From 1820 to 1914, British history entered a period subsequently known as the Victorian Era.

These were the years that roughly corresponded to the reign of Queen Victoria, hence the term. Thanks to imperial holdings and intensive industrialization, Britain was a powerful expanding franchise.

The economy was stable and growing, supported by working-class people who made up 80% of the population. London was the capital, the hub of commerce, and the industrial center of the greatest empire ever known.

Throughout the 19th century, the people of London underwent a massive growth from 1 million to around six times larger. London was exceedingly wealthy but at the same time disgustingly filthy.

The infrastructure of London, which had pretty much been unchanged in centuries, was not quite ready for such growth of population and all its byproducts.

Toxic black mud covered the streets, dense smoke from the factories filled the atmosphere, rotting garbage clogged the alleys, cesspools were overflowing, and the flowers in the cemeteries gave a stench as awful as the corpses underneath.

For the citizens, rich and poor, even maintaining personal hygiene was a genuine endeavor.

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10 /10 The Bumbledom

It wouldn’t be much beyond reason to say that Victorian London became a victim of its growth and success.

Take the rubbish collection program for example. The responsibility for city streets’ cleanliness fell upon the vestries, also known as the Bumbledom, named after Mr. Bumble – the meddlesome self-important official in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

These committees appointed private contractors to do the cleaning, a job many were willing to do at no cost because they could make money from the rubbish.

They sold dead cats to furriers, old iron to luggage makers, and manure for food.

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9 /10 A Phoenix City

The most valuable waste of them all was cinders and ashes for sale to brickmakers whose products were constantly in high demand in a city growing as rapidly as London.

It was a popular joke that London was a Phoenix, an immortal bird of Greek mythology that rises from its ashes. Bricks made from recycled cinders and ashes became sought-after commodities.

Charles Dickens likened the business model to the Golden Dustman (from Our Mutual Friend), who made a handsome profit from an otherwise unflattering work.






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8 /10 Garbage Mountain

As the city grew more prominent, the simple supply and demand economics were on the side of the dust collectors.

Private contractors who had previously worked for free were no longer interested in collecting rubbish other than cinders and ashes.

Every bit of trash on the streets and alleys went uncollected as a result. It didn’t take long for London to have mountains of garbage all around the corners and anywhere else in between.

The vestries were now forced to find another way to dispose of the trash. Dumping the trash outside the city was one solution. Incineration was another.

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7 /10 Mud Of Dung

Major cities worldwide, even in modern times, are in a constant struggle to stay clean.

During the Victorian era, London was known for many great things, but all the achievements were tainted with a reputation as having the dirtiest streets in the civilized world.

The mud in London’s streets was black, partly due to the soot in the air and mostly because it was horse dung.

During the late 19th century, London needed some 300,000 horses to keep the city moving, which meant the streets collected 1,000 tons of waste each day and countless gallons of urine.

6 /10 The Smell Of Human Waste

London had 200,000 cesspools all around the city, but they were not enough to contain the excrement of millions of people. The introduction of water closets led to the cesspools being quickly filled up.

All the sewage that should have stayed inside the underground container was overflowing into the cellars and inevitably onto the streets.

By 1849, at least 3,000 homes in London suffered from the stench of human waste. Of course, the awful smell did not discriminate at all. Even grand establishments, including Buckingham Palace, couldn’t escape the polluted air.

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5 /10 Elongated Cesspool

London’s ancient sewers were designed for rainwater, not wastewater. But amidst the overflowing sewage, people began connecting their cesspools to the sewers illegally.

River Thames, where all the sewers drained, turned into the world’s most giant glorified open cesspool.

Since water companies took their water from the river, their customers unknowingly received diluted human excrement for laundering, cooking, and drinking.

Despite regular outbreaks of cholera, health risks from drinking dirty water were not yet fully understood. People were more concerned about the stench because they believed that awful smells, not the water, could spread disease.

4 /10 Effluvia Of Death

The disease claimed more lives in a city where population growth seemed unstoppable, and sanitation remained troubling. London was overcrowded, and so were its urban graveyards.

While the cellars, the streets, the river, and the sewers all smelled filthy, the urban cemetery was the worst. One medical officer in London described the smell as an odor of death.

Rooms for new corpses were hard to come by, so the coffins were stacked on top of each other in 20ft deep shafts, the topmost being mere inches from the surface.

Long-buried corpses were often disturbed to make room for newcomers.

3 /10 Miasmatic Filth

One gravedigger described that the smell of a cesspool was rose-water in comparison to the stench of graves. The disposal of the dead had been a long-standing problem in 19th century London.

Burial was the norm as cremation was still a peculiar foreign custom. When there was nowhere else to move the existing coffins, gravediggers had little choice but to do sloppy exhumations.

Bones were scattered among the tombstones, and smashed coffins were just another type of commodity sold as firewood. By the 1940s, urban graveyards were primarily considered a danger to public health.

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2 /10 The Great Unwashed

From about 1830 to the rest of the century, the working-class of London earned themselves a condescending nickname of the “great unwashed” for the apparent reason.

Staying clean was a real struggle in Victorian London because no one had access to clean water. Bathrooms were not a common feature in houses until the second half of the 19th century.

Bathing was a luxury affordable only to the wealthy minority. Everyone had to either buy water from pub owners by the bucket or fetch it from the parish pump. The poor had to make do with washing their faces and hands.

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1 /10 Canopy Of Vapor

The air in London was so polluted that the city became known as “The Big Smoke.” The only atmosphere people knew it was the gray canopy of vapor that covered the entire city.

At times, people struggled to breathe, and opening the window only meant letting the soot in.

Despite years of crusades against the foul stench, some Londoners were not convinced that smoke carried equally harmful health risks.

Every color turned black in the streets of Victorian London. Things started to improve when, eventually, the house sewer system was designed so that it could be connected to the domestic chimney. 

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