The Pursuit of Urban History; Endangered Lives - Public Health in Victorian Britain
F.M.L. Thompson reviews two books on Victorian Britain.
The Pursuit of Urban History
Derek Fraser and Anthony Sutcliffe (eds). xxx + 482 pp. (Edward Arnold, 1983)
Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain
Anthony S. Wohl. 440 pp. (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1983)
In crude terms it is plainly twice as expensive to indulge a taste for urban history as it is to pursue an interest in Victorian drains and diseases, and the crude question posed by the juxtaposition of these two books is whether the market has got it roughly right. An academic reviewer, naturally, is unlikely to give a straight answer to such a simple question. There is inevitably a richness and diversity of subjects and points of view in the proceedings of the 1980 Dyos Memorial Conference, here presented as The Pursuit of Urban History , which the single hand of Anthony Wohl, concentrated on the task of describing ill-health and its mitigation in Victorian Britain, would not pretend to rival. The Wohl approach, on the other hand, is the very reverse of narrow or dry. It is not simply that in the nature of the case much of his subject matter is wet, watery, or sludgy; it is that he interprets it as something far broader than a history of sewers and sanitary engineering, and brings together the story of the health of the people and the story of public health administration in a way which gives us the first solid and comprehensive view of the course of the nation's physical health over the crucial years of nineteenth-century urbanisation, a matter of fundamental importance to everyone with an interest in Victorian society.
Those, however, who are more curious about the state of health of urban history as a field of knowledge and a stamping ground for the exercise of special skills, than about the state of health of Victorian people, will gain more insight and stimulation from the reports of the 1980 conference than from the reports of the Victorian medical officers of health which Wohl uses – among many other sources – with precise diagnostic effect. Their number is not likely to be large. It is after all something of an esoteric taste to watch experts engaged in defining their subject, in giving demonstrations of their different methods, and in testing the effectiveness of their own and each other's techniques. Fellow practitioners and pupils will be fascinated; the wider public will understandably pay more attention to an actual example of a work of urban history than to a discussion of the state of the art. One can, therefore, duck out of the supply side economics of the case and the question of which book contains the more costly material, and take refuge on the demand side with the observation that selling prices and potential sales have been sensibly placed in inverse relationship.
For Endangered Lives is essentially a work of urban history: not self-consciously so, but simply because that is the way the study of dirt, disease, and death emerges as being about what happened in towns. These things were to be found in the country as well, but they did not strike Victorian noses or perceptions as being in any way out of the ordinary or problematic, and hence Wohl's book is guided by contemporary concerns into an investigation of urban condition, particularly in the larger towns. That these were frequently appalling is well enough known, but Wohl goes beyond the world of midden heaps, cesspools, and cellar dwellings made familiar by Chadwick, Simon, and the sanitary enquiries, not merely perfecting the descriptions of filth from municipal sources but also explaining the successes and limitations of eradication and amelioration through the complex interaction of legislation, administration, sanitary technology and medical knowledge, market forces, nutrition, and ideologies. There is little worth knowing about excrement removal and its bearing upon diseases which escapes his attention, although he does seem to have missed the waste-water closet which apparently appealed particularly to thrifty Lancashire, and it was a disappointment not to find Chadwick's ill-fated liquid manure enterprise (whose admirable principle was betrayed by the inability of primitive guttapercha technology to cope with pumping town ordure from a barge without bursting in inconvenient gushers) among the attempts to put human dung to agricultural use.
Victorian zeal was directed at getting the dung out of living rooms, out of houses, and off the streets, and where it was then dumped, into rivers, into the sea, or on to the land, was of minor importance so long as it was outside town limits. This, quite likely, was a rational order of priorities. First get rid of the stinks, by shovel, handcart, sewer or whatever means came to hand; then start thinking about sewage treatment and the massive investment and advanced technology required for efficient plants. It has long been a puzzle that urban death rates, particularly those from dung- related diseases, began to decline from the 1850s even though the widespread installation of water closets and their supporting systems of water supply and sewers only began to make an impression on urban sanitation from the 1880s, and many large cities did not reach an adequately closeted condition until far into the present century. Medical historians have proposed to solve this riddle by arguing that the decline in killer diseases such as typhus must have been caused by some natural and fortuitous change in the virulence of the micro-organism itself, because the decline antedated effective improvements in sewerage and water supplies. Wohl counters strongly with evidence that the intermediate sanitary technology of pails and dry-ash closets, with regular collecting and emptying by nightsoil men, was introduced rapidly and on a large scale in the 1850s and 1860s. This may not have been as hygienic and stink-free as the fully developed water closet technology. But it was a great advance on midden heaps and people 'dunging in the corner of the living room', as one MOH observed; and water-borne sewerage for the urban masses, at this stage when untreated sewage was generally discharged into the nearest river and thus contaminated the water supply of the next town downstream, could easily have bumped up death rates considerably. The evidence, buttressed with figures of mountainous tonnages of human manure annually carted out of Leeds or Manchester, is not medically conclusive that the pail, possibly sanitised with carbolic after use, curbed fatalities more surely than some hypothesised but unprovable decline in virulence; but it makes a most convincing case for discounting the speculations of medical historians and crediting the mid-Victorians with rational and efficient use of the limited resources at their disposal.
Smell and the evocation of past smells is almost at the heart of Wohl's work. London struck the nostrils like some enormous stableyard; refined gentlefolk were overcome by nausea at the stench of cellar dwellings; the flight to the suburbs was an escape from foully polluted air; and a person's occupation and social class could be smelled even before it could be seen. This conjures up images and evokes senses in the authentic Jim Dyos tradition. There are, to be sure, one or two whiffs lurking in the Pursuit of Urban History , of sooty sweep's brushes or the shut-up smell of front parlours kept for best, and there is a backcloth of images and perceptions of cities drawn from the rituals of the early modern underworld, travellers' views of the semi-rural towns of Tsarist Russia with the amazing spectacle of piles of naturally frozen capercailzie in the market place, or from the inexhaustible store of tales from city lovers and city haters from around the world and across the centuries.
The predominant impression, however, is of the variety and eclectism of the disciplines, approaches, and topics which jostle together in the house of urban history: this, too, is an authentic part of the Dyos tradition, a kaleidoscopic display which in its diversity, and occasional touches of brilliance, is a fitting tribute to his memory. The editors have striven mightily, both in their arrangement of the contributions and in their splendidly informative introduction, to impose order on this inherently unruly mass, and it is no fault of theirs that individuality, idiosyncracy, and eccentricity from time to time disrupt the formal unity of the enterprise.
It could scarcely be otherwise when architectural historians, cultural historians, labour historians, family historians, housing historians, sociologists, urban geographers, economic historians, and general system makers, are brought together. If one should commend the merits of the empirically-based contributions which open up new shafts into the history of working-class household arrangements, the role of the middle class in forging urban identities, the development of urban family life and the cult of domesticity, the elusive, conflicting, but critical activities of the British petty bourgeoisie, or the contrasting styles and functions of Vienna, Paris, and London expressed in their buildings, more than the merits of the conceptualisers and theorisers, that would be no more than a matter of taste. It would be difficult, how- ever, from any standpoint not to agree with the editors that the only way to handle Professor Pahl's essay is to assume that he is cracking a somewhat inscrutable sociologist's joke. For if taken seriously, his argument from the late twentieth-century prevalence of do-it-yourself in home maintenance, and from the Heinz-like varieties of possible methods of providing a domestic meal – from buying convenience foods to actually cooking home-grown ingredients – to the conclusion that 'urban' is not a. meaningful or useful category, would indeed be an awkward ghost to entertain at an urban history feast. In studying a society in which only five or ten per cent of the people do not live in towns, their only common 'urban' characteristics may indeed be boring and trivial, and of no explanatory value. How much better not to end with such uncomfortable thoughts which could set finite chronological limits to the compass of the Dyos legacy, but rather with Sydney Checkland's schematic reduction of all such intellectual activities to the single diagram of an 'Urban History Horoscope', which has the compulsive attractions of elegance and unfathomability.
Urban history certainly remains worth pursuing, and its practitioners can be seen to advantage in this volume not so much when they are engaged in the self- illumination of their own enclosed world as when they are casting rays of light on the general processes of social change. Those who want a guide to current thinking in this area will find The Pursuit of Urban History most rewarding. Those, on the other hand, who like a history book to tell them something clearly and interestingly about a well-defined subject whose nature and importance can be readily grasped, will undoubtedly find Endangered Lives better value.
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