[The following passage and cartoons come from the Hathi Trust online version of Charles L. Graves, Mr. Punch’s History of Modern England (1921). George P. Landow]

The late Mr. Henry Jephson, L.C.C., published in 1907 an exhaustive work on “The Sanitary Evolution of London.” He quotes Dickens's terrible description of one of the old intra mural churchyards, but makes no mention of Punch's services in the cause of London sanitation. They certainly deserved and deserve recognition, for he spared no effort to bring home to a wider public than that reached by Blue Books and Reports the intimate and deadly connexion between dirt and disease. As early as the year 1842 we find in his pages this gruesome but unexaggerated pen-picture of the Thames and its tributaries:—

Vauxhall contributes lime, Lambeth pours forth a rich amalgam from the yards of knackers and bone-grinders, Horseferry liberally gives up all its dead dogs, Westminster empties its treasures into the mighty stream by means of a common sewer of uncommon dimensions, the Fleet-ditch bears in its inky current the concentrated essences of Clerkenwell, Field-lane, Smithfield, Cowcross—and is, by means of its innumerable branches, augmented by the potent ingredients of St. Giles's, Somers-town, Barbican, St. Luke's, and the surrounding districts. The fluids of the Whitechapel slaughter houses call in their transit through the Minories for the contributions of Houndsditch, Ratcliff Highway, Bevis Marks, and Goodman's Fields, and thus richly laden pour their delicious slime into the Thames by means of the Tower-ditch. Finally, the Surrey side yields the refuse of tar-works and tan-yards, and it is allowed by all, that the people of Deptford, Woolwich, and those situated in the lower course of the stream, get the Thames water (which here sustains six different characters) in the highest perfection.

The “Silent-Highway”-Man

The cartoon, The “Silent Highway”-Man, was published in 1858, but it is, perhaps, the best of the many pictorial comments on the above text. The noisome state of the Serpentine —“a lake of mere manure”—constantly affronted Punch's sensitive nose. Insanitary Smithfield and squalid Covent Garden elicit dishonourable mention from the early 'forties onward. But it was in 1849, the year of the cholera and typhus visitation, that his crusade against London filth—“Plague, Pestilence and Co.”—began in earnest. The evil is traced to the triple Source of bad drainage, overcrowded intramural burial grounds, and the unchecked pollution of the river. Punch salutes Mr. G. A. Walker, the author of “Gatherings from Graveyards,” as a public benefactor for his zeal in endeavouring to secure the abolition of intramural interments, and tilts savagely at ob structive Boards of Guardians, vestry clerks, and extortionate undertakers, who profited by the maintenance of the abuse. He gives us an “Elegy written in a London Churchyard,” on a victim of an epidemic brought on by preventable dirt; he exhibits “the water that John drinks"; he represents Hamlet soliloquizing in a London graveyard; and in 1849 he suggests the revision of street nomenclature in accordance with official acquiescence in the then existing dominion of dirt.

Though by no means an enthusiastic admirer of the Duke of Wellington, Punch confesses that he would like to see him appointed Sanitary Dictator. The Thames, with its “acres of cesspool,” is likened to “a fetid Dead Sea.” Yet Punch refused to lay the blame at the door of Lord John Russell or the Government, who were held guilty by the Morning Herald for the twelve thousand deaths from cholera in London. The real criminals were to be found elsewhere. The ravages of typhus and cholera in 1849 have been surpassed in recent years by those of influenza, but the toll was heavy, and heaviest among the poor:—

For three sad months Britannia mourned her children night and day,
For three sad months she strove in vain the pestilence to stay;
Medicine, helpless, groped and guessed, and tried al arts to save,
But the dead carried with them their secret to the grave.

Death sat at the gaunt weaver's side, the while he plied the loom;
Death turned the wasting grinder's wheel, as he earn'd his bread and doom;
Death, by the wan shirtmaker, plied the fingers to the bone;
Death rocked the infant's cradle, and with opium hushed its moan.

The Poor Child’s Nurse

The Metropolitan Internments Bill, introduced in 1850, was a much-needed reform, and furnished Punch with an occasion for free-spoken denunciation of “King Cholera's friends,” Boards of Guardians, and other obstructives who “laugh to scorn doctors and drains, and uphold the great cause of dirt.” His method of dealing with the offenders is generally direct: sometimes it takes the form of extravagant irony, as in the “account of my travels in search of self-government”:—

What is it to me that fever is never absent from these places— that infants do not rear, and men die before their time—that sickness engenders pauperism—that filth breeds depression, and depression drives to drink? What do you mean by telling me that cholera slew in Rotherhithe its 205 victims in every 10,000, in St. Olave's its 181, / in St. Saviour's its 153, in Lambeth its 120, while in the Strand it carried off only 35, in Kensington 33, in Marylebone 17, and in Hampstead 8, out of the same number? Still, British landlords did what they liked with their own, and self-government is unimpaired. The satellites and slaves of an encroaching centralization are kept at arm's length, and if they have succeeded in putting down sewers, at least we have triumphed in not laying our house-drains into 'em.

It is with pride, therefore, I repeat, that whatever may be the case in the country (where I regret to see the hateful Public Health Act seems to be extending its ravages), in London we are still enjoying the enormous, the invaluable privileges of self-government, and that if Epidemic Cholera should visit us again, we may con fidently show him to his old haunts in 1832 and 1849, and so convince him that, in this free country, he, too, is at liberty “TO DO WHAT HE LIKES WITH HIS OWN.” [150-54]


Graves, Charles L. Mr. Punch’s History of Modern England. London: Cassell, 1921. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of California Library.

Last modified 10 October 2019