London: 2000 years of history – Channel 5 (episode 3 – gin and sewage)

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There is a vile stench in the House of Commons. It’s so bad that people are having to cover their noses. Meanwhile, the well-being of the working-classes is being completely ignored. I’m talking about 1858, obviously. I wouldn’t normally watch a programme about sewage (!), but, by talking about the railways, the “Great Stink” during the exceptionally hot summer of 1858 and the long overdue introduction of a proper sewerage system for London, this made some very good points about the importance of health and sanitation in history. I really want to write about Edwin Chadwick and James Kay Shuttleworth, and I’m having to make a huge effort to make myself write about London instead! There was also a lot of talk about gin and shopping. Not a hint of politics, and not much talk about economics. This was definitely different.

This episode actually started with the Great Fire of London, and the rebuilding of the city afterwards. This was pretty familiar stuff, but it then moved on to the growing division of London between the wealthy West End and the working-class East End, and how areas that weren’t affected by the fire lost out during the rebuilding; and then, in early Georgian times, grand houses for the well-to-do were built in the Mayfair area. Whilst the ton were living it up, the poor were turning to gin. OK, that’s a ridiculous generalisation – and it’s Channel 5’s, not mine! – but the expression about gin being the quickest road out of [any city you care to name] lasted well into the 19th century, and there was a particular increase in gin consumption in the first half of the 18th century, blamed for an increase in anti-social behaviour, until the Gin Act of 1751 made gin more difficult to obtain.

There followed some discussion of the development of the West End as a shopping area. It was also mentioned that London was full of professional criminals, and the need for security provided the impetus for the building of professional docks. So London was full of drunks and criminals. I’m not saying that: Channel 5 said it 😉 . And then on to the Industrial Revolution. I get extremely excited at any mention of the Industrial Revolution, but most people are familiar, from Bill Sikes drowning in a ditch if nothing else, of the pollution which it created, and of the appalling living conditions associated with it. I want to write about Engels now, but I’m trying hard to stick with London, seeing as that’s what the programme was about!

Then something I’d never really thought about very much – how, in the early days, the government intervened to stop railways from going right into the centre of London. So we have to get off at Euston or wherever, and get the Tube to wherever we want to go. It actually went on the technicalities of railway-building in rather a lot of detail, but, hey, some people probably found that interesting! The point was that the railways were moving out to areas beyond the city centre, meaning that people didn’t have to live close to where they worked.

Finally, the Great Stink, which I thought was probably the most interesting part of the programme. I’m not sure what that says about me! But vast numbers of people had died in a number of cholera outbreaks in the 1830s and 1840s, and it took a while for people to realise that that was because of drinking contaminated water, and not because of “miasma”. Even once doctors had provided clear evidence, the powers that be weren’t very interested. Sewage, slaughterhouse waste and industrial effluent continued to be dumped in or on the banks of the Thames. And nothing was done … until the very hot summer of 1858 created the “Great Stink”, and, with the smell in the House of Commons having become unbearable, a proper sewage system was finally built.

I feel like saying that the lesson from this is that, if we want anything done, we need to stink out the House of Commons! Seriously, though, this programme got from the 1660s to the 1850s without making even one reference to the Glorious Revolution, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Jacobites, the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Reform Act of 1842 or the Corn Laws. Instead, it talked about gin and sewage. And, do you know what? It was really interesting! Well worth a watch.

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