Written by Jacinda Irwin
During the early 19th century and continuing into the 20th century, the effect of horses on public health was most noticeable with respect to the environment within London. The streets smelt of sulfur, as the filth beneath Londoners’ feet encroached on their housing and into drinking water supplies. At the peak of the Victorian era, there was reportedly 1,000 tons of horse dung entering the streets each day from the city’s 300,000 horses. As a result the street muck, like a “tenacious, glutinous paste” (Jackson, 137) was unavoidable. Reportedly, with the exception of very few thoroughfares, all the streets were one mass of reeking, disgusting filth, which in some places piled to such a height as to render them almost impassable (Larsen, 240). The horse excrement, like an epidemic, prevailed all over – in the principal thoroughfares, in the by-streets, and the alleyways. A 1892 MOH report from Lambeth noted that the filth in the streets included the accumulations of filth from horses. The MOH recommended “periodical inspection be made of all places where manure is collected or stored: at cowhouses, stableyards, and mews, and the frequent removal of accumulations should be strictly enforced.” However, history has stated this to be characteristic of all rapidly growing metropolis areas, not just London. In this 1882 MOH report from Mile End, the Medical Officer of Health noted that overcrowded areas contributed to sanitation issues. He reported that living conditions were unsuitable, and speculated about the connection between the filth and epidemic outbreaks of various diseases and illnesses within that particular borough. From an examination of the records, it appears that this MOH was rather progressive in his thinking – he recognized that the diseases and illnesses knew not of any preexisting biases against the poor alluded to in other such reports. During the Victorian era, wealthy Londoners living in the West End associated the filth with poverty, and saw the sanitation issues of the Victorian metropolis as a moral problem rather than a social one (Jackson, 139). This idea was propagated through the majority of the upper-class community, with one MOH remarking in his 1862 report that the sanitation issues within his borough stemmed from a lack of morality of the poor, and another 1895 report mirrored the general disfavor at the suggestion of increasing sanitation efforts within impoverished areas. It was by this sort of circular logic, wealthy Londoners saw the filth caused by poverty as proof that the poor were not capable or deserving of cleanliness. A 1901 MOH report was even so bold as to conflate the words ‘poverty’ and ‘filth,’ calling them very largely interchangeable, then further elaborating to say that the poorest were the worst offenders against sanitation. One 1944 MOH report demonstrates that poor Londoners were deeply unsatisfied with the state of the city, as complaints surrounding the befouled streets were in the thousands within this borough alone. Yet these complaints fell upon deaf ears for many years.
However, the overwhelming filth, or “night soil,” from horses in the streets became increasingly difficult for the wealthy to compartmentalize (Jackson, 138). The sanitation problems within the streets were problematic for the health of every Londoner, rich or poor, without exception. Because this was an issue that affected all Londoners more nearly equally, it was easier to gain broad consensus, especially as illness plagued the city, adding a sense of urgency to reform the clearly unsatisfactory sanitation efforts (Jackson, 139). Yet Parliament’s attempts at comprehensive sanitation reform did nothing to remedy the befouled streets. The proposed sanitation systems served as nothing more than temporary solutions, as these seemingly perfected plans and techniques to remove many kinds of sewage were met with the almost unsolvable situation of horse manure and urine (Larsen, 243). A MOH reported on these efforts in a 1905 report, noting the improvements to sanitation included improvements to the drainage systems and paving of yards, regular street cleaning and removal of dung. But despite these efforts, the sanitation issues remained prevalent, with one 1943 MOH report decades later writing that the sanitation issues had not been remedied, as the number of horses within the city was no less than it had previously been, and the further reduction in the staff available to do sanitary work remained at a high level. Yet another 1945 report stated, “owing to the concentration of available laborers, the remedying of health problems such as infectious diseases caused by sanitary defects has been rendered difficult and it will be noted that there has been a substantial increase in the number of complaints.”
Even as occasional heat waves filled Parliament with the terrible stench of excrement and sewage, the government had yet to firmly agree upon the issues surrounding sanitation reform in the streets. However, they did agree upon its negative effects on the health of individuals in the city (Jackson, 140). Parliament continually approved newer, more effective citywide systems for managing the filth in the streets, but to no avail. A 1945 report noted there was no significant change in the sanitary circumstances of the area as compared to prior years, although minimal effort was made as routine street cleaning and inspections of stables increased.
Until the horse-age ended, the streets of London remained a national disgrace, and it was of small consolation to Parliament to know that similar circumstances burdened other metropolitan areas (Larsen, 245). The rapid urbanization of London brought thousands of people, along with their horses, whose dung destroyed the once cleanly streets, and consequently the entire city. For years, Parliament’s street cleaning efforts were met with overwhelming failure. However, it is important to note that these efforts were minimal at best, with much of the problem resulting from “the unwillingness of the local state to abate nuisances caused by poor [street] conditions and to provide suitable facilities for removal and disposal of [horse excrement]” (Atkins, 53). The frustration surrounding the sanitation of the streets and the health risks the “liquid mud” from horses posed to Londoners left Parliament discouraged. As a result, the miles of streets were simply maintained with scheduled cleaning and removal of the horse manure, merely to keep the streets passable. While these weak efforts were arguably better than no sanitation force at all, illness spread throughout London, with numerous outbreaks raising alarms within Parliament. Given the foul state of the city streets, clogged with horse traffic, the notion that public health problems were related to the overwhelming amount of manure and urine is undeniable (Larsen, 244-245).
Beasley, Brett. Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson (review) Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association Volume 48, Number 2, Fall 2016 pp. 137-140.
Larsen, Lawrence H. “Nineteenth-century street sanitation: A study of filth and frustration.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History (1969): 239-247.
Peter Atkins, ed., Animal Cities: Beastly Urban Histories (2012)