Friday, July 25, 2008

Soho and the Charles Dickens Walking Tour

Today we're on our way to check out the former site of the infamous, cholera-spreading Broad Street pump in Soho, and from there it is on to another walking tour given by Jean from The Original London Walks. This tour will focus solely on Dickens, and I heard that she does it in costume! It should be a thrilling, and very warm and sticky, last day in London.

Although it is a very sad story, I am very much looking forward to seeing the area of town that was involved in the cholera outbreak in 1854: Soho. From what I've read in Steven Johnson's book on the outbreak, it has been an interesting part of town for centuries. In the late 1600's and early 1700's it was a fashionable or trendy place to live. In the 1690's, almost 100 families lived there. The Prince and Princess of Wales had a house there in 1717. Many of the townhouses on its streets were elegant, but by the mid 1700's it began to change. The richer families and noble classes moved further west, out of the bustle of the city where they could build even larger houses on bigger pieces of property. As the richer people moved out, the neighborhood became grittier and more industrial. Artists and craftsmen and working-class people moved in. A new kind of Soho began to appear. It was busy and bustling and larger houses were subdivided into small apartments. Some formerly lovely courtyards turned into junkyards. Charles Dickens described it quite well in Nicholas Nickleby:

In that quarter of town...there is bygone, faded, tumble-down street, with two irregular rows of tall meagre houses, which seem to have stared each other out of countenance years ago. The very chimneys appear to have grown dismal and melancholy from having had nothing better to look at than the chimneys over the way...To judge from the size of the houses, they have been , at one time,tenanted by persons of better condition than their present occupants; but they are now let off, by the week, in floors or rooms, and every door has almost as many (name) plates or bell handles as there are apartments within.

By the 1800's Soho was, like the other over-crowded parts of the city, having problems with sanitation, or the disposal of sewage and waste. London had become a large city in the previous century, but the population kept increasing, rapidly. (In 1800 about 1 million people lived there, but in 1851, 2.4 million people lived there, making it the most populous city on the planet, and more densely populated than New York City is today! By the end of the century, or 1900, 6 million people lived in London. Imagine if within your school career at USM, Milwaukee's population almost doubled!) More and more people moved there and more and more babies were born there, but there were not yet systems in place for taking away all the garbage these people were creating. Most of the techniques for managing that mess that we are now used to - recycling centers, hospitals and clinics, safe sewer systems and garbage trucks and standard garbage cans and systems for pick-up -- none of that had been invented yet.

Imagine if your family shared your house with two or three other families and did not have running water inside your house, or a flushing toilet or garbage collectors to come and take away your refuse each week. Where would you put all of those half-eaten pieces of pizza, and banana peels, and moldy yogurt, and old newspapers, and empty milk containers? Where would you go to the bathroom? How would you clean your body? And most disgustingly, where would your human waste go?

What happened in London was an unplanned, unorganized response: the job of a scavenger was created. People who didn't have any other better way of making money collected and sorted and re-used or recycled all the garbage that Victorian Londoners produced. Steven Johnson explains it simply in his book The Ghost Map, "as the garbage and excrement (human waste) grew, an underground market for refuse developed." These things were then sold to established trades who could use them. He continues:

Specialists emerged, each dutifully carting goods to the appropriate site in the official market: the bone collectors selling their goods to the bone-boilers, the the pure-finders selling their dog (poop) to tanners, who used the "pure" to rid their leather goods of the lime they soaked it in to remove the animal hair...without any education at all, this underclass managed to conjure up an entire system for processing and sorting the waste generated by two million people.

But even with these scavengers removing and recycling most of the waste, it wasn't enough. Most experts say that even with today's infrastructure and plans and organizations, with all the current systems we have in place to take care of our garbage, the kind of growth that happened in London during this period would be difficult to manage. In other words, even if they had all the conveniences that we have today, there would have been major problems. "without infrastructure, (over) two million people suddenly forced to share ninety square miles of space wasn't just a disaster waiting to happen -- it was a kind of permanent, rolling disaster, a vast organism destroying itself by laying waste to its habitat," explains Johnson. And that disaster was the disease known as CHOLERA.

Listen to a description of life by the River Thames, the heart of the city during the Victorian era given by Jean Haynes, an official City of London guide.

Read the post above this one to hear more about one of the most famous cholera outbreaks in history.

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