Although Dale Porter, like Anthony Wohl and other social historians, paints a grim picture of London's environmental contamination, absence of adequate sanitation, and lack of viable solutions to problems caused by human, animal, and industrial waste, following Olson, he also asks the pointed question, how filthy was London actually?
Cleanliness is in the eye of the beholder, and there is a difference between the dismal levels of sanitation and public health that historians perceive in hindsight and how most contemporaries perceived them. Late Georgian London was generally considered clean and healthy by most people. Donald Olsen cites evidence that visitors to London before 1830 were quite pleased by the healthy climate and sanitation of the capital. He goes on to speculate that London's early Victorian reputation for filthiness stemmed most directly from the totally unexpected and shockingly swift cholera epidemic of 1832. The epidemic threw the medical profession into a panic, for no one could explain what cholera was, let alone how to prevent it. Its horrifying symptoms and devastating mortality led the public and the media to overdramatize its actual impact. Although cholera returned in 1848, in 1853, and in 1866, each time prompting cries for pollution control it actually killed fewer people than probably any other epidemic infection. John Snow's famous demonstration of the waterborne nature of the disease was not accepted until after the last of these epidemics.
In other words, like the development of ideas of Victorian ideas of the public interest and pollution — both so crucial in late-nineteenth-century conceptions of class, sexuality, gender, and the effects of literature and the arts —the filth if London proves part verifiable fact and part a cultural response to a conceptual, practical problem.
Porter, Dale H. The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1998.
Last modified 6 August 2020