Wednesday 23 January 2013

Soho, 1854

Here's how The Builder reported the cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854 - a very evocative first-hand account of a stroll through the district.  This was the outbreak in which John Snow would prove that the disease was transmitted through polluted water, with his ground-breaking epidemiological study that located the source as the Broad Street pump - and the poisoned well beneath. The author of this piece, however, is concerned about cesspools and their 'miasma' - the foul smell thought to breed disease, or predispose the body to its effects.



Many months ago we referred to the bad condition in a sanitary point of view of houses in the neighbourhood of Wardour-street, Berwick-street, Broad-street, and Marlborough-street, the absence of proper drainage, and the want of water.

On Friday, the fisrt of September, this district was attacked by a pestilence which has unfortunately swpet away a large number of persons who were, the day before, in perfect health. The people in this district were, no doubt, reading in the newspapers or learning from others, that the cholera had reached London, but felt notwithstanding the cautions which have been given, and the accounts of deaths from other aprts, that they were themselves safe. On Friday morning, however, says an informant, people might be seen before break of day running in all directions for medical advice. "The angel of death had spread his wings over the place," and by midday, groups were standign in the street looking the picture of wonder and consternation. We have paid several visits to this neighbourhood since the cholera has come upon it. We will not particularly describe the cadaverous and frightened countenances meeting us at every step - women weeping in the street, and children who, but a few hours before, saw their parents in seemingly perfect health, and are now without a protector on the earth. Our object is not to excite alarm; but it becomes the duty of all who have an interest in the welfare of the community to investigate the causes of this sudden and frightful attack in the midst of the metropolis.

Taking the Pantheon, in Oxford-street, as a starting place, we pass down Berwick-street to Broad-street: this is a wide street, well paved and most of the people who live near say well drained. "We have capital drainage," say many, and the general impression over the whole district is that the disease has been caused, not from ill sanitary condition, but as they say "by the hand of God." Strongly believing, however, that an all wise Providence sends the pestilence and other evils upon for the general good, we nevertheless feel certain that much is left in the hands of man. We must insist, as we have done again and again, that the lives and health of thousands are sacrificed for want of proper sanitary measures.

In Broad-street, few houses have escaped the disease; and in looking along it on Wednesday last, we counted seventeen shops closed, and about twenty open. On some of the closed shops written papers were posted, stating that, "In consequence of the death of the proprietor, this business would be closed," until a certain day, &c. Groups of people were standing at the doors of private houses, seemingly let in tenements, speaking of losses which they had sustained. A baker said that on Tuesday morning he counted nine persons whom he knew, close at hand, who had died on Monday and were buried. Mr. Jones, the active City missionary, told one of our inquirers, "that on the same day he knew that sixty had perished in his district, which did not extend far. It was like a plague." We made numerous inquiries, and although the first answer usually was that the drainage was good, further examination showed the existence of cesspools everywhere.

At one house in Broad-street, the people said that they had no ill smell to complain of until only a week back, and then it was very bad. The dust-heap was nearly full of refuse. The condition of the atmosphere within the house was bad in the extreme. This and the discolouration of the paint of the doors seemed to show that a cesspool was close at hand. "Have you had cholera here?" we asked. "Yes; a person lies dead in the kitchen, and two have died upstairs." In the closet there was a glazed pan, but the water was not laid on.

"You see," said an intelligent man in the same street, "that these closets are only a disguise - the cesspool is still there; and I would like to know how many cesspools there are in this street that have been partly filled in, not emptied, but covered up. There was a great deal of wet weather at the early part of this year; and, in fact, for some time past the earth has been saturated, and now the hot sun gathers the moisture and of course where cesspools are, the evaporation from the earth is poison. It is almost unnecessary to tell you that these disguised water-closets with surface drains only carrying off the liquid matter pass through the kitchen; and it is a sad faft that very often in the kitchens of the houses around here ther are more human beings lodged than in the whole house besides. But what can poor creatures do?" Next door, and the next, and almost in every house in this street, there has been disease and death.

The most careful examination of this street by the proper authorites should immediately be made. An exciting cause there must be, and this should be traced out. Some attribute the outbreak to the opening of the sewers. A correspondent of the Times speaks of the plague-pit near Regent-street. Let us get at the truth.

"Pray go and look at St. Ann's-court and Place, not far off," said one; "you will find the people almost swept away." On proceeding there, we found the place - as in fact as the streets near were - strewed with quick lime. This court and place are not what may be considered dilapidated, in comparison with many other spots in London. The same appearance of panic showed itself here as in other places; many houses were closed, and the tradespeople, having no business to attend to, stood conversing at the doors with their neighbours. In a passage opposite, the lime-washers were at work, and different kinds of purification going on. This was St. Ann's-place; here the cesspools could not be overlooked; the houses are small. The inhabitants all complained of the bad smells, particularly "against rain" and were in distress, as they said, at receiving a notice to quit. "Where can we go to, sir, although here is not very good, we cannot get better; here is the notice, but none of us can read, no more can the landlady who receives the rent - will you please to read it to us." The paper was not a notice to quit, but a warning to the landlord to empty the cesspool in twenty-four hours, to lime wash the place, and do other matters. We put again the usual question. There had been two deaths in this house, and in the next four had occurred in one room, "a number of people lived in it." There was a cesspool there also. Now that death has taken off the inhabitants of the place, notices are sent respecting the removal of the cause. We have barely patience to ask - why this was not done before the plague came? To empty the cesspools now will do more harm than good.

In St. Ann's-court the drainage of the closets is most imperfect: many of the people complain of bad smells in the kitchens. So numerous were the deaths in this place that the bodies were carried away without ceremony, five or six at at a time. Mr. Allen, one of the medical officers of the district, states that he made four applications to the Commissioners of Sewers to stop up three gully holes. One was after a time done - the other was left until the people around it all died; the third still remains.

So imperfect seems the drainage of this district, so far as the water-closets are concerned, that it would be tedious to mention the various particulars which we gathered afte several hours' painful investigation by more than one person.

Passing into the back yard of a house in Berwick-street, where the shop was closed, we found a cesspool, the dust-place full, the sink dirty. At the back of the yard, we climbed up a ladder staircase, and found two elderly women. "Have you had any deaths from cholera?" "Yes, two; the smell is very bad here at times. You see my room is just above the closet, and there is no ceiling. This lady lives in the cellar," into which we accordingly descended with the tenant. "Here sir, you see I am obliged to live. I pay 3s.  a-week rent. I have a mangle, you see, and cannot very well leave my bread, and so many people object to mangles, but you see the floor is rotten, and the smell at times is dreadful in the winter, when we are obliged to shut up close. When I sit beside that fireplace, it is almost as bad as being in a water-closet."

In some of the places, already alluded to in the Builder, surrounding the model buildings now in course of erection, the condition of the yards is as bad as ever, the same broken pavement and filth. "They should take away the dust, governor," said a man; "there has been nobody here for it for a month."

Our journey through this scene of death more than ever convinces us that to remove the cesspools would be the means of greatly lessening cholera and fever: we say this in perfect confidence; and ask all in their respective neighbourhoods to do what they can to effect this: it is to be feared, however, that nothing effectual will be done until we get an enactment of Parliament much more stringent than those now in operation. Thousands, like the poor mangling-woman, are tied to their cellars and back rooms, and disease,  and they need protection.

The Builder,  9 September 1854

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