Tuesday, December 13, 2011

picks from picard: miscellaneous fun facts

I am currently reading Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870 by Liza Picard.  Although I have not yet finished this book, I have already learned so much.  I thought it would be appropriate to do for Ms. Picard's well-researched book, which depends on primary sources such as Henry Mayhew and others, to write blog posts about certain topics much as Scott did with the series of posts about crime and criminals in Victorian London entitled "The Mayhew Files."

I will start with Victorian clothing next week.  For now I want to pick a rather random selection of facts I discovered so far from reading this book:

  • The first dentist drill worked by clockwork was invented in 1863.
  • Queen Victoria used chloroform for several of her childbirths to reduce the pain of labor.  
  • The Thames was terribly polluted and stank, especially in the first part of the 19th century.  The problem came to a head when the Houses of Parliament had to be evacuated in June 1858 due to the terrible stench rising from the sewage and trash in the Thames.  This event became known as The Great Stink.
  • If you thought 21st century traffic jams were bad, try 19th century ones, with no right-of-way laws, traffic signals such as lights and stop signs, and solid gridlock in some streets where carriages, carts, and pedestrians shoved their way in any open spot available.  There were policemen at some intersectons regulating traffic, but Picard doesn't indicate how useful this was.  
  • The first traffic light was installed in 1868 around the Houses of Parliament, with a red lamp for "stop" and a green lamp for "go."  
  • There were 78 toll bars or turnpike gates within six miles of Charing Cross, which were not cleared away until 1864.
  • When Queen Victoria took a train from Slough to London in 1842, the 44 mph train ride was not enjoyable- she asked her husband to tell the rail company to "please go more slowly in the future."
  • Ever heard of an "earth closet?"  Henry Moule created one in 1860 as a different take on getting rid of human waste than the water closet.  According to Picard it looked and operated like this:
There was a hopper behind the seat, containing fine, dry earth.  It had to be dry, to ensure that it was free-running: suitable earth could be dried in the kitchen oven.  A substantial wooden slab like a low table on four legs had a nicely rounded hole in the middle, with a metal pan fixed under it, and a smaller hole convenient to the occupant's right hand, housing a handle which could be raised to release a flow of earth from the hopper into the receptacle under the seat.  It was simple to maintain and repair, easy to clean, and the floor under it could be swept and scrubbed.
  • Single, poverty-stricken parents could sell offspring which they either didn't want or couldn't afford to take care of to a "baby farmer" for £12-20. The fate of the child? Not always murder, but more often than not left in a different part of the city to die or become some good Samaritan's responsibility.
  • Umbrellas were considered to be effeminate- therefore men did not commonly use them until about 1860, when thousands were being sold in the streets for use in wet weather.  
  • On that note, one could also "rent" an umbrella for a few hours in case of an unexpected downpour from the heavens.
  • A weak solution of arsenic could be used to remove facial hair- a good excuse to keep it in the home, available to a poisoner.

1 comment:

  1. The baby farmer thing is really creepy. I do love the part about the Great Stink though - hilarious!