The only one of Jane Austens characters who ever uses the word pollution is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the sort of pollution she is worried about is not environmental. Several characters, however, are concerned about dirt. Fanny Price notices the dirt in her parents home in Portsmouth, Elizabeth collects dirt on her petticoat on her walk to Netherfield and Edward Ferrars talks of the dirt of Devonshire lanes. It is Mrs Allen in Northanger Abbey, however, who uses the word dirt most frequently and it is city dirt which worries her. She talks of Bath and how hard it is to keep ones gown clean there, but she would have been even more troubled by the dirt of Regency London.
When London was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, the urgency of getting people housed and businesses up and running again took priority over city planning. Streets were rebuilt much as they had been, with alleys and close lanes, stinking gloomy courts and labyrinthine ways behind the elegant frontages of the main streets.
Cleaning the streets was a job that came under the jurisdiction of parochial authorities. Some parishes were rich, powerful and thinly populated, such as St Michael Bassishaw, which had only 142 houses to worry about. The merchants who owned them could easily ensure that their street fronts were kept clean and in good repair. Portsoken parish, however, had 1385 houses and the area was cared for by only 4 parish scavengers. These scavengers came round every day, except Sunday, ringing bells to alert residents to bring out rubbish and put it in their carts. It was an offence to leave rubbish in front of your house, or a neighbours, or to throw it into the street, but it happened all the same. In 1742, Benjamin Franklin visited London and remarked on the too common practice of the lower sort of inhabitants and servants throwing away ashes, rubbish, broken glass ... offal and other offensive things ... which stop the current of the chanels (gutters)1.
If you were lucky, market gardeners from outer London would come and take away cartloads of dirt to use as manure. The dirt they purchased has been described as a rich and glutinous mixture of animal manure, dead cats and dogs, ashes, straw, and human excrement2 and the fertility that resulted in the gardens where it was used astonished visiting foreigners.
Horse dung was, of course, everywhere. In severe frosts, residents deliberately laid piles of it over the lead pipes that brought water into their homes in the hopes that warm dung would prevent the pipes from bursting. It rarely worked the pipes burst, water froze all over the streets and pedestrians had the added task of avoiding dung-piles as they made their way through treacherous streets.
Mrs Jennings, as a London resident, was required by law to pave the street in front of her house. She is likely to have been conscientious about this duty and to have made sure it was done well. No elderly lady wants to trip over broken paving stones. Other residents were not so conscientious. One can imagine the annoyance of Mrs Allen were she to step on what was known as a beau-trap, i.e. a loose stone in the pavement under which water lodges and on being trod upon squirts it up, to the great detriment of white stockings3.
During Jane Austens life-time, much of this old paving was removed. A special tax raised money for granite paving. This was laid, streets were cambered with a gutter on each side and contractors were brought in to clean and light the streets.
We complain today of the noise and pollution created by the motor car, but the traffic of Regency London was not noted for its cleanliness either. Imagine the dung and urine of the horses that pulled carriages, of the herds of cattle driven through the streets (they were only allowed on some of the streets) to market or the abattoirs on Tower Hill. The recent film version of Sense and Sensibility shows Mrs Jennings and the Dashwood girls carefully avoiding this dung, but there must have been accidents for luckless girls in party finery. Satin dancing slippers and fresh horse manure would be a very nasty combination!
We can be thankful for modern sewerage. Regency London had cesspits and night-soil collectors, but these were inefficient and cost the resident money. Mrs Jennings servant would be up early to let in the night-soil men and to pay them to remove the sewerage, but the London poor could not do this. There are hundreds, I may say thousands, of houses in this metropolis which have no drainage whatsoever, and the greater part of them have filthy, stinking over-flowing cesspools4. One can only imagine the smell. It was only with the cholera epidemic in the reign of Victoria that something was finally done to improve the situation.
|If there was no access to the cesspit from the back, the night soil men had to come through the house let in the front door by a sleepy servant. John Hunts card, reproduced in Dr Johnsons London by Liza Picard.||
Most houses, outside of slums, had piped water. It came through elm pipes (which needed replacing every 20 years) under the streets and then through lead pipes. When you consider the taste of rotting elm and of lead, it is not surprising that Londoners drank so little water. When you also consider the lead tanks which ended up housing not only water but dead dogs, miscellaneous refuse, the scourings of washtubs and sewerage, it is hard to understand why any water was drunk at all. No wonder Mr Jennings ordered wine all the way from South Africa instead! He who drinks a tumbler of London water, Sydney Smith told Lady Grey in 1834, has literally in his stomach more animated beings than there are Men, Women and Children on the face of the Globe5 (as shown by the illustration to the left). As late as 1800, the Thames was still clean enough for salmon to be caught there (perhaps Mr Gardiner developed his love of fishing on the banks of the Thames?) and also for Lord Byron to go swimming in it, but in the latter half of Jane Austens life, more and more London residents purchased flushing water-closets, with the result that human waste was sent into the sewers and so into the Thames, instead of into cesspits.
There was air pollution in London too. Mrs Jennings London home seems to have had a fireplace in almost every room Marianne sits by them in melancholy meditation in many a scene and presumably the kitchens and servants quarters also had fireplaces. The smoke produced by all these fires did a great deal to create nasty fogs and poisonous outdoor atmospheres in the city. London was, in fact, notorious for its smutty and unhealthy air. Sea coal burnt in grates, for the brewing, baking and boiling trades, in potters kilns and in dyers yards created an impure and thick mist which left visitors choking and wheezing. Monsieur Grosley, a French visitor to London in the Georgian age, was appalled. This smoke forms a cloud which envelops London like a mantle, a cloud which ... suffers the sun to break out only now and then, which casual appearance procures the Londoners a few of what they call glorious days6. American Louis Simond, visiting London in 1810, remarked that the smoke of fossil coals forms an atmosphere, perceivable for many miles7. Marianne, writing to Willoughby on a winters day in London would have needed to light a candle even at midday in order to see her pen and paper clearly.
Mr Woodhouse and his daughter Isabella are experts on the subject of London air pollution. Mr Woodhouse, who condemns the air about Randalls, sea air and fresh air, is convinced that all London air is unhealthy. In London it is always a sickly season, he tells his daughter. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be. Isabella, however, thinks that some special providence has blown away all this bad air from directly above the area she resides in. No, indeed, she assures her father, we are not at all in a bad air. Our part of London is so very superior to most others. You must not confound us with London in general, my dear sir. The neighbourhood of Brunswick Square is very different from almost all the rest. We are so very airy! I should be unwilling, I own, to live in any other part of the town; there is hardly any other that I could be satisfied to have my children in; but we are so remarkably airy! Mr Wingfield thinks the vicinity of Brunswick Square decidedly the most favourable as to air8.It was possible at that time to purchase from ones apothecary bottled sea air, as it was felt to be so healthy. It seems to me that Mr Wingfield ought to have bottled Brunswick Square air as well, and used Isabella Knightley as his marketing manager! Seriously though, Mr Woodhouse did have reason for thinking that London air was unhealthy the smoke, fogs, lingering odours and rotting rubbish must have made the air very bad indeed.
Fires, which produced the smoke to foul the air, also produced dirty chimneys and gave employment, as well as horribly early deaths, to huge numbers of chimney sweeps. A commission appointed in 1788 gave a graphic picture of the lives of young boys employed in this trade. Small boys were made to climb dark, narrow, stifling chimneys with their brushes and, while inside the chimney, to clean it out. If terror of climbing up made their progress a little slow, it was the usual practice for the apprentice master to light a fire beneath the tardy child to hurry him up. These boys could serve five years without ever once washing, existing on an appalling diet and sleeping on rags in all their filth! When they died young from suffocation within the chimney, or from burns, or from their lungs being choked with soot, it was not a major problem. The Master chimney-sweep could easily visit the parish workhouse and there buy another child, under cover of the wretched law of apprenticeship. Dickens was to depict this purchasing of poor children to exploit them in business in his novel Oliver Twist. During Jane Austens life-time there was some discussion of the terrible situation of chimney-sweeps. In 1803 the Association for improving the situation of infant chimney-sweepers was founded9. Modestly contenting itself with the aim of improving, it appears not even to have considered attempting to abolish this inhuman practice.
Noise pollution was also a problem. Lady Russell, who disliked the noise made by the Musgrove and Harville children, makes no complaint on entering Bath amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men, and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens... No, these were noises which belonged to the winter pleasures; her spirits rose under their influence10. Annes spirits do not rise and she thinks with fond regret of the beauty and quiet of the countryside. She would have found the noise of London even more stressful than that of Bath. Iron tyres on cobbled pavements, carriages bumping over pot-holes, horses hooves clattering, axles squeaking, carters, coachmen and vendors shouting, children yelling and dogs barking meant that noise pollution was an aspect of London life which it was hard to ignore. No wonder Mrs Jennings goes walking in the Kensington Gardens the peace and quiet must have been bliss!
Monsieur Grosley found the city filthy and was not surprised that peoples clothes were dirty too, ruined by the London smogs. Not long after his visit, dress fabrics changed dramatically from the elaborate gold and silver cloths and heavy fabrics of the age of Dr Johnson, to the light muslins which we associate with Jane Austen and her Regency characters. These fabrics were much easier to clean, even if the bodies beneath them were not all that could be desired. Just how clean Regency Londoners were, by modern standards, is hard to tell. The average wash basin was no bigger than a kitchen mixing bowl of today. The idea of daily immersion was a foreign one, no recipes exist for home-made deodorants, and everyone must have been troubled by head-lice, fleas and other obnoxious creatures. But perhaps if everyone smelt of sweat, bad teeth, unwashed garments, tobacco or snuff, and the odours of their last meal, then it is likely that the average Londoner barely noticed his own smell, or anyone elses. Mrs Allen talks over the washability of muslins with Henry Tilney, and we know that Henry himself is dressed in clean clothes because Northanger Abbey is littered with washing bills. However, no mention is made in any of Jane Austens novels of a character taking a bath. Bathing, in Bath, in the ocean, or even (if you were a man and paid 2 shillings per visit) in the London swimming pool near Old Street, was for health, not for cleanliness.
|Monster Soup, commonly called Thames Water. An artists impression of the life a microscope would discover in Londons drinking water. From Liza Picard, Dr Johnsons London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2000||
When we view the film and television adaptations of Jane Austens novels, and read beautifully illustrated books such as Jane Austen and Style and Jane Austens World, we see London as an elegant, architecturally lovely city. The Georgians created Regent Street and many of the great London squares, they created parks and gracious homes. However, they did not create modern sewage or quality housing for the poor, they did not create an environmentally friendly form of transport and they were unable to rid the London skies of the smog and filth that lingered there. Unhappy as it makes me, I am forced to agree with Mr Woodhouses Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be and to conclude that life in Jane Austens beloved countryside was infinitely preferable to life in Regency London!
1) Dr Johnsons London, Liza Picard, Weidenfeld and
Nicolson, UK, 2000, p.10
29 January 2004