Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Regency And Its Offensive Smells

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Somehow I don’t think about the stench of cities past. James Hobson offers an extract from his book Dark Days of Georgian Britain: Rethinking the Regency.

The late Georgian period was full of offensive smells that followed your around, and people did not just always ‘put up with it’. They knew, that wherever there was ‘effluvia’ [Effluvium – an unpleasant or harmful odour or discharge], there were dangers; not always danger of death, but of illness and diseases. Before the germ theory of the later part of the century, people believed that bad smells – ‘miasma’ – were the major cause of illness, and they were not far wrong despite not fully understanding the science.

Where did effluvia come from? There were two main origins – manufacturing with chemicals and organic decomposition – and one aggravating factor for both; all of the people of Georgian Britain lived much nearer to decomposition that we do today, the poor particularly so.

Decomposition can be put in two broad categories – dunghills and cesspits. Cesspits were avoided by all, except those who earned a living digging them out. In July 1810, a freakish accident showed the dangers of effluvia. James Brooks and his work mates were digging out a latrine in Woolwich. It belonged to the Master Attendant at the Dockyard; and the work, as always was done at night – it was 11pm. James and his colleagues had literally created their own graves; they had already dug out ten buckets of hardened and dried excrement, enough space for James to fall into the hole. A ladder was procured, which only made it possible for his loyal colleagues to climb down and be suffocated by the smell themselves. Hugh Jenkins climbed in and died quickly; Isaac Pitcher followed in order to help, not knowing that Jenkins was dead. In all five men died over a two hour period, two of them more or less instantly and the others within the hour.

The Royal Cornwell Gazette was helpful but fatalistic – What could be done for people like colour grinders, feather dressers, wool-carders, gilders and night men – who were ‘doomed’ to follow such dangerous professions? The answer was a face mask, covered the nose, soaked with potash, or acetate of lead. The newspaper nearly, but not quite intimated that it may have been partly their own fault for not having them.

The Scots Magazine of June 1817 crossed that line. It complained that typhus was spreading in Edinburgh New Town because the poor slum dwellers were dirty and their streets were full of dunghills containing sources of effluvia- rotting vegetable matter, dead animals and excrement that did not make it into a latrine because they did not have one. The magazine knew that dunghills were not the direct cause of the disease, because it also killed people in the ventilated and well aired parts of town as well, but was happy with the idea that the death was caused by the demoralised habits of the poor.

Sewers caused noxious smells, and lack of sewers did the same. In April 1812, a visitor to Cheltenham advised the town to invest in a sewer pipe as the poor were now overcrowded into basement dwellings that filled with excrement during floods. A year earlier,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 June 2020 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Daily life

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