Victorian London could be a lethal place to live. In the mid-nineteenth century, one in six children died before their first birthday, and a third of them before the age of five; the average life expectancy was only twenty-nine.
Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox, and scarlet fever were widespread, mainly because of overpopulation in London where dozens would share a single room. Two epidemics of cholera in London, in 1832 and 1849, killed tens of thousands of Londoners.
Once contracted, symptoms of this deadly disease included stomach cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting, and dehydration that, if left untreated, death would result in a matter of hours. Sufferers appeared to have sunken eyes and have the look of terror and wildness. The skin felt icy and often damp; the tongue was always moist, usually white. There was no known cure, and the sense of panic among the people soared.
The developments needed to deal with the enormous amount of sewage produced had not matched London’s rapid growth. Sewage was coming in to contact with drinking water and contaminating it. And as many people used river water as their source of drinking water, the disease spread with ease.
The accepted theory at the time was that cholera was airborne, transmitted via poisonous vapours, ‘miasma’, from rotting of organic matter. It seemed to be backed up by the many falling victim to the disease living in overcrowded slums where the air was most polluted.
In fact, cholera is a waterborne disease produced by the bacterium vibrio cholera and transmitted via contaminated water sources. In the mid-1800s, London’s most impoverished were surrounded by their own and others’ filth, as basement cesspits overflowed due to the lack of efficient sewage system. The Thames, the primary source of drinking water for residents, became more and more polluted.
Despite miasma theory remaining widespread, the doctor and anaesthetist John Snow’s investigation suggested that cholera spread through ingesting contaminated water, rather than inhaling a noxious form of foul air.
On 31st August 1854, an outbreak of cholera was reported on Broad Street – now Broadwick Street – in Soho. Over five hundred people would be dead within days. By talking with the residents and using a dot map, Snow determined that the epidemic centred around Broad Street’s water pump. There were ten deaths situated nearer to another water pump, but on interviewing the surviving relatives, it was discovered that either the household’s water had been retrieved from the Broad Street pump, or the deceased had attended a school close to it.
Another clue was that none of the workers at the local Broad Street brewery had been infected: they had a daily allowance of beer, and the water used to make it had been boiled beforehand and therefore was cleansed.
The final nail in the mystery was when Snow discovered a widow in Hampstead had died of cholera, despite being nowhere near the ‘bad air’ of Soho. On interviewing her son, Snow discovered she had sent a servant to fetch a bottle of Broad Street water every day. Such was her taste for it.
Snow appealed to the local authority, who removed the handle of the water pump. As quickly as the epidemic had arrived, it disappeared. It was later discovered that the pump’s well was dug only three feet away from an old cesspit, into which would drain all the sewage from the streets of London.
Within the cesspit was a cloth nappy, worn by a baby who had contracted cholera in another part of London, which had washed into the pit. Disease had seeped through the three feet of earth into the pump’s well, causing the cholera outbreak on Broad Street.
Four years later, John Snow suffered a stroke, dying six days afterwards on 16th June 1858. He was only 45. In 1992, a replica water pump was installed on what is now Broadwick Street, in commemoration of John Snow and his legacy, with the site of the original pump being marked by a pink granite slab. It’s easy to spot because it’s right in front of the John Snow pub.
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