Sunday, 28 February 2010

Book review: The Great Filth

When Victoria became Queen in 1837, just 10 days before the start of civil registration, the annual death rate in England and Wales was 22 per thousand. By the time she died in 1901 the rate was less than 15.

The Great Filth by Stephen Halliday tells the story of how this was achieved despite a mass population movement to less healthy cities; 30% urban in the first census in 1801, 78% a century later. It's the story of the fight against squalor, poor housing, dirty water, sewage, ignorance and laissez-faire greed.

The major part of the book is devoted to the roles of scientists, doctors, public servants, midwives, engineers and highlights the work of the various champions within those professions. For Halliday the real champions are the engineers, like Joseph Bazalgette who was responsible for London's sewage system. He slams the medical profession, with a few exceptions like Dr John Snow, who did everything to protect their income and resist simple measures like handwashing -- "gentlemen don't have dirty hands."

He also condemns public servants and politicians who saw their role as restricted to defending the realm, administering the law and keeping taxes low, a philosophy in which they were joined by the affluent and influential.

The emphasis in the book is on London, a city which Halliday has studied in depth, but other cities are not overlooked, especially Liverpool. In 1841 one inhabitant in 29 died each year in Liverpool compared to one in 37 in London, a result of overcrowded unsanitary court housing. I was not aware of the extent to which 1847 saw Liverpool's situation made even worse by the Irish escaping the potato famine. Over 60,000 refugees swelled the city population in the first half of the year, one of my ancestors was likely among them. Many more landed and went on elsewhere. For those who stayed the conditions were an invitation to disease which arrived in the form of cholera in 1849 at a rate three times that in London.

I enjoyed the approach which profiled some of the individuals involved. The major figures are included in the text while profiles of important but less significant players are in boxes. Only in a couple of places did the personal profiles distracted from the flow of the narrative.

You can order The Great Filth at Amazon.ca link, and at a much higher price from Chapters-Indigo; or do as I did and borrow it from the library.

2 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Sounds very interesting, I'll be reading this.

Persephone said...

After very much enjoying The Ghost Map and The Medical Detective last year, I'll be putting this on my "For Later" List at the Ottawa Public Library. Also listed is an intriguing book by Emily Cockayne entitled Hubbub: Filth, Noise, & Stench in England, 1600-1770.
Should I be worried about having so many books about sewage on my reading lists?