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Dickens's London
Two Reforming Minds
The Thames and Fatality
Pent-up Neighbourhoods and Child Health
New Roads

The Thames and Fatality

The waterworks of London were in the mid nineteenth century under constant review, and Chadwick was among the most prominent figures to campaign for better sewers and also the embankment of the Thames, in a bid to secure a higher level of sanitation for the city’s inhabitants. Chadwick’s reports to parliament about this issue compare the pre-reformed water system of the British capital unfavourably to that the Roman Empire, and contain much evidence of how dangerous the Thames could be to people foolish or unfortunate enough to drink it. Dickens, in his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, also implicitly compares the British to the Roman Empire, through a character’s malapropism of Edward Gibbon’s famous tome (in Silas Wegg’s tongue, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Rooshan Empire’), and moreover,explores the fatal quality of the river more melodramatically, through the repeated depiction of drowning. As this passage shows, however, the more chronic ‘spoiling influences’ of the Thames to Londoners, in terms of public health, were on his mind too.

They were all shivering, and everything about them seemed to be shivering; the river itself; craft, rigging, sails, such early smoke as there yet was on the shore. Black with wet, and altered to the eye by white patches of hail and sleet, the huddled buildings looked lower than usual, as if they were cowering, and had shrunk with the cold. Very little life was to be seen on either bank, windows and doors were shut, and the staring black and white letters upon wharves and warehouses 'looked,' said Eugene to Mortimer, 'like inscriptions over the graves of dead businesses.' As they glided slowly on, keeping under the shore and sneaking in and out among the shipping by back-alleys of water, in a pilfering way that seemed to be their boatman's normal manner of progression, all the objects among which they crept were so huge in contrast with their wretched boat, as to threaten to crush it. Not a ship's hull, with its rusty iron links of cable run out of hawse-holes long discoloured with the iron's rusty tears, but seemed to be there with a fell intention. Not a figure-head but had the menacing look of bursting forward to run them down. Not a sluice gate, or a painted scale upon a post or wall, showing the depth of water, but seemed to hint, like the dreadfully facetious Wolf in bed in Grandmamma's cottage, 'That's to drown YOU in, my dears!' Not a lumbering black barge, with its cracked and blistered side impending over them, but seemed to suck at the river with a thirst for sucking them under. Some half-hour of this work, and Riderhood unshipped his sculls, stood holding on to a barge, and hand over hand long-wise along the barge's side gradually worked his boat under her head into a secret little nook of scummy water. And driven into that nook, and wedged as he had described, was Gaffer's boat; that boat with the stain still in it, bearing some resemblance to a muffled human form.

Charles Dickens, 1865, Our Mutual Friend, from Chapter 14

The Broad Street cholera outbreak

Soho had a particularly serious problem with sewage: the cesspools were overrunning and waste was contaminating the drinking water supply. In 1854 in Broad Street in what is now an episode famous in the history of public health and epidemiology, a severe outbreak of cholera led a local doctor, John Snow, to discover that cholera is spread by contaminated water. Snow produced a remarkable map plotting the cases of cholera and the location of water pumps. Snow’s letter to the Medical Times and Gazette describes how he got the handle removed from the water pump, which he identified as the source of the outbreak.

On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump….With regard to the deaths occurring in the locality belonging to the pump, there were 61 instances in which I was informed that the deceased persons used to drink the pump water from Broad Street, either constantly or occasionally... The result of the inquiry, then, is, that there has been no particular outbreak or prevalence of cholera in this part of London except among the persons who were in the habit of drinking the water of the above-mentioned pump well. I had an interview with the Board of Guardians of St James's parish, on the evening of the 7th inst, and represented the above circumstances to them. In consequence of what I said, the handle of the pump was removed on the following day.

John Snow’s letter to the Medical Times and Gazette

Images from the cabinet