Monday 21 October 2013

The Fog of 1873

For three whole days have I had full blaze of gas burning over my writing desk, and this, the fourth day of the fog is not very much improvement upon its immediate predecessors The dense, muddy, sooty fog of Tuesday and Wednesday has changed into a pale blue frosty mist through which some of the light of day can pass; but the visitation is still upon us. What must be the opinion of our metropolis formed by those numerous bucolic strangers who have favoured as with their company this week by reason of the cattle show? I wonder a week like this doss not partially depopulate the town. Life is hardly worth holding on by under such conditions. The mere inconvenience at darkness and partial darkness are as nothing to the actual physical suffering and misery inflicted upon us. The mid-day fog of Tuesday and Wednesday was absolutely intensely painful to the strongest lungs. The air we breathed scarified where it went, and set up a temporary inflammation There was not a fresh inhalation to be had for life's sake. Here were three or four millions of people struggling against conditions which. if they were permanent instead of temporary, would clear us all off this particular spot of earth, and leave the place untenanted. Human life must succumb after a while in such a place. I have no doubt that the fog has already driven some hundreds of the weakest and meet susceptible into their graves, or a long way in that direction; and after a time the strongest would have to succumb. A few poor creatures, indeed, have taken the shorter cut, and in the blinding, muffled air, have gone under cab or dray wheels, or plunged headlong into canals, and given up the attempt breathe such insufficient and poisonous stuff. You could not compel the mist to remain abroad. You might imagine that it could be escaped at night by shutting all your doors, drawing close your curtains, and making things comfortable for the evening by firelight and gas; but on looking up you would find your room filled as with a light cloud, and your children moving about semi-phantemorgue in appearance. There was no room in the house that was not partly filled with fog. Some of the scenes in the street by night rise up before me now as I write. People ran against one another and shouted. Cab. men called out aloud on the suspicion that something was coming the other way. You could not identity the familiar locality in which you found yourself. You came upon the end of a street suddenly, and lost your bearings. On Tuesday night I dodged a cab-horse at my shoulder in crossing a road, reached the base of the gas-standard at the centre of the way; presently took the remainder of the crossing — it was in a locality which I pass through more than once every day— and ten minutes later, suspecting something was wrong, I discovered with great difficultly that I had turned my back upon my intended destination. and had gone half a mile in the opposite direction. Outside the Metropolitan Railway station at Gower street, stood a boy with a lantern, offering to accompany passengers on their way for a consideration of coppers and other boys with little red torches were prepared to pioneer the path to Euston station for twopence. The lights all burnt red in the busier streets, where the fog was most densely mixed with smoke, and in many cases those lurid flickering specks were all that you could see.  . . . . The asphyxiation of so many of the prize oxen at the Islington Show by the fog is a calamity of the season which seems somewhat to spoil the first aspects of Christmas; but the event will form an addition to our stock of knowledge respecting the conditions under which highly fatted creatures can exist. It is remarkable that no similar incident has occurred before. The meetings have always been held in December, and London fogs in December are the rule rather than the exception. It has been, I suppose, only a question of degree. I have known fogs equal in intensity to the worst we have seen this week— the difference is that I never knew one to last so long. Two or three hours will generally clear off one of these heavy brown clouds which in the city cover all men and women and things with a thin coating of soot, and no doubt even the fattest of these cattle would have recovered from the effects of only two or three bouts of the infliction. There will, no doubt, be some very fine Christmas beef in the London markets, but I as afraid a tendency will exhibit itself on the part of the consumer to avoid prize beef.

'Our London Letter' The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, December 13, 1873

Monday 7 October 2013

Please Adjust Your Dress Before Leaving

Regular readers will know that I've been researching George Jennings, the plumber who installed WCs for the Great Exhibition of 1851, sometimes described as the inventor of the public toilet. There's been a lot of misinformation about this subject in the past, largely stemming from The Good Loo Guide which misattributed the opening of the first underground toilets in London to Jennings, and gave the date as 1855 rather than 1885.

For a while, I assumed this was just pure confusion - not least because Jennings' firm, after his death, went on to install and run many public toilets in London in the early 1900s.

Then I found Jennings' letter to the City of London from 1858, actually offering to build an underground public toilet - so there was some fact behind the mistaken attribution. But, tragically, the accompanying illustration was missing from the City archives ... or so I thought.

It was only after some more digging that:

i. I found a useful reference to Jennnings' underground toilets in the Science Museum Archive

ii. I then remembered that Sarah McCabe had remarked upon the same reference in her master's thesis on late Victorian public toilets (generously emailed for my perusal - many thanks again, Sarah)

The illustration was not lost at all ... indeed, here it is, courtesy of those lovely people at the Science Museum:

Copyright: Science Museum Archives

The background, I think, is a generic City-scape, although I'm willing to be corrected. This is surely the same plan sent to the City of London, although this copy was sent to Capt. Francis Fowke, Director of Works at South Kensington Museum, with a view to it appearing in the 1862 International Exhibition (Jennings would also design and run the toilets at the 1862 Exhibition).

The seat on the left is the attendants room, not a toilet (as the fact that it is unconnected with the drainage, and the overview shows):

Copyright: Science Museum Archive

What's fascinating about this drawing is that all its key features would eventually appear in Victorian underground public toilets, some twenty years later - right from the City's first effort in 1885 (see here for a full description). William Haywood, the City's Engineer, seems to have happily copied the key features of Jennings' unused 1858 plan - from the 'inner ring' of urinals around a central column, to a gas lamp above ground providing a draught for ventilation - and put them into his Royal Exchange toilets which opened in 1885.

No wonder, then, that people have latterly been keen to attribute the work to Jennings himself (who inconveniently died in 1882). Nor that Jennings is reputed to have nurtured a grievance against the City authorities.

Note also the public drinking fountain at the ground level - the latest thing in sanitary improvement in 1850s London when the toilets were designed (Haywood did not bother to copy this in the 1880s).

The best bit of the drawing, of course, is the mid-Victorian gentleman nonchalantly emerging from the WC.

Copyright: Science Museum
Is this the only picture of a Victorian leaving a public lavatory, immediately after the act?

Victorian urinals would have the instruction 'Please adjust your dress before leaving' painted upon the wall (or, in the case of cast iron urinals, even embossed upon the metal - as one rare surviving example at Twickenham shows). At least our gentleman has paid heed to that injunction.

[thanks to JL for the image]
But can anyone help me with the trousers, as it were? Would there have been buttons at the front, round the waist, where?

Possibly I am already in too deep.

But - if you have good pics of mid-Victorian trousers and their buttons, I'd like to see them.