[Those curious about the history of the Victorian Web (which began before the WWW in another hypermedia environment) might be interested to learn that this document was one of the very first contributed by someone outside Brown University.]

Decorative Initial Despite its wealth and social prominence the family found that it was unable to isolate itself from the stinks, pollution, and health hazards of the day. As newly-weds they had wanted the latest sanitary appliances, but the inexperience of the workmen putting in the water closet resulted in the waste overflowing into the rainpipe and down the dressing-room window. The cesspools beneath their Thames-side residence were notoriously foul, even by the standards of the day and when, at last, they had a new drainage system installed, the stench from the old cesspools remained and made parts of the dwelling almost uninhabitable. Some twenty years later the sewers blocked up after heavy rains and became 'most offensive and putrid.' Although living by the Thames was certainly most scenic, whenever the river rose their lawns were saturated with the raw sewage, which habitually floated on the surface of the water. Resigned to this inevitability, they simply had the lawns raked and the filth shovelled back into the river. In dry weather, on the other hand, the Thames' muck was left high and dry along the banks and gave off an appalling odour.

Probably as a consequence of the poor drainage system, the father contracted one of the most lethal and dreaded of what the Victorians called 'filth diseases'--'bowel fever' or typhoid — and after struggling through a crisis on Friday, 13th December, succumbed the following day. Themother had contracted typhoid herself when she was sixteen and quite understandably she dreaded the disease which was a major killer. She was also morbidly superstitious, so one can imagine her horror when her eldest son came down with typhoid and reached a crisis also on 13 December, exactly ten years after the father's. But to her immense relief and amazement, her son pulled through and was miraculously snatched back from, as she put it, 'the very verge of the grave. . . hardly anyone had been known to recover who had been so ill as he was.' December 14, the day that had made her like so many others in that era, a young widow, always filled her with foreboding. Perhaps her superstitious dread was justified, for on that day one of her daughters, Alice, died of a disease, diphtheria, which was as puzzling as it was common (it also carried off her grand-daughter). She no doubt consoled herself with the thought that compared to many mothers she had been fortunate, for of her nine children not one had died in childbirth, but then she had had the best and most experienced doctors and midwives.

In other, considerably smaller ways the family was affected by the environmental abuses and dangers of the day. In 1858 a family 'pleasure cruise' on the Thames was abruptly terminated by the stench from the river. Many years later the bucolic pleasures of their South Coast home were rudely disturbed by the fumes and stench of industrial pollution from a local cement factory. Influential as the family was, its indignant protest to the Local Government Board failed to get results.

This family, with its troubles, tragedies, and near-tragedies from bad sewers and filth diseases, forced to live amidst stink, and water and air pollution, was the Royal Family. However remote it might appear to be, entrenched in its great residences in London, Windsor, and Osborne, it could not remain untouched by the forces which played so large and debilitating, and often so deadly a role in the lives of ordinary Victorians.

Cartoons about sanitation, drains, and toilets


Wohl, Anthony S. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983. Pp. 1-2.

Created 1989

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