London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the London Sewerage and Scavengery.
THE subject I have now to treat—principally as regards street-labour, but generally in its sanitary, social, and economical bearings—may really be termed vast. It is of the cleansing of a capital city, with its thousands of miles of streets and roads the surface, and its thousands of miles of sewers and drains the surface of the earth. And let me deal with the subject in a historical point of view.
Public scavengery or street-cleansing, from the earliest periods of our history, since municipal authority regulated the internal economy of our cities, has been an object of some attention. In the records of all our civic corporations may be found bye-laws, or some equivalent measure, to enforce the cleansing of the streets. But these regulations were little enforced. It was ordered that the streets should be swept, but often enough men were not employed by the authorities to sweep them; until after the great fire of London, and in many parts for years after that, the tradesman's apprentice swept the dirt from the front of his master's house, and left it in the street, to be removed at the leisure of the scavenger. This was in the streets most famous for the wealth and commercial energy of the inhabitants. The streets inhabited by the poor, until about the beginning of the present century, were rarely swept at all. The unevenness of the pavement, the accumulation of wet and mud in rainy weather, the want of foot-paths, and sometimes even of grates and kennels, made Cowper, in of his letters, describe a perambulation of some of these streets as "going by water."
Even this state of things was, however, an improvement. In the accounts of the London street-broils and fights, from the reign of Henry III., more especially during the war of the Roses, down to the civil war which terminated in the beheading of Charles I., mention is more or less made of the combatants having availed themselves of the shelter of the rubbish in the streets. These mounds of rubbish were then kinds of street-barricades, opposing the progress of passengers, like the piles of overturned omnibuses and other vehicles of the modern French street-combatants. There is no doubt that in the older times these mounds were composed, , of the earth dug out for the foundation of some building, or the sinking of some well, or (later on) the formation of some drain; for these works were often long in hand, not only from the interruptions of civil strife and from want of funds, but from indifference, owing to the long delay in
|their completion, and were often altogether abandoned. After dusk the streets of the capital of England could not be traversed without lanterns or torches. This was the case until the last or years in nearly all the smaller towns of England, but there the darkness was the principal obstacle; in the inferior parts of "Old London," however, there were the additional inconveniences of broken limbs and robbery.|
It would be easy to adduce instances from the olden writers in proof of all the above statements, but it seems idle to cite proofs of what is known to all.
The care of the streets, however, as regards the removal of the dirt, or, as the weather might be, the dust and mud, seems never to have been much of a national consideration. It was left to the corporations and the parishes. Each of these had its own especial arrangements for the collection and removal of dirt in its own streets; and as each parochial or municipal system generally differed in some respect or other, taken as a whole, there was no general mode or system adopted. To all this the street-management of our own days, in the respect of scavengery, and, as I shall show, of sewerage, presents a decided improvement. This improvement in streetma- nagement is not attributable to any public agitation—to any public, and, far less, national manifestation of feeling. It was debated sometimes in courts of Common Council, in ward and parochial meetings, but the public generally seem to have taken no express interest in the matter. The improvement seems to have established itself gradually from the improved tastes and habits of the people.
Although left to the local powers, the subject of street-cleansing and management, however, has not been overlooked by parliament. Among parliamentary enactments is the measure best known as "Michael Angelo Taylor's Act," passed early in the present century, which requires all householders every morning to remove from the front of their premises any snow which may have fallen during the night, &c., &c.; the late Police Acts also embrace subordinately the subject of street-management.
On the other hand the sewers have long been the object of national care. "The daily great damages and losses which have happened in many and divers parts of this realm" (I give the spirit of the preamble of several Acts of Parliament), "as well by the reason of the outrageous flowings, surges, and course of the river in and upon the marsh grounds and other low places, heretofore through public wisdom won and made profitable for the great commonwealth of this realm, as also by occasion of land waters and other outrageous springs in and upon meadows, pastures, and other low grounds adjoining to rivers, floods, and other water-courses," caused parliamentary attention to be given to the subject.
Until towards the latter part of the last century, however, the streets even of the better order were often flooded during heavy and continuous rains, owing to the sewers and drains having been choked, so that the sewage forced its way through the gratings into the streets and yards, flooding all the underground apartments and often the ground floors of the houses, as well as the public thoroughfares with filth.
It is not many months since the neighbourhood of so modern a locality as Waterloobridge was flooded in this manner, and boats were used in the Belvidere and York-roads. On the , after a tremendous storm of thunder, hail, and rain, miles of the capital were literally under water; hundreds of publicans' beer-cellars contained far more water than beer, and the damage done was enormous. These facts show that though much has been accomplished towards the efficient sewerage of the metropolis, much remains to be accomplished still.
The statute on the subject of the public sewerage was as early as the year of the reign of Henry III. There were enactments, also, in most of the succeeding reigns, but they were all partial and conflicting, and related more to local desiderata than to any system of sewerage for the public benefit, until the reign of Henry VIII., when the "Bill of Sewers" was passed (in ). This act provided for a more general system of sewerage in the cities and towns of the kingdom, requiring the main channels to be of certain depths and dimensions, according to the localities, situation, &c. In many parts of the country the sewerage is still carried on according to the provisions in the act of Henry VIII., but those provisions were modified, altered, or "explained," by many subsequent statutes.
Any uniformity which might have arisen from the observance of the same principles of sewerage was effectually checked by the measures adopted in London, more especially during the last years. As the metropolis increased new sewerage became necessary, and new local bodies were formed for its management. These were known as the Commissions of Sewers, and the members of those bodies acted independently of another, under the authority of their own Acts of Parliament, each having its own board, engineers, clerks, officers, and workmen. Each commission was confined to its own district, and did what was accounted best for its own district with little regard to any general plan of sewerage, so that London was, and in a great measure is, sewered upon different principles, as to the size of the sewers and drains, the rates of inclination, &c. &c. In there were of these districts and bodies: the City of London, the Tower Hamlets, Saint Katherine's, Poplar and , and Finsbury, and part of Middlesex, Surrey and Kent, and Greenwich. In these several bodies were concentrated by act of parliament, and entitled the "Metropolitan Commission of Sewers;" but the City of London, as appears to be the case with every parliamentary measure affecting the metropolis, presents an exception, as it retains a separate jurisdiction, and is not under the control of the general commissioners, to whom parliament has given authority over such matters.
The management of the metropolitan scaven-
|gery and sewerage, therefore, differs in this respect. The scavengery is committed to the care of the several parishes, each making its own contract; the sewerage is consigned by Parliament to a body of commissioners. In both instances, however, the expenses are paid out of local rates.|
I shall now proceed to treat of each of these subjects separately, beginning with the cleansing of the streets.