Monuments and Dust

Monuments and Dust

London Times: 8 Feb 1850

Sanitary Condition of London

Outdoor legislation is becoming quite a recognized element of our constitution. Manchester orators have relied so successfully on this method of communicating an impulse to Government, that the example has been followed in the others quarters, and we now find a metropolitan audience addressed with these views by the bishop of the diocese and the member for the county. No person will be likely to deny that there was an urgent call for the expedient. When, in deference to the just demands of the population, the act was passed for the preservation and improvement of the public health, the district which principally needed its aid was actually excepted from its operation, and the inhabitants of this metropolis found that the benefits of their agitation, though communicated to the country at large, stopped just short of their own doors. To counteract the influences which produced this anomaly, and to supply HER MAJESTY'S Government with that warrant for action which alone they can be presumed to require, a public meeting was held on Wednesday, at which the conclusions of the best representatives of popular wishes were very plainly expressed, and it was resolved to "keep the grievance complained of under the eyes of Parliament till it had been thoroughly remedied." We are not proposing on the present occasion to follow the right rev. and noble speakers through their testimonies or arguments. The subject is one admitting of infinite varieties of descriptions and expression, but we intend to take a very matter-of-fact view of it, and to place it before the reader's judgement without any of those rhetorical aids which are so abundantly suggested by the facts involved.

The sanitary condition of London at this moment is such, that one half of the deaths produced by a certain class of diseases can be attributed, without any room for doubt, to the want of the commonest appliances of health. The average weekly number of these deaths is about 250. By the visitation of the cholera London lost 16,000 of its inhabitants, 8,000 of whom, it is computed on the same evidence which determines all other proceedings of every-day life, might have been saved by attention to the precautions which it is now sought to enforce. We will not presume any such indifference to human life as would be shown by an apathetic acquiescence in a state of things like this. Were we to go no further, our case would surely be a strong one; but we must take the liberty, for the moment, of putting the mere point of humanity out of the question, and of conducting the argument as if it signified nothing to the public good whether the yearly victims to "zymotic" diseases were reckoned by hundreds or thousands.

In the first place, people who die must be buried, and in nine-tenths of the cases now referred to must be buried at the expense of the parish. Nor does the parochial liability either commence or terminate simply at this dismal point. Before a man so dies he has been ill, and during this illness has neither been able to maintain himself nor support his family -- results which contribute their quota to the augmentation of the rates. After his death he leaves a widow or children, as it may be, and these again are chargeable to the parish for a greater or less portion of their lives. These are direct and immediate consequences of those sanitary conditions of the dwelling houses which form the subject of the present remonstrance, and which tend inevitably to incapacitate a man for supporting himself and family. We may now follow their operation a little further, still confining ourselves to results which are matter of common everyday observation. Misery and privation at home drive people into the streets, and callings then pursued in the streets are not often honest. The homeless orphan becomes a young thief, and, besides the contributions which he levies on society, exacts a further expenditure in the shape of police and gaols. Perhaps he is ultimately transformed, in which case the burden of his maintenance only ceases with his death. Even supposing that a man's constitution bears up against the influence of a dwelling house "absolutely unfit," as Mr. SIMON phrases it, "for human habitation," yet still the evil goes on. Domestic discomfort infallibly produces bad habits, bad habits are developed into positive crimes, and all the costly course of a criminal life is run over again.

Some trouble has been taken to reduce these results to plain figures; though not very necessarily, for every ratepayer can work out the sum upon his own fingers. However, for mere curiosity's sake, we will give one or two of the deductions. The estimated cost of the cholers, actually assessed, upon the community of this metropolis as palpably as if it had been levied by rates, was 1,060,096l. -- widows' and orphans' charges not included. Further, it must be always remembered that though these awful plagues are only seen at intervals, agents little less destructive are perpetually at work. Disease of the class particularly amenable to sanitary control carry off annually about 13,000 of the metropolitan population, entailing a yearly cost, according to the same estimate of about 800,000l., exclusive, still, of the less immediate consequences of individual misery. When we come to figures on the other side we are told that "all the most important sanitary improvements" could be effectually applied to one of the very worst localities of the whole metropolis "at an average weekly rate of 1s. 3d. On each house." Surely this proposition is worth considering?

The projected "improvements" are of no very romantic character. No intention is entertained of any picturesque revivals of cottage architecture. The novelties to be introduced into the tenements of the poor are recapitulated with all the formality and minutences of a contractor's estimate -- to wit, 1, a sink; 2, a drain; 3, a floor; and when to these acquisitions has been added a share or right in a common dustbin the proposed indulgence is complete. Fifty shillings a-year for enhancement would provide all the requisite means. We promised to avoid any embellishments of rhetoric in stating this very simple case, but we really find it hard to resist the temptation. Never was there such a paradoxical course as we are <?>! Taking domestic misery, with all its melancholy sequel, sickness, destitution, crime, local rates, national expenditure, penal laws, and penal colonies, were there ever upon earth such liabilities incurred for the sake of sinks and dustbins? If a man cannot extend his vision quite to these remote results, he can at lest trace the first of them in the calls of the rate-collector. Why do not the prelates and gentlemen who assembled on Wednesday last to testify to the state of their parishes at once boldly style themselves "Financial Reformers," and describe their object as a "proposal for reducing the local taxation of the country by 2,000,000l. a-year?" We are sure there are no financial reformers who would better deserve the title, or who would so certainly realize their aims.

It would be thought not very easy to find any objectors to these schemes, but they present themselves from two quarters, in one of which pure selfishness, and in the other mistaken tenacity, supplies the ruling motives. The owners of small tenements object to the proposed ratings, and are loud in defence of their "rights of property." So just and precious in English eyes is the respect for these rights that even their abuse meets more toleration than it deserves; but, omitting this point for the present, it has been abundantly shown by the operation of the model lodging-houses that wholesome dwellings are immeasurable more productive, and constitute a far better property, than the miserable hovels in question. Where none is, even a landlord, like a King, must lose his rights, and the proposed sanitary improvements would simply furnish the cheapest possible method of insuring a steady income. The next class of objectors dislike not the end, nor even the means, but the agents. They are reasonably suspicious of a "Board," and, above all, a central board. We speak with the greatest respect and sympathy of these highly natural prepossessions, but so simple and stern is the present necessity, that if the requisite reform is not carried out by local authorities, it must by accomplished by Government. Those who object to the edicts of a commission must forthwith do their duty themselves.