Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson

The muck of historic London, replete with colorful characters and wisdom for the modern age.

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The Victorian era, 1837–1901, saw extreme filth and considerable change in the British capital. Lee Jackson (Walking Dickens’ London; A Dictionary of Victorian London) turns his gaze toward this grime with Dirty Old London and divides his study by category of filth, not chronology. Chapters cover the ashes and cinders of domestic coal fires; “mud” in the streets (horse dung); “night soil” (domestic human excrement); sewers and drains; human remains buried close to one another; unwashed bodies and filthy homes; public toilets; and air pollution, largely from industrial and domestic coal smoke. He touches on major figures in sanitation and reform, such as Edwin Chadwick, who championed the idea that disease is traceable to environmental elements, and Joseph Bazalgette, credited with establishing London’s sewer system. Themes include the challenges of regulation, the tension between centralization and local control and the limits of contemporary science–germ theory hadn’t yet been widely accepted, and the notions of miasma and humors persisted.

While the subject of Dirty Old London is often, unavoidably, off-putting, it is also endlessly intriguing. Jackson is frank and matter-of-fact and occasionally entertaining, although his overall tone is more academic than playful. His research is reliable, with plentiful endnotes. He affirms that “this book is not about casting blame on the Victorians for their failure to manage the dirt of their great capital.” Rather, Jackson hopes that the Victorians’ filth can offer a lesson to the modern world that still struggles with how to handle its own waste.


This review originally ran in the December 19, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 drains.

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