Hygiene in Victorian London

It’s incredible to think of a time when the creature comforts we truly take for granted didn’t exist, but we only need to look back 100 years or so to the Victorian era to see a very different picture.

In early Victorian times diseases like smallpox, cholera and tuberculosis were rife and the high rate of infection was largely due to the extremely unsanitary conditions within which people lived. Life expectancy was typically low, with middle class men living, on average, to just 45 years of age and workmen and labourers about half that. Children were lucky to survive their fifth birthdays!

Despite the Public Health Act of 1848, which recommended improvements for drainage and sewers, waste disposal and access to clean water, untreated waste continued to be dumped in the Thames. In 1858 hot weather exacerbated the problem, causing what became known as the ‘Great Stink’, prompting local administrators to demand that the situation be addressed. Engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, put forward a proposal for 82 miles of sewer system linked with over 1,000 miles of street sewers, which was accepted and resulted in one of the greatest engineering feats of the Victoria Era.

Bazalgette went on to design the Thames Embankment which housed sewers, water pipes and the London Underground and, during the same period, London’s water supply network was expanded and improved, and a gas network for lighting and heating was introduced.

As well as seeing vast improvements in the standards of living over this period, the national income per person grew by half as a result of increasing industrialisation, especially in textiles and machinery, whilst the worldwide network of trade and engineering produced profits for British merchants and exports from across the globe. It is no wonder that historians have characterised this mid-Victorian era (1850-1870) as Britain’s ‘Golden Years’.