It is 1854 Victorian London and it stinks. Scavengers lived in a world of excrement and death. Unorganized, independent scavengers referred to as bone-pickers, rag-gathers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshers and shoreman spread out in the London nights in search of organic materials to use to make money or for trade.
“Pure” was a polite name for dog shit, the Night-Soil Men clean up the human shit. One account went as follows:
London was growing fast. Two and a half million people were crammed inside a thirty-mile circumference. Recycling centers, public-health departments and safe sewage removal had not been invented yet. An underground market was created as the garbage and excrement grew into large piles. Henry Mayhew’s seminal book, London’s Labour and the London Poor outlined the daily routines of these people. The early scavengers of Victorian London weren’t just getting rid of that refuse-they were recycling it.
Steven Johnson pointed out that Victorian London had its postcard wonders, to be sure-the Crystal Palace, Trafalgar Square, the new additions to Westminster Palace. But it also had wonders of a different order, no less remarkable; artificial ponds of raw sewage, dung heaps the size of houses.
Trouble was brewing in London. On the 28th of August, 1854, at 40 Broad Street in Soho, Sarah Lewis’ six month old daughter was vomiting and emitting watery, green stools that carried a pungent smell. While waiting for the doctor to arrive, Sarah soaked the soiled cloth diapers in a bucket of tepid water. As the baby girl finally slept, she crept down to the cellar and tossed the fouled water into the cesspool that lay at the front of the house.
The terror was about to begin.
Tomorrow: Henry Whitehead