St. Pancras', St. Giles's, and St. Martin's, were in pleasant fields. Look at them now! - plague-spots in the midst of thousands of people.

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 shad-14.gif (17088 bytes)   The appearance presented by the ground of Old St. Pancras's parish is very extraordinary. Unaided imagination would scarcely reach to it, and we have therefore pencilled down its general aspect. An account of the number of bodies here deposited would startle the most apathetic.
    St. Pancras' ground is truly a distressing sight. The stones - an assembly of reproachful spirits - are falling all ways; the outbuildings put up on its confines are rent, and the paved pathways are everywhere disrupted, such is the loose and quaking state of the whole mass. The practice of pit-burial is still [-53-] continued in this ground. When we were there last, we found a hole with six coffins in it, waiting its complement of about double that number!
    St. Giles's ground, the soil of which is a stiff clay, was in a disgusting state, - a mere mud-pond in that portion which is appropriated to the burial of the poor.
    Parts of the London burial-grounds which have been properly "worked," as they call it, are filled from a depth of about 13 feet up to 3 or 4 feet from the surface; our readers may see by a reference to the annexed engraving (Fig. 12) of the surface of St. Giles's-in-the-Fields, that the graves are dug as nearly as possible side by side. A full-sized grave would be from 6 feet 3 inches to 6 feet 6 inches in length; the measurement we made of the raised tops of these graves showed them not more than 4 feet 6 inches in length. A square portion of the graveyard is appropriated for present use; the 4 feet 6-inch graves soon become less, and speedily are not to be recognised by the friends of the deceased. A flat space is soon made for fresh graves, which are dug, of course, not so deep, and thus the ground is "managed" until no more coffins can find room. We need not ask if three or four feet of loose earth, and slight wooden coffins, will contain the fluids and gases of which these bodies are composed. These, quickly liberated, pass into the air and do their evil work.
    The retention of burial-places in the midst of the living is a costly wickedness and a national disgrace.
    Lord Palmerston some time ago addressed a letter to the Edinburgh Presbytery of the Scottish Church, in reply to their inquiry if a national fast would be appointed on account of the re-appearance of cholera, - which ought to have attention in every town-council, parish vestry, and private house throughout the kingdom.
    "The Maker of the Universe," says the Home Secretary, "has established certain laws of nature for the planet in which we live, and the weal or woe of mankind depends upon the observance or the neglect of those laws. One of those laws connects health with the absence of those gaseous exhalations which proceed from overcrowded human beings, or from decomposed substances, whether animal or vegetable; and these same laws render sickness the almost inevitable consequence of exposure to those noxious influences. But it has, at the same time, pleased Providence to place it within the power of man to make such arrangements as will prevent or disperse such exhalations, so as to render them harmless; and it is the duty of man to attend to those laws of nature, and to exert the faculties which Providence has thus given to man for his own welfare."
    The recent visitation of cholera the writer views as a warning that the people have neglected this duty, and that those persons with whom it rested to purify towns and to remove the causes of disease, have not been sufficiently active. "Lord Palmerston would, therefore, suggest, that the best course which the people of this country can pursue, to deseive that the further progress of the cholera should [-54-] be stayed, will be to employ the interval that will elapse between the present time and the beginning of next spring in planning and executing measures by which those portions of their towns and cities which are inhabited by the poorest classes, and which, from the nature of things, must most need purification and improvement, may be freed from those causes and sources of contagion which, if allowed to remain, will infallibly breed pestilence and be fruitful in death, in spite of all the prayers and fastings of an united but inactive nation."
    Excellent advice! The cholera is proceeding in London in its fatal course: death appears in the old spot; and under the usual insanitary conditions, and the measures adopted are not yet equal to the emergency. Foremost amongst the steps urgently required, we would place the removal and avoidance of cesspools; the closing of graveyards; and arrangements for the speedy and proper burial of the dead. It is often stated that the poorer classes, particularly the Irish, delight in filth, and would not live in properly conditioned houses if they could have them for the same money they pay for worse: it has been mentioned that whitewashing has been refused by some, and violence offered against improvement by others. We admit the frightful amount of ignorance amongst more than the very poor. How can it be otherwise, born and reared as they have been? Experience, however, tells us that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the poor have not the means of rising out of their filth and degradation. They are bound down to dirt. Still we have generally found the poor open to suggestions, willing to have the condition of things explained, and mostly anxious to escape, if it were possible, from the dens which it has been our painful duty to describe. The managers of public baths and washhouses will bear out this statement, but say at the same time that they have not yet reached the very poor: many have not even the small means required to go to these places, and more are ashamed to show their rags in the presence of others. It cannot be doubted that the poorer Irish require a peculiar kind of management, and it would be generally useless to attempt to interfere by apparent force with the forms in which they believe: let us, however, relate an instance which shows that reasoning and a kind way of putting the truth will receive attention.
    A fatal case of cholera occurred at the end of 1852 in Ashby-street, close to the "Paradise" of King's-cross - a street without any drainage, and full of cesspools. This death took place in the back parlour on the ground floor abutting on the yard containing a foul cesspool and untrapped drain, and where the broken pavement, when pressed with the foot, yielded a black, pitchy, half liquid matter in all directions. The inhabitants, although Irish, agreed to attend to all advice given to them as far as they were able, and a coffin was offered to them by the parish. They said that they would like to wait until the next morning (it was on Thursday evening that the woman died), as the son was anxious, if he could raise the money, to bury his mother himself; but they agreed, contrary to their custom on such [-55-] occasions, to lock up the corpse at twelve o'clock at night, and allow no one to be in the room. On Friday, the day after death, the woman was buried, and so far it was creditable to these poor people, since they gave up their own desires and customs, which bade them retain the body.
    Is what followed equally creditable to the arrangements in St. Pancras? We think not. This corpse was brought to old St. Pancras graveyard, when, will it be believed, it was actually placed near the top of a pit twenty feet deep, containing two rows of full-grown coffins, which from time to time had been lodged there until the pile reached within a few feet of the surface. The effluvium from this pit was abominable : children were packed into the corners, so that not an inch of ground might be lost; and here during Saturday all this pitful of dead bodies, some of whom had, perhaps, fallen by fever and small-pox, together with the woman who had died of cholera, were left without a sprinkling of earth upon them. On the Saturday afternoon the hole remained uncovered, waiting for more. Probably on Sunday the complement was obtained and the heap was made complete; and then a few spadefuls of soil would be thrown over this mass of corruption to hide it from sight. Surely not a day should be lost in putting a stop to such disgraceful and dangerous proceedings. Who can, with justice, find fault with the improvidence and obstinacy of the poor when we see such doings on the part of those who are in authority, and ought to be better informed?
    With respect to the cesspool system in the metropolis, all who inquire into the subject must be struck by the enormous magnitude of the evil. The number of cesspools allowed to remain, even in neighbourhoods where sewers have been formed, is extraordinary. None but those who have examined the subject can appreciate either the extent, or the sad consequences to health resulting from it. The excuses for this state of things are numerous. "Cesspools are certainly not right," says one, "and no doubt the drains below the kitchens smell very badly now and then; but my landlord is a very decent fellow; I have lived here some time, and I don't care to put him to expense;" or "My landlord's lease has not long to run, and he won't do anything." Some are in arrears of rent, and cannot remove. Others have established a business, or find their houses in some way suitably situated for sub-letting, and near their employment ; while many are utterly ignorant of the extent of ill-health resulting from imperfect drainage; and but few, comparatively, know that by an Act of Parliament passed in 1848 (11 & 12 Vict. c. 123), any offensive cesspool, &c. can be removed by the parish authorities upon receipt of a notice, in writing, signed by two inhabitant-householders. Cesspools ought at once to be got rid of in all neighbourhoods in which a sewer exists. This is a matter which not only affects the poor, but those above them in the social scale.
    Many will remember houses of large size and respectable condition in which an atmosphere dull and heavy seems to hang in a substantial [-56-] form. It is palpable and distinct. However cheerful a person may be at his entrance into one of these places, he will feel his spirits chilled and his whole system depressed. The smell is not of an acute description, but produces similar effects to those caused by a prolonged visit to one of our London crypts thickly occupied by the dead. Hundreds of houses in even good streets are thus circumstanced.
    Persons residing not only in London, but in other large towns, who have not taken the trouble to understand the formation and ill effects of improper house-drains, wonder at the deadly air which fills their apartments, particularly in the evening, when doors and windows are closed, and the air within the house rarefied. We sometimes hear of persons smoking tobacco, as they say, "to purify the air," but this is only disguising the poison:- dressing the skeleton : the bones are within. We go into many houses which are positively shocking, and where, nevertheless, the smell is scarcely regarded by the inhabitants. The children are pale, and have no appetite; the older -occupants anxious and weary, with wide-open eyes, and closed mouth. To them everything looks black : the world is a prison. There are thousands in this beautiful world who do not know what a cheerful, pleasant home is: fault-finding and lamentation are their chief pleasures: and we verily believe that this number would be very considerably lessened by simply filling up the cesspool, and brightening up the house.
    The history of London from an early period to the present time is a continued account of "trimming" measures, either forced by plague and pestilence, by fire, by interest, or by fears for the safety of property. An alderman is robbed,-then the lighting of the City is seen after; an epidemic disease carries off one sixth of the old inhabitants, the Fleet Ditch is partly covered. In modern days the cholera pays us a visit, and during the terrors of its visitation the people are made to see and appreciate the unwholesomeness of intramural interments.
    Up to this time, the slaughtering of animals is continued in the City and suburbs. In these particulars, London is worse than before the time of Henry VII.; for then, under payment of a heavy penalty, butchers were obliged to kill animals used for food at a distance from the inhabitants. We also, at the present day, tolerate the slaughtering of horses, &c., the preparation of tallow, and allow other abominations to be carried forward in the midst of a dense population.
    In many parts of this great metropolis, often hidden from public view by stately squares and other buildings, lurk dense masses of houses totally unfit for human use, and yet crowded with those who, born in such localities, have little other prospect except the hospital, the workhouse, or the jail : here light or water scarcely enters, and instruction, save that in vice, is an almost utter stranger.
    Is it not possible to provide dwellings for the abject poor of [-57-] London and other large towns, where they may have light and the means of cleanliness, without appealing to charity for the supply of such buildings? It is said by many, that buildings on a new plan would not meet the views of those who have been reared in filth, and prejudiced by ignorance of their own good. We think that this prejudice, if the proper material were supplied, would soon vanish. Nothing can be more encouraging than the success of the first building erected in Old St. Pancras-road, by the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes, on the principle of the Edinburgh and Parisian houses. This departure from established custom met, at first, with many objectors, and some difficulty was felt in obtaining tenants. Since the opening of this building the rents have been twice raised, and, notwithstanding, it is rare now to meet with a set of rooms vacant. The inhabitants have continued to increase in respectability, and consist now of die-sinkers, engravers, ornamental painters, compositors, and skilled carpenters: in addition to these, we may mention a gentleman who has been for many years connected with literature, and a bank clerk. This first erection of the association is paying a handsome per centage on the expended capital; and it is almost certain that similar buildings, scattered about St. Pancras and elsewhere, would be a satisfactory speculation; and would also gradually pave the way to an alteration for the better of the dwellings of the very poor. We will not enter into the consideration of the slow progress of sewer reform; the necessity for the appointment of sanitary police, particularly in the districts of St. Pancras, Marylebone, Westminster, and parts of the Borough; but we cannot refrain from saying a few additional words respecting the "Grave-yard" question and the smoke nuisance. Many consider that, as an Act of Parliament has been passed, the evil of intramural interments in London has ceased. Such, however, is, unfortunately, not the case. On Sundays, during the afternoon, the St. Pancras-road and adjoining streets present the appearance of an almost continuous procession of coffins of children and adults, accompanied by the usual mourners, wending their way to the already closely-packed grave-yards of St. Pancras and St. Giles-in-the-fields. The scenes at these burial-grounds on Sundays are not very creditable. Who knows how soon the pestilence may again come upon us? The earth all over England is saturated by most unusual moisture, and the London grave-yards are completely drenched. This moisture must be extracted into the atmosphere and spread around. Who can foresee the consequence?
    And now a few words as to another shadow, - smoke.
    Smoke is a more tangible opponent to fight against than some people think. "It will all end in smoke, is a common expression to describe something which is, after all, nothing. This is a great mistake. Smoke is not nothing: it is a something which the public find it very difficult to get rid of, - an obvious, avoidable evil, - one of our disgraces.
    [-58-] The innocent animals sketched from nature, and placed here, are the one polluted, and the other astonished.

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    If, however, the country sheep wonders at the blackness of his neighbour, how much more must the sheep of experience be astonished (himself living in the neighbourhood of the court) to find by comparison with the coat of his new friend, fresh from verdant plains, the blackness of his own. Our sheep, perhaps, has a power of observation, and may consider that if this amount of blackness attach thus to the coat of wool, his daily food (the peculiarly-coloured grass of the London parks) must not be altogether wholesome: he will also consider the nature of the air thus loaded with large and distinct flakes of soot, visible to the eye, and think of unwholesome matter swallowed into his lungs, and that to an extent which could only be fully understood by comparison with the country atmosphere, by the display of collected particles, or by means of the microscope.
    If sheep cannot thus estimate the effects of London smoke, at all events we can, and must view with horror delicate children and invalids, and indeed people of any sort, to the extent of two millions and a half and upwards, put in and obliged to breathe, not only the pestilent airs of bad drainage, and other matters to which we have often referred, but also the sooty atmosphere which the Hyde-park sheep illustrate.
    The soot of the metropolitan chimneys is injurious in various ways. [-59-] It injures to a certain extent the health of every one. It tinges with its duskiness the palace and the hovel: it coats and spoils the works of our painters and sculptors: it disfigures the works of architects; and it causes a large unnecessary expenditure in washing. Have we no chivalry in this practical age? Cannot the knights of the present time manage to relieve the ladies of Britain from an evil greater than were the dragons and enchantments of the times past?
    There are some startling statistics on record touching the effect of London smoke: we have made some calculations of touching import to all who pay washing-bills, and which show that the damage done to clothes and furniture by our smoke is immense,-enough to astonish any one who has not thought seriously on the subject, and also enough, considering how particularly this evil presses on the female portion of the community, from the highest to the lowest, to stir up amongst us the latent spirit of chivalry already alluded to. Down with the Smoke! That is, let us never allow it to go up.
    Smoke, it has been often shown, can be avoided, and the appearance and atmosphere of London may be completely altered. Ascend the principal tower of the Crystal Palace, at Sydenham, in the middle of the day, and all London lies shrouded in a dense haze, although at four in the morning from the same spot you may see every church in the metropolis; the City churches ranging in long rows, St. Paul's, Primrose-hill, Highgate and Hampstead, the Queen's Palace, Westminster Abbey; in fact, all the materials which form this great abode of humanity are distinctly in view, as distinctly almost as a scene in Italy or on the Rhine. London "gets up;" and then the gas-works, the brewers, the bakers, and various other manufacturers, as well as the good housewife, soon, by their united exertions, envelop London in a cloud which can be seen hanging over it  for miles off like a sable pall or a sad thought.
    If any of our country readers not living in manufacturing towns, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and some other places, think that our illustration of the Hyde-park sheep is too highly coloured, let them, if they happen to visit London, remember the condition of clean shirts and gloves after a day's use in the country, and compare them with those used at their metropolitan visit: let them also look at their hands and face: wash as often as they choose, the water will be of such a distinct blackness that no mistake can possibly be made respecting the extent and properties of London smoke.
    If, however, London is so grim, what is the condition of Manchester, Leeds, and the banks of "Coally Tyne?" The accompanying sketch of Manchester when they are getting the steam up will be recognised by all strangers who have visited that great seat of industry. We remember meeting with a Londoner in the latter town who was almost speechless with astonishment at the numerous and immense volumes of smoke pouring out from all quarters-an effect only to he understood by actual observation.


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    [-61-] Without pursuing the inquiry further, let us add that the quantity of coal now yielded by our coal-fields is called 32,000,000 tons annually, of which about 3,500,000 tons in the year are brought to London. It would not be difficult to estimate how much of this is wasted by our present unscientific mode of burning it, and is sent off, in the shape of very finely divided carbon, to contaminate the air, shorten the duration of daylight, and destroy property. That these evils may be avoided is certain, and it is much to be desired that manufacturers and others should not wait for legislative enactments, but should forthwith direct their attention to the subject, satisfied that although there may at first be practical difficulties in the way, these may all be overcome, not only with immense advantage to the public, but pecuniary gain to themselves.