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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

London Waterways of a Different Sort

By Guest Blogger Alina K. Field

It’s not a subject often mentioned in historical romance novels, but historical London was very likely a smelly place. By 1815, it was believed to be the largest city in the world, and that mass of humanity created waste that required removal.

I’ve been hard at work on the second book in my Sons of the Spy Lord series with a Viscount hero. Unlike his illegitimate older brother, he didn’t fight in the Peninsular War or at Waterloo; unlike his father and younger brother, he’s never done any spying. He’s the son and heir left with the mundane task of managing the family fortunes while the others were out doing more dashing things.

One of those mundane tasks was equipping his London home with the latest in plumbing, which in turn, has given him an interest in the London sewers. As he tells his father, “miasma fevers and marsh gas explosions are also threats to the Crown.”

I like to imagine that the ladies of the ton whispered among themselves about which of their acquaintances had installed the latest and greatest of home conveniences: a water closet. The flushing toilet had been patented in 1775, and improved by Joseph Bramah in the 1780s. In the late Georgian era, this staple of modern life had become more common in wealthy homes.

The population of London exploded from approximately 630.000 in 1715 to over 1.4 million in 1815. Though the Commission of Sewers was created by King Henry VIII, it was the Victorians who took on massive sewer reform after The Great Stink hit London in July-August 1858.

What was waste removal like before the Victorians put things in order?

 In the 1600s, three rivers, the Westbourne, the Tyburn, and the Fleet, were the main means of moving waste from London into the Thames. Some parts of these rivers were lined and covered to form closed sewers, with side street sewers draining into the main ones.

Initially, these were primarily storm drains. Most homes were built over cesspits whose odors seeped into the best of homes. (It’s no wonder our Regency ladies filled their homes with flowers.) Privy waste was a valuable commodity, collected by night soil men and removed to the countryside to be used as fertilizer.

In the eighteenth century, new home builders began to include private sewers connecting to the public sewers. Inevitably, sewers would become blocked and require cleaning. This was also a manual job, and like chimney sweeping, mucking out sewers required workers of small stature. It was dangerous also, exposing workers to gases that could impair lungs or cause explosions. 

With population growth and the expansion of home plumbing, the Thames became an open sewer, contributing to outbreaks of cholera and creating the Great Stink. And it must indeed have been a terrible smell! Windows of the Parliament building were hung with curtains soaked in chloride of lime to try to mask the odor. Members of Parliament had such a strong and constant reminder of the public health issue, they addressed the problem with a bill created and signed into law in eighteen days.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out these articles:
Marion Hearfield, London Sewers, Parts 1 and 2:
A Glimpse into London’s Early Sewers:
Cholera and the Thames:
Proceedings of the Old Bailey, A Population History of London:
Jane Austen’s London, The Unsanitary Business of Sanitation—or Would you Swim in this River?:

Blurb for The Bastard’s Iberian Bride, Book One, Sons of the Spy Lord

Daughter of spies

For a chance at true freedom, Paulette Heardwyn needs the fortune left her by her inscrutable father. But she doesn’t know what it is, where it is, or how to find it, and the only man with answers, the Earl of Shaldon, takes his secrets to the grave. Worse, the dead earl tries to force her marriage to his bastard son—and leaves her prey to a traitor seeking the same treasure she’s after.

Soldier, Steward, Bastard

Bink Gibson is ready to throw off his quiet life as steward to his old commander and head for India and the chance of prosperity. But before he can leave he’s summoned to the deathbed of the Earl of Shaldon, a meddling spymaster, a complete stranger…and his father.

And the Earl has set a trap Bink will never be able to resist.

Alina’s bio: Award winning author Alina K. Field earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and German literature, but her true passion is the much happier world of romance fiction. Though her roots are in the Midwestern U.S., after six very, very, very cold years in Chicago, she moved to Southern California and hasn’t looked back. She shares a midcentury home with her husband, her spunky, blonde, rescued terrier, and the blue-eyed cat who conned his way in for dinner one day and decided the food was too good to leave.


Alina K. Field said...

Thanks for hosting me today!

Cyn Naden said...

Wonderful blog and so very interesting.
All the best to you,
Cyn Naden

Alina K. Field said...

Thanks for stopping by, Cyn!

Lyndi Lamont said...

Very interesting post, Alina. Research is so fascinating and takes us down some strange paths.

Linda McLaughlin / Lyndi Lamont

Alina K. Field said...

Thanks for stopping by, Lyndi!

Alanna Lucas said...

Fascinating information! I'm very thankful for modern plumbing! Good luck with the book!

Alina K. Field said...

I happen to think a hero giving his heroine good plumbing can be pretty romantic!