Sanitation in Victorian London



            Nineteenth century London reflected the age of the Industrial Revolution.  New buildings and sizeable developments attributed to the overcrowded slums as the population growth surged from one million in 1800 to six million by the dawning of the twentieth century.  This notable increase in the population was reflected by the city’s increased sanitation needs.  Problems such as overflowing drains, sewage leaking through defective pipes, and decaying animal and human excrement attributed to the sanitation dilemma.  In addition, sewage gasses were emitted through toilets, baths, and sinks into the dwellings of London’s inhabitants.  Such destitute sanitation conditions, as well as the employment of coal-fired stoves, produced heavy and foul-smelling air in and around the city.  Wastes and other fecal matter plagued the environment and its inhabitants due to the unavailability of proper disposal means.  Tons of raw sewage, both from the city itself and by the neighboring valleys, was dumped straight into the Thames River and eventually carried up the river by the tide.  Sanitation conditions were abhorrent during Victorian London.




The public suffered severely from epidemics that included three massive contagious diseases: cholera, typhus and influenza.  These infectious diseases were often fatal or left its victim weakened in their defense against other diseases.  The main cause of these illnesses was attributed to the poor sanitation conditions such as an overcrowding workforce, contaminated water, and unpaved streets with ankle deep mud. Many families ravaged by fever died due to poor public health.  It was estimated that in 1839, for every person who died of old age or violence, eight died of specific disease caused by the sanitation (Douglas, Laurelyn 4).


Doctors seldom treated patients not suffering from typhus, fever, cholera, malaria, or other fatal infectious diseases. Those most frequently in need of treatment and relief were laborers.  The average age of laborers, mechanics, and servants at the time of death was only fifteen.  The widow of the laborer and the children were thrown as paupers onto the mercy of the parish. Most members of the working class were likely to be in poverty at some point in their lives because of sickness.  They had to rely on friends, family and even children for support in times of hardship.


The People Effected & Involved


It is estimated that one-third of the three million people of London were subjected to living in degrading, impoverished, and poor sanitary conditions (Hollinstead 234). These people were not the city merchants, clerks, and managers of banks or offices, but the working-class laborers who were forced into these living conditions (10). Ignorance, imagination, false information, and  indifference on the part of writers, novelists, directories, and records depict the working-class condition (8). Those who possessed a deeper understanding of what the poor faced are the small numbers of hard-working clergy, medical practitioners, and parochial officers (7). They were also the ones who interacted with the poorer classes and converted their parishes and houses into soup kitchens.


            The working class families and unsatisfactory sanitary conditions were found in isolated sections such as the London backstreets or within a “particular parish or district.” (10). However, overcrowded dwellings of the middle-class were also found in the outskirts of Soho, St. James’s, Westminster, and St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields (9). While many of the working-class families lived out on the streets, alleyways, and niches, they also resided in abandoned family mansions, old commercial buildings, and dirty houses, apartments, and rooms (10). As many as sixty human beings were known to live in one house, or three separate families residing in one cottage (11). The tenants of a particular dwelling would sublet a piece of space in their house to various other families (235).


            The working-class environments produced such phenomenons as “huddling together,” which created overcrowding, lost decency between family members of the same sex; “veins of social degradation,” unwholesome marriages that produced children who were abandoned to the streets, immorality, crime, as well as extremely unhealthy sanitary conditions (234, 240-1).



London was awashed in degrading sanitary conditions without any hope of legislative assistance.  Then, former journalist turned sewage idealist, Edwin Chadwick, advocated that prevention of unsanitary conditions would be cheaper than disease treatment.  Yet, Chadwick’s advocacy faced myriad legal obstacles before any chances could occur; towns in England and Wales literally sat in their problems for years before solutions gained approval. Although sewage problems pervaded the lives of residents living in such towns, very little could be done without approval from higher legislation.  For instance, local officials were required to seek Parliament’s approval to even install street lamps or lay pavement (Hamlin, 258).  Thus, Chadwick was forced to contact authorities in order to advocate that diseases, such as cholera and consumption, were byproducts of poor sanitary conditions.  Still, the waiting continued.


In 1839, the House of Lords approved Chadwick for determining a solution to the unsanitary conditions among Londoners.  The trend, however, was not sparked by any sudden influx of sewage buildup at the local level- already delayed for years, Parliament used the growing problem for political means.  Hamlin writes, “A public gift of good sanitation might be the key to a happy, healthy, and docile proletariat- a welcome prospect to a government that expected revolution daily (Hamlin, 2).


After much research, in 1842, Chadwick drafted the Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, which offered a solution to create a hydraulic system to wash the waste into the countryside. (Hamlin, 4)  More surveys and studies were conducted.  In 1843, Sir Robert Peele created the Royal Commission on the Health of Towns to document various sanitary conditions in fifty of the largest towns in England and Wales.  By 1854, the year Chadwick was ousted from the General Board of Health, 300 towns with similar disposal problems requested assistance in removing the hazardous waste.  Finally, after much demand and disease, the Public Health Act was finally written into law in 1848; this piece of legislation allowed townspeople to alleviate unsanitary conditions at the local level without calling upon Parliament.  (Hamlin, 266) The move also announced that the government was responsible for health conditions of its citizens.  Various commissions were formed which conceived solutions such as hydraulic pressure, pipe sewers and installation methods. During the next fifty years, drainage systems were built with the help of Chadwick’s General Board of Health. However, monetary allocations totaled at approximately 500,000 pounds, while the debt accrued from local sanitation efforts grew to 100 million pounds by 1905 (Hamlin, 332)


    Chadwick’s efforts to create the first modern, “profoundly humanitarian” (Hamlin, 4) sanitation system evolved into a social movement in England.  The system that was previously reserved for the upper class is now considered today a necessity for every person in England.