'Foul city' had green lungs

March 29, 2002

In the 1860s, John Ruskin wrote: "That great foul city of London - rattling, growling, smoking, stinking - ghastly heap of fermenting brickwork, pouring out poison at every pore..."

But the image of Victorian London as Britain's most squalid, unhealthy city is about to be turned on its head by the work of a Portsmouth University population geographer, writes Caroline Davis.

Graham Mooney's analysis of mortality data shows that despite housing over one-eighth of the national population, when it came to its death rate London was more like a small city such as Norwich than like Manchester or Liverpool.

Professor Mooney explained: "London was a large city, but this meant that parts of it were relatively unpopulated and practically rural in character, at least in the mid-19th century. This may help account for the low level of mortality overall in London."

Other key factors include the relatively early construction of an intercepting sewer system and the establishment of a citywide system of infectious disease hospitals. London was also early in establishing a network of health officers offering advice to the public.

The growth of the suburbs saw the healthy and wealthy move from the core of the city into smaller districts that maintained low mortality levels.

As one of the healthiest cities in Victorian Britain, London presented Professor Mooney with a good dataset from which to investigate the gender factors affecting life expectancy.

In the second half of the 19th century mortality shifted from being governed by epidemics and endemic infectious disease to chronic, degenerative conditions.

Studying the effects of gender on this shift has been complicated by the fact that there was always a high mortality rate for girls and young women. Many infectious diseases caused more deaths in girls than in boys, so when the shift occurred, female mortality was no higher than for males in London.

The research is published in the International Journal of Population Geography .

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