Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877   

[back to menu for this book ...]


WHILE reducing the general death-rate, our recent sanitary legislation has called into existence a class of men who must of necessity be daily exposed to the gravest dangers. To the list of men who, by reason of their avocations, constantly face death to save us from peril, we must add the public disinfectors. These modest heroes are truly typical of our advanced civilization; and, as representing the humble rank and file of the army enrolled in the service of science and humanity, deserve as much credit as the bold archers who won the battle of Agincourt. Their devotion, however, would scarcely inspire the minstrel's song, it gives but little scope to romance, and the details of the work they perform are of the most prosaic description; yet it is an undoubted fact that these men daily risk their lives to save the community at large from epidemics. It would be difficult, it is true, to define the precise nature of this risk; though no one denies the infectious character of zymotic diseases. The germ or virus, whether vegetable or animal, will, it is known, retain all its fatal power, sometimes for months, if proper measures are not taken to destroy these seeds of infection. Fortunately, this could be effectively done if our sanitary laws were enforced in every case. The law stipulates that persons suffering from infectious disease must either be removed to the hospital or isolated in one room, and that the room shall in due time be properly disinfected. Many cases, however, are concealed from the authorities. The expense of disinfecting is thus avoided, but the public health is endangered. It is, therefore, essential to amend the Sanitary Act with a view to render concealment impossible in the future; and this end would be attained if every practitioner was compelled to report all cases of infectious disease coming under his care.
    When the inspector of nuisances ascertains that small-pox or a fever has broken out within his district, he calls at the house in question to see that the provisions of the Sanitary Act are properly observed. A certain amount of skill and delicacy are, however, necessary in the execution of this task. This official is not always well received. He is sometimes met with a direct denial; and, as the law does not allow him to force an entrance, he is obliged to leave the house if the person who answers his knock declares there is no case of infectious disease within. When this occurs, the inspector must resort to some stratagem; he must question the neighbours or inveigle some indiscreet servant or child to disclose the truth. Generally the inspectors seek to discover who is the medical attendant at the suspected house, and will call and ascertain from him the real nature of the complaint. If his earlier suspicions are confirmed, and it proves to be some form of zymotic disease, the officer can then obtain a summons from the police magistrate, and the persons who sought to avoid the Sanitary Act are either fined or imprisoned.
    Such resistance, however, can only be qualified as criminal folly, and with the spread of education and sanitary knowledge, the visits of the inspector will be courted rather than avoided. Indeed, I am informed that in London, at least, most persons are quite willing that their dwellings should be purified ; and the present prevalence of small-pox occasions much work of this description. Even the poorer and less educated classes are beginning to understand the importance of these sanitary precautions. As a rule, the inspector of nuisances is the first to visit the premises, and boldly entering the patient's room he takes a general survey so as to realize what must be done. If, as is often the case in poor quarters, the room is encumbered with rags and refuse, he will see that what is worthless is destroyed; but the process of disinfection is only begun after the death or complete recovery of the patient. In either case, the room must be vacated, and the strictest injunctions are given to prevent any one entering. The clothes worn by the patient and his attendants are left in the room; and then only the disinfectors make their appearance. These men generally wear a blouse and leggings to protect their ordinary clothes from the germs of disease which must of necessity fall upon them. Thus equipped, they proceed to their destination, dragging after them a capacious hand-cart, which is hermetically closed. There is something peculiar, not to say sinister, in the little group thus formed. To the excited imagination of a convalescent their appearance might evoke a sense of horror. The presence of men who are ever engaged clearing out fever dens, and are constantly handling the bed-clothes belonging to persons who have suffered from the most repulsive, contagious, and dangerous complaints, is certainly calculated to produce a painful impression on a debilitated mind; though, to those whose reason is not impaired by sickness or prejudice, these considerations should, on the contrary, enhance their admiration for the devotion and courage so unhesitatingly displayed. Nor is this the disinfectors' only claim to our sympathy; they are men whose honesty is frequently exposed to temptation, and against whom I, at least, have never heard the slightest complaint. They alike disinfect the houses of the poor and the rich; one day destroying the rubbish in a rag merchant's shop, and the next handling the delicate damask and superfine linen which shade and cover the bed in some Belgravian mansion. Once in the sick-room, no prying eyes are allowed to watch the disinfectors at work. They have strict orders to exclude every one from their dangerous presence. Alone and unseen,. they remove, one by one, all the clothes, bedding, carpets, curtains, in fact all textile materials they can find in the room, carefully place them in the hand-cart, and drag them off to the disinfecting-oven. This is, of course, a dangerous operation, as the dust it occasions, and which falls on the men, or is inhaled by them, must be loaded with the zymotic particles that engender epidemics. Few persons care to be present on these occasions; and, but for their own honesty of purpose, the disinfectors might often make away with various objects which in all probability would not at first be missed. The men chosen for this work are therefore carefully selected, and have generally been known for many years to the Vestries by whom they are appointed.
    The accompanying photograph has been taken in the yard adjoining the Vestry Hall, close by Ebury Bridge, and the familiar countenance of Mr. Dickson, the Inspector of Nuisances for the Parish or Union of St. George's, Hanover Square, will be readily recognized by all who are well acquainted with this district. The group is gathered in front of the out-house where the disinfecting-oven is situated. This is simply an oblong iron box, which can be heated by a gas apparatus, till the atmosphere within reaches 280 degrees. This intense dry heat cannot spoil the materials placed inside, and has been proved, by innumerable experiments, to be the surest method of killing the germs of zymotic disease. Boiling for about twenty minutes would be equally effective, but we cannot boil furniture. Unless some such method is adopted, the microzymes may live for an indefinite period; indeed, the germs of scarlet fever can live in woollen materials for several years. Mrs. C. M. Buckton mentions in her popular Lectures on the Laws of Health a case of a child who died of this fever. Her favourite doll was put away in a woollen dress. Three or four years later, a cousin came to pay a visit at the house, and the mother, to amuse the little girl, brought out the doll, which had not been touched since her own child's death. A week had, however, hardly elapsed since this incident, when the little visitor was in her turn seized with the scarlet fever. The doll evidently should have been disinfected, even at the risk of destroying the symmetry of its waxen features.
    When all the bedding, clothes, &c., have been brought to the Vestry yard, they are placed in the disinfecting-oven, the disinfectors taking care to add their own "over-alls", so that they also may benefit by the process. A certain amount of sulphur is burnt within the hand-cart, so that the purified objects may be replaced therein and taken back without danger of being again contaminated. In the meanwhile, the person to whom these objects belong is politely informed that they will not be returned before the inspector has ascertained that the room from which they have been taken has been thoroughly disinfected; and this is done by the parish disinfectors if the person in question cannot afford to pay an ordinary builder to do it for him. The process of disinfection consists of pasting paper over the fireplace, and along the chinks of the doors and windows, so as to render the room air-tight. A large quantity of sulphur is then ignited, and the fumes allowed to permeate the room for some twenty-four hours; but unless these fumes are sufficiently powerful to kill a human being, it is not likely that they will destroy the zymotic germs. When this is terminated, we may venture to enter the room with some sense of security, but the fumigating is not considered sufficient. Every particle of paper must now be ripped from the walls, and burnt; then the whole room is carefully washed with carbolic acid, the walls re-papered, and the ceiling whitewashed; and it is only when all this has been satisfactorily done that the objects taken to the disinfecting-oven are returned. The process, it will be seen, is an elaborate one, but the perfect purification of the patient's room is well worth the trouble; and the efficacy of this system is best proved by the fact that a small-pox hospital was recently disinfected in this manner, and then converted into an asylum for aged or infirm paupers. The disinfection of the hospital, however, had been so effective, that not a single case of small-pox occurred among its new inmates. At the same time I cannot help observing that all who are engaged in this work might be a little more prudent with regard to their own persons. The "over-alls" worn by the men are certainly some protection, but their hair, beards, and caps are well suited to collect and convey the germs of disease to their homes. They should, therefore, be compelled to wash themselves with carbolic acid, or with a solution of potassium permanganate, when their day's work is over, and before they are allowed free intercourse with the public at large. The same ablutions might with equal reason be enforced on the sanitary inspectors, and they also should wear different clothes when off duty.
    The disinfectors of St. George's, Hanover Square, were formerly "road men" in the employ of the Vestry, and deem their present work as a considerable improvement. They receive sixpence per hour for disinfecting houses or removing contaminating clothes and furniture, and these are such busy times that they often work twelve hours per day. Thus their income frequently exceeds thirty shillings per week, not to mention little gifts and perquisites which may occasionally fall into their hands. This, but for the personal risk incurred, is far more remunerative than their old avocation of mending the streets. Indeed, such is the irony of our civilization, that the men who labour in the free air to keep our roads in order, look up with envious eyes to their old fellow-workers who have been promoted to the dignity of disinfection.