A History of Lost Sensations 3
The olfactory world of the Victorians was more rank than ours.
Let’s start with sewage. Most people know about the Great Stink of 1858, when a heatwave acting on the raw sewage in the Thames produced a stench so overpowering that Parliament was forced to close. Among the reasons for the sewage pollution in the river were the well-meant reforms of the 1830s and 40s which encouraged people to fill in garden cess pits and discharge their effluent into ditches which fed in the Tyburn, the Walbrook and all the other London rivers and streams which, in turn fed, into the Thames.
Then there were the smells of transport, both animal and mechanised. Most transport, apart from the railways, was horse drawn, hence smells of horse dung, horse piss and sweaty leather. Steam trains smelt of hot oil, hot metal, coal dust and sulphur. Waiting rooms smelt of gas lamps.
Industry, too, fed into the mix. Every trade had its own distinctive smell – tanneries, dye works, glue boilers, copper-plating works, abattoirs, breweries, forges, cobblers, saddleries – as did shops. In modern supermarkets most things are packaged and therefore smell-proofed, but when items were sold loose the smells were distinctive, sometimes pleasant, sometimes not. Throw away the plastic wrapping and you might smell tea, coffee, wet fish, bread, cheese, washing soda, carbolic soap (often sold by weight and cut off the block like cheese), candles and vinegar.
Think how many types of smoke you might have smelt – bonfires, domestic coal fires, tobacco smoke (pipe and tobacco and cigars in the first half of the nineteenth century, cigarettes in the second half), the sharp-smelling smoke of recently snuffed candles, incense in High Anglican and Catholic churches. Domestic and industrial smoke fed the sulphurous fogs that afflicted major cities. (See the opening pages of Dickens’s Bleak House.)
Domestic smells would have included blackleaded fire ovens, Macassar oil, camphor, damp sheets, soot, tobacco smoke (again!), mothballs, paraffin from lamps, paraffin wax or tallow from candles, dusty carpets (remember, no vacuum cleaners), boot polish, furniture polish, cod liver oil, sulphur matches, floor polish. And don’t forget good, honest sweat – if you watch old films it’s surprising how often you can spot sweat patches in armpits – not to mention halitosis, more common than not in days of poor dental hygiene.
Finally, Here’s an extract from Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium. The excursionists have arrived in London and enjoying (?) their first view of the Thames:
Seven miles of putrid fermentation produced an overwhelming stench of corruption and decay. No carriage crossed London Bridge with its windows open, no driver omitted to bury his nose in his muffler. Far from being the silver ribbon of the poet’s imagination, the Thames was a midden, whose greenish waters blended the outpourings of soap boilers, slaughter men and bone grinders with the personal effluence of a million Londoners. At low tide the river deposited its bounty on the mud where it was picked over by ‘mudlarks’, who carried off their reeking trophies with whoops of delight. Even as we watched, a dead cat floated under the bridge. “And there’s another!” shouted Gabriel. “Ginger tom by the look of it.” Dodging between the carriage wheels, he dashed to the opposite parapet to watch the ginger tom continue his stately progress towards Greenwich.