The past is another (smellier) country

Hubbub
June 15, 2007

Emily Cockayne has written a book about the offended senses of the citizens of 17th and 18th-century towns. They were engaged in a perpetual battle against dust, smut, soot and excreta; their skin was ravaged by the marks of disease and chafed by rough fabrics; they regularly had to eat food that was rotten or adulterated; the noise around them was magnified by unregulated industrial processes, increased traffic, animals swarming the streets and drunken revellers; their cities smelt rank because of the primitive means of waste disposal; negotiating the streets was a nightmare because of traffic congestion, overhanging signs and encounters with the pullulating poor and uncontrolled dogs.

One of the great virtues of the work is the sense of how brute material realities affected ordinary people's lives. Open shop fronts meant goods were accessible to customers, but also to insects; foodstuffs could be contaminated at every stage in their production; many industrial processes exposed practitioners to noxious chemicals and fumes; many of the poor worked outdoors where they were horribly subject to the vagaries of the climate; water supplies were frequently polluted because waste disposal was rudimentary.

The conventional narrative of urban improvement is muted. London may have been subjected to street widening and more uniform building frontages after the Great Fire, but many of the new houses were jerry-built. Measures may have been taken to improve city lighting, but the continuing use of crude animal oils in the lamps of the new private companies still gave off rather inadequate light. If there was change it came very late in the day, and it was partial, contested, patchily enforced, tending to benefit only the rich, and unsurprisingly it did not keep pace with changing sensibilities: if things improved, people wanted more.

The narrative of improvement is replaced by that of social differentiation.

Such steps as were taken to remove offences to the senses benefited the wealthier sort to a disproportionate degree. Only the rich had access to noise-reducing building innovations or the opportunities for improved hygiene that might reduce skin irritations. For many of the elite, the poor became the main source of their sensory unease; the destitute and street filth were synonymous. It would have been helpful to have seen the argument developed with more topographical specificity; there is little sense of the areas inhabited by rich and poor and their relationship to each other.

Cockayne admits at the outset that "the experiences presented... are unashamedly skewed towards the negative"; her book concentrates on the "dislikes and distastes" of English people, and she is relentless in their pursuit. But is such unashamed selectivity justified? We learn a lot about what offended contemporaries, but little about what delighted the eye, savoured sweetly or sounded harmoniously. No one in these towns and cities seems to have had a wholesome experience, and it remains difficult to understand what contemporaries found dirty, ugly, cacophonous, smelly or unsavoury without considering what they found clean, beautiful, melodious, sweet or wholesome.

Cockayne's method relies on the juxtaposition of material from disparate sources. Diary accounts, popular pamphlets, literary accounts and prints are all pressed into service, along with a peppering of material generated by the machinery of civic regulation. She provides a source-mine of lively quotations, and we are bludgeoned into submission by their sheer volume.

But there is very little criticism of the underlying sources. Hogarth prints are treated as snapshots of city streets; their satirical and propagandistic purposes are not explored; nor are they set against other more positive (and doubtless misleading) streetscapes.

It is true that she recognises that Tobias Smollett's creation, Matthew Bramble, is likely to have exaggerated the scale of adulterated food, and that there is a nod of acknowledgement of the problems of using Ned Ward's London Spy as a handbook to the city, but the repeated citation of these "authorities" comes to have a beguiling effect on the reader.

Interdisciplinarity, an eclectic approach to source materials, and accessibility to popular audiences: these are all virtues of Cockayne's approach, but the price tag is a loss of perspective and fuzziness about the processes of change.

Ian W. Archer is fellow and tutor in modern history, Keble College, Oxford.

Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England 1600-1770

Author - Emily Cockayne
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 355
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780300112146

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