[Those curious about the history of the Victorian Web (which began before the WWW in another hypermedia environment) might be interested to learn that this document was one of the very first written specifically for what became this site by someone outside Brown University. (The materials on public health that Professor Wohl also contributed came from his previously published book [GPL].]

[W. M. Thackeray created the decorative initial "A" for Vanity Fair.]

Thackeray's initial n her novel Marcella , Mrs. Humphrey Ward described how visitors to the "filthy gutters and broken pavements" of a "sickening and decaying" Drury Lane came upon "children squatting and playing amid the garbage of the street [who] were further than most of their kind from any tolerable human type." Indeed, everything in the slums conspired to make the working classes "barely tolerable human types" and to reinforce the sense that they belonged to a different species. Like animals, they seemed inured to their own filth. Illustration upon illustration showed the poorest classes picking over (and the children playing in) "dustheaps"--euphemisms not just for garbage but also for animal and human excrement.

One medical journal noted that the poor in Bradford "dunged" in the streets, thus using an animal term I have never come upon for the defecation of other classes. Just like animals, they performed their private functions in public. In an age that increasingly associated cleanliness with respectability--no class more so than the working classes for whom cleanliness was a symbol of one's survival amidst filth, or of one's essential separation from the criminal classes--the personal habits of the lower orders marked them off as a lower form of life.

What can one conclude from the fact that references to the poor are full of anal imagery? Mayhew, for example, refers to "this vast dungheap of ignorance and vice" that is "breeding a social pestilence in the very midst of our land" and again to a "vast heap of social refuse--the mere human street-sweepings" who "serve as manure to the future crime-crop of the country."

Hollingshead similarly writes of the "refuse" population.

The poor were dirty and smelled. The provision of regular piped-in water has been taken as such a feature of Victorian progress that it might come as a shock to learn that as late as 1879 over one quarter of the local authorities in Great Britain had no running water at all, that in Manchester, as late as 1904, only one house in fourteen had running water, or as late as 1894 only 5% of the houses in northern industrial towns had baths. Cleanliness, however close to Godliness in the minds of virtuous Victorians, was clearly beyond the reach of many members of the working classes. Smell, as much as anything, separated the working classes from respectability, especially in an age when smell was associated with dirt and disease.


Victorian Overview Victorian History Race & Class/

Last modified 1990