Filed under: Health Care, History, Literature, Science/Technology, United Kingdom | Tags: An Epidemic of Cholera, London - 1854, Recycling the Refuse
The Night-Soil Men
It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers. Just the names alone read now like some kind of exotic zoological catalogue; bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshes, shoremen. These were the London underclasses, at least a hundred thousand strong. So immense were their numbers that had the scavengers broken off and formed their own city, it would have been the fifth-largest in all of England. But the diversity and precision of their routines were more remarkable than their sheer number. Early risers strolling along the Thames would see the toshers wading through the muck of low tide, dressed almost comically in flowing velveteen coats, their oversized pockets filled with stray bits of copper recovered from the water’s edge. The toshers walked with a lantern strapped to their chest to help them see in the predawn gloom, and carried an eight-foot-long pole to test the ground in front of them, and to pull themselves out when they stumbled into a quagmire. The pole and the eerie glow of the lantern through the robes gave them the look of ragged wizards, scouring the foul river’s edge for magic coins. Beside them fluttered the mud-larks, often children, dressed in tatters and content to scavenge all the waste that the toshers rejected as below their standard: lumps of coal, old wood, scraps of rope.
………Above the river, in the streets of the city, the pure-finders eked out a living by collecting dog shit (colloquially called “pure”) while the bone-pickers foraged for carcasses of any stripe. Below ground, in the cramped but growing network of tunnels beneath London’s streets, the sewer-hunters slogged through the flowing waste of the metropolis. Every few months, an unusually dense pocket of methane gas would be ignited by one of their kerosene lamps and the hapless soul would be incinerated twenty feet below ground, in a river of raw sewage. …
………It usually takes the bone-picker from seven to nine hours to go over his rounds, during which time he travels from 20 to 30 miles with a quarter to a half hundredweight on his back. In the summer he usually reaches home about eleven of the day, and in the winter about one or two. On his return home he proceeds to sort the contents of his bag. He separates the rags from the bones, and these again from the old metal (if he is lucky enough to have found any). He divides the rags into various lots, according as they are white or coloured; and if he have picked up any pieces of canvas or sacking, he makes these also into a separate parcel. When has finished the sorting he takes his several lots to the ragshop or the marine-store dealer, and realizes upon them whatever they may be worth. For the white rags he gets from 2d. to 3d per pound, according as they are clean or soiled. The white rags are very difficult to be found; they are mostly very dirty therefore sold with the coloured ones at the rate of about 5 lbs. for 2d.
London in 1854 was a Victorian metropolis trying to make do with an Elizabethan public infrastructure. The city was vast even by today’s standards, with two and a half million people crammed inside a thirty-mile circumference. Most of the techniques for managing that kind of population density that we now take for granted—recycling centers, public-health departments, garbage collection, safe sewage removal — hadn’t yet been invented. These people were actually performing an essential service for their community. Removing the refuse of a large city is one of the most important social functions. The scavengers of Victorian London weren’t just getting rid of all that refuse, they were recycling it.
The above excerpt comes from a fascinating and thought-provoking book called The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. In that summer of 1854, London was seized with a violent outbreak of cholera that no one knew how to stop. As the epidemic spread a maverick physician and a local curate try to solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.
There is so much there, the intertwined histories of the spread of disease, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry. If we don’t have an understanding of history and from whence we have come, we can’t really understand today.