The living conditions of those who lived in our cities and towns of the 19th century, suffered badly from the multi-tier system. On one hand you had those people who lived in comfortable houses and employed servants.
Whilst the housing stock for the poor consisted of houses built back to back. Living room and kitchen downstairs, with two bedrooms upstairs, and they only had windows on the side of the house. Another form of dwelling was the one-room cellars, where the poorest of the poor lived. They were damp and poorly ventilated, and they would sleep on straw, for they had no money to buy beds.
Flushing lavatories which we take for granted did not come into use, until the latter years of the 19th century. If you were one of the large number of poor people at that time, early designs were rather basic, and showed lack of hygiene. They used a cesspit, which required regular emptying. Later in the century, they used Earth Closet (A pale with a box containing earth. When one pulled the lever, so earth would cover the contents of the pale).
19th century streets were often unpaved, and hardly ever cleaned. Rubbish, hardly ever collected and left to pile up on the streets. Most of it was organic, and over time would turn into a black and sticky substance, which would be used as a fertiliser.
One of the first improvements in London was the installation of Gas Street Lights in the Pall Mall area in 1807. By the 1820’s they were being introduced to many towns and cities up and down the land. By the 1840’s they would be installed in the homes of the rich of that time, replacing the oil lamps, and by the 1870’s most homes would have gas light.
The standard method by which cooking was undertaken, was by means of an open fire, by the 1820’s all that changed, giving way to the Range Iron Cooker.
Crime was rife in London, which led to the first police in Britain; the Metropolitan Police created by Sir Robert Peel, the then Home Secretary in 1829.
For it was in 1829, the first horse-drawn omnibuses started running in London, and by the 1860’s and 1870’s we were to see horse-drawn trams running in many towns and cities.
England was rife with diseases and life expectancy was low, with its highest mortality rate amongst young children. For it was in 1831-32 and again in 1848-49 cities and towns would suffer severe outbreaks of cholera, killing thousands in its wake.
In 1837 the Telegraph was invented. The first cable was laid across the channel in 1850, and by 1866, it was possible to send messages across the Atlantic Ocean. Then in 1840 Rowland Hill invented the Penny Post, and it was the sender who paid the postage charges, as we do today.
The first railway line was from London Bridge to Greenwich, opening in 1836. Railway lines were laid, the length and breadth of the country. Many stations were created; Euston Station in 1837, Paddington Station in 1838, and so the list of new stations continued; Victoria, King’s Cross, Euston, and Paddington, just to name a few.
With the 1840’s came a new law by the councils, banning cellar dwellings, and the new construction of back to back houses.
Medical advances made their mark in the 19th century, when in 1847 James Simpson discovered anaesthetics and went on to use chloroform in operations. Then in 1853 the hypodermic syringe was invented by the French, and in 1865 Joseph Lister discovered antiseptic surgery.
One disease which was very common during the 19th century was that of consumption, now better known as tuberculosis. Signs of decline started around the 1850’s, and has been reducing ever since. All these years on, this dreadful disease rears its ugly head from time to time.
Raw sewage flowed through London’s gutters, and eventually emptied out into the River Thames, this same water its residents would drink. It is no wonder Cholera broke out from time to time, as it did in 1831-32 and again in 1848-49.
Dr. John Snow and Rev Henry Whitehead, proved in 1854 that the disease cholera was spread by contaminated waters.
In 1858, Parliament had to go into a period of recess, for the smell from the River Thames became unbearable.
Sir Joseph Bazalgette (Engineer) put a plan into effect; 2100km of sewers, tunnels and pipes were laid across London, and would take twenty years to complete. This created a cleaner environment, and healthier lifestyle. From then on, towns and cities started the mammoth job, of digging sewers across the land.
In the 1870’s and 1880’s saw the introduction of purpose built bathrooms, built into the home, whilst others had a tin bath, and washed in the kitchen, a practice that continued well into the 1970’s at least.
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, and the first telephone exchange opened in 1879.
With the invention of the Electric Light Bulb by Thomas Edison in 1879; cities and towns changed to electric street lights. This was the first step into seeing electric lights being used in the home…
With the coming of the 1880’s, gas fires came into use within the home, followed by the gas cooker in 1890.
Louis Pasteur invented pasteurisation, a way of sterilising liquids and went on to invent vaccination for anthrax. Immunization against diphtheria was invented in 1890, and a vaccine for typhoid in 1897.
The use of X-rays was discovered in 1895, allowing doctors to investigate patient’s inners, rather than blindly opening them up to investigate the probable cause.
With the 19th century, Britain saw the transformation of its capital; London, into a financial global and trading capital. It went on to display itself to the world at the Great Exhibition of 1851, held at Crystal Palace.
Charles Dickens, one of our renowned writers spent much of his life walking the streets of London. His readers would experience the sights, sounds and smells as he had observed them in his daily travels. For he would immerse his readers in the perfect stage, as he weaved his fiction.
The streets of his time would be filled with vendors selling their wares, pick-pockets, prostitutes, drunks and beggars. Fortunately for us, London has changed, since those days, cleaning itself up, and creating a healthier lifestyle for its inhabitants. Would you not agree?