The Magazine

Stink for England

The assault on the senses in early modern Britain.

Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770

by Emily Cockayne

Yale, 352 pp., $35

"Ugly," "Itchy," "Mouldy," "Noisy," "Grotty." The plain old Anglo-Saxon adjectives of distaste that comprise the author's chapter headings make it clear what this book is about before you really embark on the text. In fact, it's not for the faint of heart: Vomiting, flatulence, turds, carbuncles, even dead babies discarded on rubbish heaps float, as it were, in front of your eyes as Emily Cockayne, a lecturer at Britain's Open University, takes you on a tour of all the filth and discomfort of early modern England.

You are conducted through English towns in all their Hogarthian squalor--and there are many Hogarth drawings to illustrate the text, often with a commentary on their content that approaches the forensic in detail--that pre-industrial, pre-Wesleyan England could produce. Why pre-Wesleyan? Because England changed quite drastically in social mores in the period after 1770, Cockayne's cut-off point in narrative, at least in part because revivalist preachers were persuading the English by the thousands to change their lifestyle. Gin alcoholism, the scourge of British cities in the late 18th century, vanished, street crime was markedly reduced, and "cleanliness is next to Godliness" eventually became the watchword of the Victorian bourgeoisie. (Wesley, of course, did not invent this phrase; in 1605 Francis Bacon had pronounced that "cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.")

But in the days before "every Englishman's home [became] his castle," and sophisticated Europeans were amazed at how prim, even prudish, the mid-Victorian English appeared to be, life in the growing metropolises of England could be exceedingly uncomfortable for the fastidious. Cockayne calls upon a broad variety of novelists, poets, diarists, and essayists for the raw material of her insight into the discomforts of life in the period she is looking at. Since her sources, for the most part, wrote complainingly and in revulsion at their experiences in the daily squalor of life, they may be suspected of an exaggeration at times. But when no less an authority on London life than Samuel Pepys records with disgust that his neighbor's sewage has seeped into his own basement, you know that this event is not a fluke.

Indeed, it wasn't. What to do with personal waste was a constant problem of life in England's towns before the widespread introduction of the flush toilet in the 19th century and the construction of modern sewage pipelines. "Houses of easement," also known as "jakes," "boghouses," or "privies," were almost never watertight, so that waste filtered out into the street, nearby streams, "kennels" (the premodern open drainage water courses built into urban streets) and even neighbors' basements. The rank stench must have been horrifying, and there were court cases of citizen complaint at the worst offenses. Sometimes dead babies were discovered abandoned in houses of easement.

If the most basic personal hygiene was marginal, so was personal cleanliness. Ordinary citizens in premodern England almost never fully immersed themselves in water, and the personal stench of others was a hazard in all social settings. Fops drenched themselves in scent to cover the worst of body odors, but most people took it for granted that they would encounter people of rank personal odor or, at the very least, bad breath. John Cleland's Fanny Hill, a prostitute, in a passage from the novel cited by Cockayne, was offended by the extreme ugliness of her first client, whose breath also was "like a jakes." The common practice of wearing wigs, which only began to decline in the second half of the 18th century, was another way that dirt and odors were gathered. Wigs became dirty, greasy, and matted, and required pounds of pomatum powder to cover their odor.

There was no refrigeration, either, except the opportunity for the very wealthy to maintain ice-cellars, so food began to spoil almost as soon as it was exposed to fresh air. The only way to preserve meat was to season it with spices and salt. In Cockayne's chapter entitled "Mouldy," a French visitor reports that London's fresh produce was always likely to be impregnated with coal-smoke pollutants. Street fruit sellers would often try to make their produce more attractive by spitting on it and polishing it with a dirty sleeve. Often fresh, or at least recently introduced, produce would be advertised by street criers, who would draw attention to their wares as loudly as their voices permitted.