The late Georgian period was full of offensive smells that followed your around, and people did not just always ‘put up with it’. They knew, that wherever there was ‘effluvia’ [Effluvium- an unpleasant or harmful odour or discharge], there were dangers; not always danger of death, but of illness and diseases. Before the germ theory of the later part of the century, people believed that bad smells- ‘miasma’- was the major cause of illness, and they were not far wrong despite not fully understanding the science.
Where did effluvia come from? There were two main origins- manufacturing with chemicals and organic decomposition, and one aggravating factor for both; all of the people of Georgian Britain lived much nearer to decomposition that we do today, the poor particularly so.
Decomposition can be put in two broad categories- dunghills and cesspits. Cesspits were avoided by all, except those who earned a living digging them out. In July 1810, a freakish accident showed the dangers of effluvia. James Brooks and his work mates were digging out a latrine in Woolwich. It belonged to the Master Attendant at the Dockyard; and the work, as always was done at night- it was 11pm. James and his colleagues had literally created their own graves; they had already dug out ten buckets of hardened and dried excrement, enough space for James to fall into the hole. A ladder was procured, which only made it possible for his loyal colleagues to climb down and be suffocated by the smell themselves. Hugh Jenkins climbed in and died quickly; Isaac Pitcher followed in order to help, not knowing that Jenkins was dead. In all five men died over a two hour period, two of them more or less instantly and the others within the hour.
The Royal Cornwell Gazette was helpful but fatalistic- What could be done for people like colour grinders, feather dressers, wool-carders, gilders and night men – who were ‘doomed’ to follow such dangerous professions? The answer was a face mask, covered the nose, soaked with potash, or acetate of lead. The newspaper nearly, but not quite intimated that it may have been partly their own fault for not having them.
The Scots Magazine of June 1817 crossed that line. It complained that typhus was spreading in Edinburgh New Town because the poor slum dwellers were dirty and their streets were full of dunghills containing sources of effluvia- rotting vegetable matter, dead animals and excrement that did not make it into a latrine because they did not have one. The magazine knew that dunghills were not the direct cause of the disease, because it also killed people in the ventilated and well aired parts of town as well, but was happy with the idea that the death was caused by the demoralised habits of the poor.
Sewers caused noxious smells, and lack of sewers did the same. In April 1812, a visitor to Cheltenham advised the town to invest in a sewer pipe as the poor were now overcrowded into basement dwellings that filled with excrement during floods. A year earlier, radical reformers led by Sir Frances Burdett met in a London public house were distracted by the putrid smell of a sewer running under the floorboards.
Other forms of decomposition were the filthy clothes of criminals who had spend time in the heat and damp of an English prison, dirty pets that were warmed by a fire, broken teeth and diseased gums causing bad breath. Cheap tallow candles stank; fish and meat at markets, continually damp shoes and boots, and fertilisers left lying around in the middle of towns. In January 1816 a letter to the Kentish Gazette complained that, as well as the usual putrid vegetable matter; people were using sprats as fertiliser, softening them up by just leaving them hanging around in heaps. Would it be too much, pleased the author, just to plough them into the ground?
Another source of effluvia was something else that had been badly dug in the ground- people. The graveyards in towns and cities were filling up as medieval graveyards had to cope with a rising population, and people were buried too shallow and too near together. The age of improvement in this area was about to happen but not yet.
Effluvia were also caused by the lack of ventilation- in ships holds, in busy streets and in people’s houses. It was not just the Victorians who encouraged the poor to make themselves cold; they were exhorted to open all doors and windows, not to sleep in a room with a chimney, and if they had to, not block it. This advice was usually given by somebody who could afford the fuel to warm a house that had been allowed to go cold.
Fuel- coal and gas were a case of effluvia. In 1815 there were complaints from the smell of a gas manufactory owned by Frederick Sparrow and William Knight of Dorset Street, Salisbury Square. Some of the more noxious smells were being directed into the Thames by tube- this fact was offered by the defendants as a good thing, but the locals could still smell and feel the effluvia. It was in turns salty and acidic, assaulting the lungs; it smelled like bilge water and tasted like fat in the mouth. Men would not work- one businessman pointed out that his men refused to work and it ‘was no easy matter to turn a coal-heavers stomach’. The men pleaded guilty, and were given six months to put it right.
Burning coke in a damp English winter produced effluvia. Kitchens in coaching inns and public houses were left open to create a draft to avoid what we might call carbon monoxide poisoning. This was happened at an inn at Belmont, near Hereford in December 1810, when the room was closed for the evening and the coke fire expected to die down. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding meant that another pile of coke was added to fire, which burned all night. Upstairs, a seventeen year old groom and a coachman were sleeping; the young man was found dead the next morning and the older coachman did not revive. He was bled copiously to aid recovery; and, unsurprisingly, it did not work.
Manufacturers using or making raw materials produced effluvia. It could be as simple as cotton dust, or dust from feathers; lead smelting and lime kilns were an appalling toll on the lungs; the smell of a tannery is never forgotten once experienced. Bone crushers and slaughterhouses were in the centre of town. Ironically, soap manufacturers could stink because they burnt coal and melted down fat. Baron Von Donick, making soap in Wapping in 1815 offended the locals by burning rancid meat and diseased animals to get fat, then grinding their bones to make black ash. He promised to do better. Whether he did or not, it is a fair comment that the Regency stank, and many of the people who lived at the time were well aware of it.
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