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  • Patrice McDonough

Lethal Toilets and Deadly Stoves: the Perils of the Victorian Home

That first flush must have been heaven. No shivery walks to the back-garden privy; no night-soil men hauling away the family’s collective filth—men paid the earth and expected a tot of gin over and above their fee. The flushing toilet—the “water closet”— was a miracle: so sanitary, so modern, and so deadly.

At the start of the nineteenth century, Londoners excreted their waste as people had from time immemorial: into a hole in the ground. From the West End to East London, brick-lined cesspits dug in cellars or back gardens were fixtures of urban life. Adequately lined and regularly emptied, the chambers posed little danger to the home-dwellers’ health. (Too often in poorer districts, they were not.)

The first “water closets” flushed a family’s excretions into the old back-garden cesspits. But with every pull on the chain, two gallons of water accompanied the solid waste, quickly overwhelming the pits. Still, when householders connected their toilets to the local sewers, they created an even deadlier problem. Sewers built to remove rainwater now flushed the city’s human waste into the Thames River.

By the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, the Thames—clean enough at the century’s start to support salmon fishing—had become a long, snaking cesspool. (The Exhibition hastened the adoption of the water closet. Hundreds of thousands of visitors “spent a penny” to enjoy the novelty of a flushing toilet.) But the Thames was a sewer and a reservoir, the primary source of drinking water for Londoners. Water-borne diseases linked to human waste—dysentery, typhoid fever, and “King Cholera”—killed tens of thousands in periodic outbreaks and epidemics.

Cue the hero—the man with a plan to rescue Londoners from choking on their excrement—Joseph Bazalgette. As Chief Engineer to London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, Bazalgette had designed a comprehensive sewage system to pump London’s collective waste to points east of the city. From there, it would flow with the tides to the sea.

For years, Parliament had dithered over a variety of competing sewer solutions. But in the hot, dry summer of 1858, the “Great Stink” had London by the throat, driving the choking legislators from the halls of the Palace of Westminster. Wrongly fearing the befouled air of the Thames might be fatal, they empowered Bazalgette to dig his tunnels. In 1866 (the setting of Murder by Gaslight), one last cholera epidemic killed thousands of East Londoners. The tragedy was localized to Whitechapel, a district not yet connected to the sewer system. In 1875, after the project was finished, Queen Victoria knighted Sir Joseph Bazalgette for his sanitary services to the nation.

In the end, London got its clean drinking water in response to the phantom problem of poisonous air. But if fetid smells weren’t killing Londoners, something else in the atmosphere was—smoke from coal, the chief source in Britain of warmth and energy. But few people recognized its lethal menace.

With each passing decade of the nineteenth century, the pall of smoke hanging over Britain’s industrial cities grew worse. But the smoke stacks of fuming factories were less lethal than the kitchen stoves and family fireplaces in peoples' homes. On Sundays and Christmas holidays—days when business slowed, but home fires burned brightly—“black fogs” were at their worst, and London smoked like a vast, volcanic pit.

For decades, Parliamentary bills to address the smoke “nuisance” had languished— viewed as an inconvenience not a mortal threat. And none of the bills regulated home fire grates or stoves. With the legislative route blocked, the newly organized Fog and Smoke Committee of London tried a new approach. At the Albert Hall in 1881, the committee staged an exhibition of smoke-abating fire grates and stoves—modern designs that reduced coal smoke dramatically.

The show attracted a staggering 100,000 visitors to its 230 exhibits. Celebrity guests such as the Prince of Wales added a glamor touch to the prosaic wares on display. But few grates or stoves found buyers. In the eyes of the British public, new-fangled efficiency was no match for the old-fashioned "pokeable, companionable fire.”

A variety of folk beliefs and popular prejudices clustered around the open, coal-burning fire. Its pleasant, radiant glow supposedly contributed to the superior eyesight of British youth. The open, glowing fire enhanced human fertility and added to the general good health of Britons. What explained the rosy complexions of blooming British lasses? Andrew Ure, a Scottish professor of Chemistry, had the answer. They sat beside an open fireplace and cooked over an old-fashioned stove.

In his testimony before Parliament, Ure explained the evils of smokeless grates and stoves. “The sallow and withered complexions of the people ... their headaches and septic ailments are well known to observant English travelers.” Substituting “continental” contraptions for the cheerful English fire posed a mortal threat to the good health of the nation. And for some jingoistic John Bulls, the French design of many of the stoves was the final kiss of death.

In Britain, the house-as-a-castle ethos stood in the way of regulation. Mandatory mitigation collided with an attitude that cast the home as a place apart. A radically private space—brick-walled and gated—the Victorian house was a world apart from the world. No intrusive laws of Parliament or meddling interference by government inspectors would breech its castle walls.

In 1892, when for a tenth time a smoke abatement bill failed in Parliament, The Times summarized the national feeling. “A fog is better than a cheerless hearth and the intrusion of inspectors into the homes of Englishmen.”

Not until the next century would Britons end the reign of King Coal. In 1956, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act, banning coal from domestic fireplaces and stoves. It took one last week of paralyzing fog and 4,000 deaths to bring about the change. And in 2020, the last operational mine in England was on schedule to load and deliver its final haul of coal.


[For a brief, fascinating history of “the best stone in Britain,” read Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese.]

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