Tuesday 20 September 2011

London Smells

Two accounts of the stink of London in the 1850s/1860s:

Maiden-lane still reeks with all its inconceivable horrors of putrifying garbage. The traveller on the South-Western Railway, which always considerately stops its trains at the choicest nest of savours, can tell how - in Lambeth, seething under archiepiscopal nostrils - the laystall is succeeded by the knacker, who gives place to the glue-boiler, who is followed by some Gas Company - and how the varied bouquet is subtly penetrated and delicately diversified by the delicious fumes of ammonia, and rare titillating acids. Haggerstone boils its horses - Stepney volatilizes its human guano. Bow rejoices in chemicals. Paddington salutes us with mountains of vegetable decomposition - Bermondsey treats us to vats of mineral refuse. The Temple-gardens survey their choice "blue-jack"; whilst St. Paul's regales the devout with an undeniable tallow-melting concern at the Cathedral corner. White lead at Hackney is balanced by a delicious manufactory of corrosive sublimate at the opposite corner of the metropolis.
Morning Chronicle August 18 1852

By long resolution to live in bad smells we become as though we smelt not. We pass along as unconscious of the foulness of the air as we are of the roar of carriages in the street. A peculiarly loathsome whiff from some untrapped gully-hole may strike us, as the din of a ponderous railway van drawn by four horses at full trot may make us look round. But in an instant the sensations are lost, and the current of our thoughts flows on unrippled by smell or sound. Yet if we will but recall our absent minds to the scenes in which our bodies are present we shall speedily learn the reasons why our bodies suffer. The putrid stench of the gully-hole has not left the nostrils ere we may discover from the area of the house we are passing the distinctive odour of a  long-unemptied dustbin. Anon, we have the sour smell of decaying vegetable refuse—potato parings and lettuce stalks, and such like; then under the parapet, or in the gutter, we detect a decomposing cat. Next, all too late to save, comes the cat's-meat barrow, with contents in a state of very "high" flavour. Then, by the side of the lamppost is a little heap of dust composed of the sweepings of the shop opposite, containing the essence of the exhalations and exuviae of half-a-hundred people for a summer's day; next to it is a mound of semi-dried mud, the sweepings of the streets after the last rainfall, composed of equal parts of animal exprement and of granite grit, which keeps it just open enough to favour rapid fermentation. As if this were not enough, at regular intervals there come by the watercarts, deluging the streets a dozen times a day with the pure element, ingeniously applied so as, in a physical sense, to make crossing the way in thin boots an perilous to health as in November, and in a chemical sense, to make the foul mud, steaming on the hot stones in the blazing sunshine, as generative of malaria as a Mississippi swamp. At length, confused with the mingled variety of odours, our nasal analysis becomes intolerable, and we welcome the distracting thoughts which shall again render us insensible to its discoveries. Only when we pass beyond the regions of streets and enter upon the green expanse of the Parks, or reach the shade of country gardens and leafy lanes, does the change in the atmosphere again force itself on our notice—and by the delight with which we expand our chests to drink in the health of the air, may we measure the slow, yet surely fatal, influence of the poisonous gases we have left behind.

Daily News August 9 1861

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