Great Filth: The War Against Disease in Victorian England

Great Filth: The War Against Disease in Victorian England

by Stephen Halliday

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Victorian Britain was the world's industrial powerhouse. Its factories, mills and foundries supplied a global demand for manufactured goods. As Britain changed from an agricultural to an industrial ecomony, people swarmed into the towns and cities where the work was; by the end of Queen Victoria's reign, almost 80 per cent of the population was urban. Overcrowding and


Victorian Britain was the world's industrial powerhouse. Its factories, mills and foundries supplied a global demand for manufactured goods. As Britain changed from an agricultural to an industrial ecomony, people swarmed into the towns and cities where the work was; by the end of Queen Victoria's reign, almost 80 per cent of the population was urban. Overcrowding and filthy living conditions, though, were a recipe for disaster, and diseases such as cholera, typhoid, scarlet fever, smallpox and puerperal (childbed) fever were a part of everyday life for (usually poor) town-and city-dwellers. However, thanks to a dedicated band of doctors, nurses, midwives, scientists, engineers and social reformers, by the time the Victorian era became the Edwardian, they were almost eradicated, and no longer a constant source of fear. Stephen Halliday tells the fascinating story of how these individuals fought opposition from politicians, taxpayers and often their own colleagues to overcome these diseases and make the country a safer place for everyone to live.

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The Great Filth

Disease, Death & The Victorian City

By Stephen Halliday

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Stephen Halliday
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7464-9


The Pioneers

The English are fools and madmen: fools because they give their children the smallpox to prevent their catching it; and madmen because they wantonly communicate a certain and dreadful distemper to their children, merely to prevent an uncertain evil.

(Voltaire, inveighing against the English practice of inoculation against smallpox)

Vaccination has been chiefly carried on by lady-doctors, wrong -headed clergymen, needy and dependent medicators and disorderly men -midwives.

(Dr Benjamin Mosley, inveterate nineteenth-century opponent of vaccination against smallpox)


In 1840, three years into Victoria's reign, the Vaccination Act was passed. Vaccination of infants with 'cowpox' to protect them against the virulent, disfiguring and often deadly smallpox was made available free of charge as a public health measure. By the same Act the earlier practice of variolation, which involved infecting the recipient with a mild form of the disease itself, was made illegal. This was the first significant public health measure of the reign, the first stride along a long path towards recognition that government had a role in protecting its citizens against disease as well as against foreign enemies. The Act was not particularly successful. Ignorance about medical practices made many families unwilling to risk having their infants deliberately infected with a mysterious disease, albeit one that was supposedly harmless. Further legislation was necessary before the population was protected, often against its will, and smallpox ceased to be rife. Nevertheless the 1840 Act was significant as a symbol of future intentions, and, added to a developing understanding of the causes and nature of diseases amongst doctors, scientists, nurses, midwives and politicians, it represented a notable step in the battle against epidemic disease that was one of the achievements of the reign.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which records the years 879–1154, has left accounts of many plagues, whose occurrence is normally preceded by intimidating accounts of such phenomena as comets, earthquakes and eclipses, though the precise nature of the diseases concerned is rarely clear. This did not prevent the early writers from speculating on the causes of the disorders, often in moralising tones that survived in some quarters into the Victorian period itself. In some cases, it was thought, the simple act of looking upon a disease was sufficient to contract it. The work Mabinogion, which was compiled in the thirteenth century from ancient Welsh legends, recorded that in about AD 550 one Maelgwn Gwynedd 'beheld the Yellow Plague [probably jaundice] through the keyhole in the church door and forthwith he died'. St David (512–87) was thought to have escaped the plague by fleeing temporarily to Brittany.

The moralising element is evident in the work of the Venerable Bede (673–735), who, in his De Natura Rerum, wrote that pestilence was 'produced from the air when it has become corrupted (in accordance with the deserts of men) either from excess of dryness or of heat, or from rain. Inhaled in the process of breathing, the air generates plague and death.' His near contemporary Bishop Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636), in his great Etymologiae, declared that pestilence 'is produced from a corruption of the air and it makes its way by penetrating into the inward parts'. Almost a thousand years later the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro (c. 1478–1553) attributed syphilis to foul air, which was no doubt a source of some relief to those who contracted it. In the absence of any knowledge of germ theory, the idea that foul air, in the form of a 'miasma', was the invariable cause of epidemics was to remain medical orthodoxy until well into the nineteenth century, when some bold spirits suggested that, in the case of cholera and typhoid, the real culprit was polluted water. In the meantime the idea that disease could be spread between people living in crowded communities prompted some authorities to take appropriate steps, albeit perhaps for reasons that were not fully understood. In 672 an outbreak of an unspecified disease among monks led Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, to decree at the Synod of Hertford that monks should not move between monasteries, the intention being to prevent the condition from spreading.


The early writers may have had difficulty in identifying and attaching names to some of the pestilences that afflicted them, but when bubonic plague arrived in Europe it quickly acquired the name 'The Black Death' on account of its alarming symptoms: a blackening of the skin caused by haemorrhages beneath the surface and buboes, or swellings in the armpits and groin, followed by a swift and merciful death. It arrived in the port of Messina, Sicily, in October 1347 on a boat most of whose crew were already dead. Even now its precise origin is the subject of some controversy, but it is usually attributed to the bacterium Yersinia Pestis, transmitted by fleas that are found on black rats. It quickly spread throughout Europe, reaching England in June 1348 and eventually killing about a third of the population of Europe. Its progress had no doubt been assisted by the fact that the population was malnourished as a result of a series of poor harvests over the previous two decades, but the link between nutrition and health, which was eventually made in Victoria's reign, was not made in the fourteenth century. Like Bede, contemporary writers favoured some kind of divine visitation as an explanation. In the church of St Mary's, Ashwell, Hertfordshire, an anonymous villager carved a harrowing inscription in 1349: 'Wretched, terrible, destructive year, the remnants of the people alone remain.' The Jews, as usual, bore much of the blame and were the victims of many pogroms. The Black Death returned with less devastating consequences later in the century to a population whose previous exposure had presumably left it with some resistance. Its final onslaught on England occurred in 1665, though outbreaks occurred elsewhere in Europe until the early nineteenth century, Marseille being attacked in the 1820s, Russia at the end of the century and San Francisco, in the United States, in 1899–1900.


Epidemics of a disease that was probably smallpox were recorded in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (now Iraq) many thousands of years before the Christian era. The mummified remains of the pharaoh Rameses V, who died suddenly in 1157 BC, bear pustules characteristic of the disease. Europe seems to have escaped smallpox until it struck Athens in about 490 BC at the height of its prosperity. At this time such visitations were associated with the wrath of God or, in the case of Homer, gods. In the Iliad, book I, Homer describes a plague that falls upon the Greeks before Troy as 'arrows of Apollo', while in the Old Testament Job is afflicted by the 'arrows of the Almighty'. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the martyred St Sebastian, who is normally shown as pierced by numerous arrows, is the patron saint not only of archers but also of places afflicted by plague, where shrines to him were commonly created during the Middle Ages.

Western Europe was evidently spared the scourge of the variola virus that causes smallpox until some time before AD 1000, but once it had become established, shortly after that date, it spread gradually, gathering pace from about the fifteenth century. In the eighteenth century the French writer Voltaire claimed that a majority of the population would contract smallpox at some time, with about a fifth of them dying of the disease and a similar number surviving with faces marked by the pustules it left behind. It was no respecter of persons. Among the more prominent English casualties was Queen Elizabeth I, who survived an attack in 1562 with a disfigured face, while Queen Mary II died of smallpox in 1694. Among foreign monarchs the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I died of the disease in 1711, and his death was followed by those of Tsar Peter II in 1730 and Louis XV of France in 1774.

In the meantime the disease had become a weapon. The conquest of South America by the Spanish invaders in the sixteenth century was aided by the fact that the native population had no resistance to the variola virus, which they had never previously encountered. The first recorded outbreak occurred in the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1518, when half the native population was wiped out, but the problem became much more serious after 1520, when the disease reached the mainland through one of the soldiers of Cortés. A third of the Aztec population was killed, and when smallpox reached Peru the Inca emperor Huayna Capac was among its victims. It was also used as a threat. In 1728 the gaoler of the Fleet prison, Thomas Bambridge, demanded fees from one of his prisoners, a debtor called Robert Castell, in return for more comfortable accommodation. When Castell refused to pay the sum demanded, Bambridge, who had paid £5,000 for the office and was determined to gain a return on his investment, moved Castell to a part of the prison that was infected with smallpox. Castell died, and the matter became a cause célèbre when it was raised in Parliament by James Oglethorpe, who went on to found the colony of Georgia for discharged debtors. In the first recorded deliberate use of biological warfare, in 1763, British troops at Fort Pitt (later Pittsburgh) deliberately distributed smallpox -infected blankets to Indians who were thought to be allies of the French enemy. Consequently, during the American War of Independence George Washington ordered that his troops be protected against the disease by a process then known as variolation, which had been gaining in popularity since the early years of the century.


The process of variolation, also known as inoculation, involved the deliberate infection of one person, usually an infant, by another. This was done by rubbing matter from an infected person's smallpox pustule into a scratch on the arm of the recipient. The process was observed by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Constantinople while her husband was serving as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1717. Voltaire, who later wrote an account of her experiences, attributed the custom among Circassian families to a desire to obtain positions for their daughters in the harems of Turkey and Persia – opportunities that would be lost if the girls were disfigured by smallpox. The belief prevailed that, if one child were infected by another, the smallpox would be less virulent than if it were contracted later. Lady Mary had lost a brother to the disease and herself bore its scars. She persuaded the embassy surgeon, Charles Maitland, to inoculate her five-year-old, despite being warned by the chaplain that it was an un-Christian practice that would work only upon infidels. Following her return to England in 1721 she also had her four-year-old daughter inoculated, and the child became a medical curiosity who attracted the attention of the royal physician, Sir Hans Sloane. As a result, permission was obtained to test the process on six Newgate prisoners who were facing execution. The trial succeeded, the prisoners gaining their freedom as well as immunity to smallpox, and the practice received a powerful endorsement when, in 1722, the Prince of Wales's daughters were inoculated. The Foundling Hospital, created in 1741 by the sea captain Thomas Coram to care for abandoned children, inoculated its children at the age of three from the time of its foundation.

The process was more readily adopted in England than in many other European countries. Reference has already been made to the deaths of continental monarchs, and the attitude towards inoculation of many foreign observers was summarised by Voltaire in his Lettres philosophiques when he wrote:

It is inadvertently affirmed in the Christian countries of Europe that the English are fools and madmen: fools because they give their children the smallpox to prevent their catching it; and madmen because they wantonly communicate a certain and dreadful distemper to their children, merely to prevent an uncertain evil. The English, on the other hand, call the rest of the Europeans cowardly and unnatural. Cowardly because they are afraid of putting their children to a little pain; unnatural because they expose them to die one time or other of the smallpox.

The most notable exception to the general European scepticism about inoculation was Catherine the Great of Russia. In 1768, faced by a severe smallpox epidemic sweeping through Russia, she contacted an English physician, Thomas Dimsdale (1712–1800), who had published a treatise, The Present Methods of Inoculation for the Smallpox, the previous year. Dimsdale visited Russia, inoculated Catherine and her son, the future Paul I, and was rewarded by being created a Baron of the Russian Empire.

Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) was born in County Down, Ireland, in modest circumstances and studied medicine in England and France. In 1687 he went to Jamaica as physician to the governor and began the collection of flora and fauna for which he is remembered. He returned to England and established a very successful medical practice in Bloomsbury Place, close to the site on which the British Museum was later built. His patients included Queen Anne, George I and George II. Upon his death he bequeathed his collection of over 70,000 objects, a herbarium and library to George II in return for a payment of £20,000 to his two daughters. The money was raised through a public lottery and formed the basis of the British Museum, which was consequently founded in the year of Sloane's death and opened to the public in 1759. He was influential in promoting inoculation against smallpox and devised a drink for children made by mixing cocoa with cow's milk, based on a practice he had witnessed in Jamaica, where mothers mixed breast milk with cocoa beans. It was marketed by Cadbury's until 1885 as 'Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate'. He succeeded his friend Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society and has several London streets named after him, including Sloane Square and Hans Place.


Edward Jenner (1749–1823) was a country doctor in the small town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire. The son of the local clergyman, he showed an early interest in natural history and was the first person to observe the habits of the young cuckoo in expelling other eggs from its nest. He trained as a doctor first with a local surgeon in Chipping Sodbury and later at St George's hospital, London, under the great surgeon and experimenter John Hunter, of whom he became a lifelong friend. It was on Hunter's recommendation that Jenner was employed by Sir Joseph Banks to prepare for examination specimens collected on Captain Cook's expeditions to Australia and the South Seas, so his experience and connections were considerably greater than those of most country doctors. In 1772 he returned to Berkeley and set up a medical practice. His childhood interest in natural history had familiarised him with the tale that milkmaids (who were often represented by contemporary painters as icons of beauty) retained their good looks because their work rendered them immune to the disfigurements of smallpox. He had himself been inoculated, had been very ill as a result and knew that the process could, on occasion, lead to the full effects of smallpox itself.

He observed that milkmaids frequently developed blisters on their hands, known as cowpox, which resulted from contact with the udders of cows, and he reflected upon the possibility that this minor blemish might in some way protect them from the depredations of smallpox. He was consulted by a milkmaid called Sarah Nelmes, who had developed a particularly bad case of the characteristic blisters after milking a cow called Blossom, and he extracted some pus from the blisters. This he injected into an eight-year-old boy called James Phipps, the son of his gardener, gradually increasing the amount of pus over a period of several days. He then deliberately injected the boy with smallpox on several occasions. James remained immune from smallpox. Since cowpox was a relatively harmless disease that carried with it no risk of infection from smallpox itself, it offered obvious advantages over the alternative practice of inoculation. This experiment was repeated over the years that followed, Jenner vaccinating 100 children in further tests as well as trying the procedure on himself. In those days there were no ethical or regulatory constraints upon such experiments. Jenner named the new process 'vaccination' after the Latin word vacca for 'cow' and published his findings in a book titled An Enquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae; A Disease Discovered in some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of Cow Pox.

He submitted his findings to the Royal Society, whose president was his acquaintance Sir Joseph Banks. However, he was advised that he had not carried out enough experiments to justify such revolutionary ideas. This discouraging judgement was influenced by the fact that cowpox was confined to a few areas, so that doctors who wanted to experiment with the new process were dependent upon Jenner to supply them with pus at a time when such a substance was difficult to transport over any but the shortest distance. This clergyman's son also encountered resistance from churchmen, who thought it was profane to inject into human beings material from a diseased animal. James Gillray was one of the cartoonists who lampooned the practice by showing people growing cows' heads. One of the fiercest critics of vaccination was a doctor called Benjamin Mosley (1742–1819), who described the arguments in favour of vaccination as 'the ravings of Bedlam' and claimed that cow hair would grow on the scabs that formed after vaccination – scabs that in the early days could be unsightly. He later added that 'vaccination has been chiefly carried on by lady-doctors, wrong-headed clergymen, needy and dependent medicators and disorderly men-midwives'.


Excerpted from The Great Filth by Stephen Halliday. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Halliday. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Stephen Halliday is the author of The Great Stink of London and Newgate.

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