Friday 18 January 2013

Snow in Victorian London

In theory, for much of the nineteenth century, cleaning the London pavements was the responsibility of individual householders. Each homeowner was obliged, under the 1817 Metropolitan Paving Act (aka Michael Angelo Taylor's Act, named after the MP who promoted it) to sweep the pavement outside his property. Previously, local acts had made some provision for this:
‘An early example of this type is the Act obtained for St. Luke's in 1754. In this case the trustees were simply given power to enter into contracts for cleansing the streets, whilst the inhabitants were required to sweep the footpaths before their houses on every Tuesday and Friday either between the hours of seven and ten in the morning or between two and five in the afternoon under a penalty of five shillings for each omission.’ F.H.Spencer, Municipal Origins, 1911 p.202
but the 1817 legislation made pavement-sweeping obligatory across the metropolis ... and was largely ignored.

In particular, servants all but refused to do the work. Polishing the front step was one thing, but cleaning up the mud on the pavement (including copious amounts of horse dung) was too 'low', even for the most common housemaid. The Times, looking back at the legislation, noted in 1894
There are miles upon miles of residential streets the occupants of which either keep only women servants or men servants of a class who would decline to undertake the work of removing snow, even if they were provided with tools suitable for the purpose.
The police, faced with an impossible task of fining virtually every householder on their beat, generally ignored the problem. The exception was when it snowed and pavements became dangerous. Police then paid visits to householders and or leafletted them, to remind them of their obligations. Even in this, however, it seems they were not particularly assiduous:
Accordingly, two or three days after snow has fallen, when there has been abundant time for accidents, a constable goes round to each house, and leaves a printed paper requiring the householder to clear away the snow. If he chooses to disregard the notice, he seldom or never hears any more about it, and as a matter of course very many do choose to disregard it. Pall Mall Gazette 1875
The police were also assumed to be hand-in-glove with those who saw a chance to make a quick profit:
These streets were visited, as soon as snow fell, by bands of men carrying brooms and shovels, and usually far from prepossessing in apperance, or in language, who offered to do the statutory work of a householder for a remuneration perhaps ten times in excess of the proper value of their labour, and who, if their services were declined, would shortly be followed by a policeman whose duty it was to call attention to the penalties incidental to neglect ...
The old system was finally abolished in 1891, under the Public Health (London) Act, derided as 'a grotesque survival of village organization in metropolitan conditions’ - which might be said generally of vestry government in the 19th century metropolis.

For a lovely description of snow in London by arch-diarist Arthur Munby, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Not much has changed then. The police still pick and choose which bits of their job they fancy actually doing.