Five Filthy Things About Victorian England

A scene from Oliver Twist (dung and disease not pictured)

Tomorrow night at 9/8c, Ripper Street premieres on BBC AMERICA. It’s a tale of terrible awfulness, of seedy depravity and murderous disgust, and it’s set in the heart of all things brutal and grubby. Victorian London at the height of Empire.

And if that’s not your understanding of what Britain was like at the time, allow me to be your guide through five disturbing examples that may well change your mind.

The streets were not paved with gold
According to law, Victorian householders were required to keep the pavement outside their property clean. But in practice, no one, not even the servants in wealthy households, wanted to do it. It’s one thing keeping your front steps sparkling, but the pavements will have been covered in mud, rubbish, and horse dung, and of course as soon as you’ve cleaned your section, along comes a carriageful of muddy litter-louts, driven by a horse, to put everything back to the way it was. They didn’t even want to clean the snow off the streets, unless pressed to do so by the police.

The river was not an azure ribbon, sparkling in the sunlight
In the 1800s, the Thames and its tributaries was the principle recipient of all of London’s sewage, which meant that it, in turn, became a sewer. And this meant that London STANK in the summer. Remember, this was just around the time that a causal link was found between human waste and disease, over the latter half of the century, it became apparent that the tiny beasts in the water, visible through microscopes. could be carrying all sorts of nastiness, but it took a while to put corrective measures in place. Some doctors even believed it was the smell that would give you cholera, rather than the things that caused the whiff in the first place. In any case, a massive series of tunnels had to be built to take the sewage away, opening in the 1860s. Industrial waste took a while to shift too.

The serial killers were very secretive
There have been a lot of dramatic presentations concerning Jack the Ripper, partly because of the gruesome way he/she killed his/her victims, but most probably because he was never caught, but the actual greatest serial killer of the Victorian age was a Mrs. Mary Ann Cotton, from County Durham. When her step-son Charles died at the age of eight (not uncommon among Victorian children, who had an average life expectancy of 10), it lead newspapers to speculate exactly as to how another child in her care had died, after she had seen off three husbands, and a total of 15 children. After exhuming Charles and the rest, and testing them, it transpired she’d poisoned them all with arsenic.

It was no place to be a child
If you were lucky, you worked from the moment you could walk, in hugely dangerous industrial settings — textile mills that could slice fingers off, or match factories where the phosphorous would rot your teeth — down coalmines or up chimneys in well-to-do houses, and may even have lived to full adulthood with only a few scars for your trouble. And if you were unlucky, you lived on the street, ran errands, polished shoes or sold matches to make enough to eat, or risked being taken into the workhouse and… well, you know Oliver Twist, right?

There was no such thing as mineral water
Or at least, there was water, it had minerals in it, but also animals and vegetables too. Reports were coming out as to the conditions in the London slums, and one common factor was the way water was stored. Even if you could access fresh water, it would be left in old, rotting wooden barrels with flaky paint, and the dregs would not be washed out before the new water was sluiced in. And you couldn’t really get fresh water. Londoners of the time drank a lot of beer, and this was partly because beer, having been boiled, was a lot more hygienic than that water, which they noticed not only had a bad taste, but was actually “thick and muddy”.

And it would have been used to bake bread. So even if you did stick to the beer, a simple sandwich (in your unwashed hands) could be the death of you too.

Dapper TV looks of Victorian England

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine