Category Archives: Medicine & health

The Agonies of Gout

Another cartoon I acquired with some sheets of a 19thc scrapbook was this one of an unrepentant port drinker ignoring advice from the vicar about his gout.

“My dear Friend don’t drink that filthy stuff, its yr greatest enemy,” says the cleric.

“But you know we are commanded to love our enemies, so here goes!” retorts his parishioner, watched by the bust of the Duke of Wellington on the mantelpiece.

Gout was a painful problem in the 18th and 19th century and is still just as painful today, although less common. We now know that it is caused by a build-up of uric acid crystals in the joints leading to inflammation and swelling and severe pain. It used to be thought a result of drinking too much port, but the NHS website is less clear about causes, or why, with people with similar diets, some are affected and some are not. Certainly heavy consumption of red meats and offal and alcohol are implicated, and that fits the diet of most well-off Georgian males!

The print shows the sufferer’s heavily bandaged foot propped up on a simple gout stool which is constructed from two pieces of wood, often padded. It protects the foot and the angle adjusts automatically as the sufferer shifts in his chair.

I turned to The House Book; or, Family Chronicle of Useful Knowledge, and Cottage Physician (1826), of which I have a disintegrating and obviously heavily-used copy, to see what remedies might be used at the time.

To be honest, it is no help at all on the causes and even less on cures. It quotes Theophrastus who believed that music cured the disease, the professor of mathematics at Bologna who turned to geometry on the advice of Galileo as a diversion from the pain, and cheers up its readers who may be suffering by observing that, “The torture of the gout must be dreadful, as it has often driven its victims to terminate their miseries by a violent death.” Dogs do not come out of this well – having a dog licking the afflicted part “is said to assuage the pain” or you can take your dog to bed with you in the hope the symptoms will transfer to the unfortunate animal. The author does observe that gout afflicts the rich far more than the poor, which “is not difficult to explain.” He then fails to explain it, although we can deduce that it is because of a diet richer in meat and strong alcohol.

The book does give the ingredients of a number of patent medicines, including Wilson’s Gout Tincture which “is merely an infusion of colchicum, or meadow saffron, as satisfactorily proved by Dr. Williams of Ipswich.” Colchicum is still used in homeopathic remedies for gout.

 

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The Foundling Hospital

Although the prints in this post are much earlier, the Foundling Hospital would have been well known – and in fact a fashionable place to visit – right through the 19th century. It was founded in 1742 by the man in the portrait below, Captain Thomas Coram, master mariner and shipwright, who was appalled by the plight of the homeless children he saw on the streets of London when he came there to live.

thomas-coram

Coram worked hard for almost twenty years to alleviate the plight of orphaned children, or those abandoned by their parents “to die on a dunghill” before he secured sufficient support from ladies of “Nobility and Distinction” to provide a permanent home for them and a charter from George II in 1739.

After an unsatisfactory beginning in Hatton Garden a large plot – 56 acres – was bought in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, then open fields close to the road to Hampstead and Highgate villages. Work began on a grand hospital to the designs of Theodore Jacobsen and the first children – the boys – moved into the east wing in 1742. The west wing, for the girls, was ready by 1745.

foundling-hospital

The image above is a detail from “A View of the Foundling Hospital” published soon after the building was finished. Such magnificence might seem a waste of money that could have been better spent, but it was essential to attract the patronage of as many fashionable and wealthy people as possible and this fine and eminently respectable building became not only a place to visit but also one of worship in its chapel. Hogarth, and then other major artists, contributed paintings which were also an attraction to visitors who, once they were inside, could be solicited for donations.

Handel was another major benefactor. He donated an organ in 1750, gave concerts there, trained the choir and raised over £7,000 by performances of his Messiah.

The children were, at first, accepted as and when there was room on a first-come, first-taken basis but this proved unworkable because the numbers seeking admission were simply too great. Instead it became a lottery with mothers drawing a ball from a bag. White gave the child immediate admittance, providing they passed a medical exam, red put them on a waiting list and black was rejection. Amongst the most harrowing objects to see in all of London are in the collection of tokens mothers left with their child in the faint hope that one day they could come back to claim them. You can find out more about them at the Foundation’s website.

Once the children reached the age of fourteen they were apprenticed, joined the army or were found positions as domestic servants. Only  tiny handful were ever reunited with their mothers.

In 1926 the hospital moved to Redhill and then to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, where its buildings are now Ashlyns school. A smaller building was put up on part of the site and it retains one of the staircases and many of the furnishing and paintings from the original. Even part of the perimeter wall and gates can still be seen – have a look on StreetView at the junction of Guilford Street and Guilford Place, looking north, and you will recognize the centre front feature in the print above, although without its ironwork.

 

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The Earl of Wittering Goes to the Seaside Part 9: Adventures in the Bath House

bath house 4

The Earl of Wittering marshals his family after breakfast to decide on the morning’s activities. ‘Porrett has made a recce,’ he announces. (He commanded the local militia for four months and, in his imagination, is forever a soldier…) ‘The bath house is up to standard and there is the choice of taking a machine and having a dunking or using the facilities – plunge pools, shower baths, steam rooms and so forth.’

‘I would like to go in the sea,’ young Arthur announces. ‘I will search for marine life.’

‘In that case Porrett will accompany you.’

Porrett attempts to look delighted at the challenge and not like a man who has already been in the sea once that morning.

‘I will bathe too,’ says Emily casting Porrett a languishing look. ‘I am already quite over-warm.’ Quite how she proposes to get close to Porrett once in the water she has no idea, but pretending to drown might be a good start…

‘Over-warm’ is putting it mildly so far as her grandfather’s besotted secretary is concerned. The sea, he fears, will probably boil around him if she is in it too.

‘I intend sampling the warm bath,’ Lady Wittering announces. ‘You will no doubt wish to join me, Emilia,’ she adds to her daughter in law in clear command.

‘I’ll investigate the billiards room. May try a shower later,’ Viscount Ditherstone remarks. If nothing else, Porrett thinks, the wretched man will be investigating just how separate the male and female facilities are.

‘And I will go for a dunking, I suppose,’ the Earl grumbles. ‘No need for you after all, Porrett, so long as I’m with Arthur.’ Fortunately he does not see the expression on his granddaughter’s face. ‘We’ll go in fifteen minutes.’

The family is completely delighted with the facilities of the bath house (except for Emily, who is still sulking). The two older ladies take themselves off to the warm baths where Lady Ditherstone, at least, imagines herself as a beauteous Roman lady about to bathe in asses’ milk –

hot baths

The bathers, Emily chaperoned by her very reluctant maid, troop downstairs to their respective bathing machines and Porrett trails after the Viscount into the billiards room. He is not going to succumb to the temptation to take one of the telescopes out onto the balcony, he tells himself as he fidgets around, glancing at the well-stocked selection of newspapers and journals while keeping half an ear cocked for the click of billiard balls.

Silence, except for the snores of some elderly gentleman over by the bookshelves. Ditherstone has vanished. Porrett hastens out. Goodness knows what trouble the amorous lord is about to get himself into. No-one is visible in the vestibule but the faint click of boot heels comes from the steps under an arch labelled Ladies’ Rooms. With true valour Porrett rushes down in pursuit, just as a piercing shriek echoes up. In front of him is a door labelled Shower Bath. It is open and just visible are the tips of Lord Ditherstone’s brown tail coat. Porrett seizes them in both hands, drags backwards and yanks the door closed, finding himself embracing an armful of very irritated Viscount.

shower bath

‘Thank Heavens, my lord! You had wandered into the ladies’ section in error,’ he gasps, somewhat impeded by an aristocratic elbow in the stomach as the Viscount storms back upstairs. ‘Really,’ he adds severely to the gawping attendants as they reach the vestibule, ‘You should ensure the notices are more legible. His lordship has just been severely discommoded, as might any gentleman, especially a scholar such as his lordship with weak eyesight.’ The Viscount has occasionally been known to glance at the sporting press but that is as far as his scholarship extends.

‘Coffee and brandy,’ Ditherstone demands. ‘In the billiards room, immediately.’ Porrett follows him, fearing instant dismissal, and finds his hand taken and wrung in a painful clasp. ‘Good man, quick thinking. Two cups and glasses,’ he snaps as the waiter comes in. ‘Mr Porrett will be joining me.’ All Porrett can feel is intense relief that he will not be forced to leave the household, forced to say goodbye to Emily for ever…

The photograph at the top of the post is of the Greek Revival-style bath house at Ilfracombe. This was a popular style intended to create a link with the Classical world and impart intellectual respectability to the pleasures of the bath. The two other images are from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough (1813).

Discover more about the Georgian bath houses – the gyms and fitness clubs of their day in The Georgian Seaside

Next time the family take some exercise on the beach.

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The Earl of Wittering Plans His Summer

This May morning in 1816 the Gatwick family gather around the breakfast table in the Small Dining Room of their vast Mayfair mansion. It is obvious that the head of the family, the Earl of Wittering, has something on his mind, although the Countess of Wittering supposes it is only his bowels troubling him again. Like most of the upper classes of his age his diet – heavy on meat and alcohol, low on fruit and vegetables – means that his lordship frequently feels liverish, or to put it more bluntly, he’s appallingly constipated. She makes a mental note to send off another order to Savory & Moore, chemists (by Royal Appointment) in New Bond Street. (Shown below) Thomas Field Savory is making his fortune after acquiring the patent for internationally best-selling laxative, Seidlitz powders but, naturally, she does not mention such a subject at the meal table.

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The Countess would much rather finish her toast and return to her sitting room where she is putting the final touches to a highly imaginative, and exceedingly dramatic, sketch of an Alpine pass. What she would really like would be to paint the sea. Ever since she read Edmund Burke’s tract On the Sublime and the Beautiful and learned that the ocean was “an object of no small terror” she has been fascinated by it.

On either side of the breakfast table sit the Earl’s heir, the Viscount Ditherstone (coughing, as is his irritating habit at breakfast) and his wife, flanked by their children, seventeen year old Emily and twelve year old Arthur. Ditherstone, ever tactless, enquires if there is anything on his father’s mind.

Porrett, the earl’s secretary has, it transpires, been making enquiries about his lordship’s intentions for the summer so that he can begin to put in place the arrangements and, for once, Lord Wittering is undecided. Normally, after the London Season the family embark on a lengthy round of summer visits to the far-flung branches of the family, their travels greatly eased by the splendid condition of the network of turnpike roads across the country. The tour would always culminate in two weeks spent toadying to his elderly, terrifying and exceedingly wealthy aunts. But the aunts had died that winter, their money left, as he had always desired, to their godson, Master Gatwick, the future earl. Now his lordship wonders if he really wants to spend three months travelling about before he can retire to his country estate for the autumn and set about slaughtering anything with fur, feathers or fins. What he would like to do is recover his health in a spa, as his father would have done, but Bath is hopelessly dull these days, quite out of fashion.

“Perhaps we should take a house at a seaside resort,” ventures his daughter-in-law. “I am sure the pure air would be a benefit to Ditherstone’s lungs.” Ever since she read that amusing novel Emma she has not been able to forget the phrase, The truth is, that in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be. And was it not the case that the great Mr Wordsworth was only able to write his beautiful verses “Upon Westminster Bridge” The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air… because he was amazed to find, for once, the atmosphere free of polluting smoke?

Ditherstone himself perks up. He rather fancies a dip or two in the briny. He’s heard exciting stories about the ladies bathing and what they might, or might not wear, to say nothing of amorous encounters in bathing rooms. And all kinds of dashers visit the seaside, so his bachelor friends tell him.

“Oh, Grandpapa,” Emily breathes. “I would love to go to the seaside.” She bats her eyelashes. “The south coast, they say, is so warm and quite delightful.” And, facing the enemy France, as it does, it is stuffed with troops. All those officers in scarlet coats. Oh, the opportunities for flirtation. (Below: tourists admire the militia parading at Cromer in Norfolk)

Cromer militia

Young Arthur extracts his nose from a scientific journal – he is showing an alarming tendency (in his grandfather’s opinion) towards natural philosophy and not manly sports. “The south coast, it said in a paper I was reading the other day, has much of interest to the fossilist and the mineralogist. I would like to go.”

The Earl glowers down the table. He doesn’t like change. On the other The Georgian Seaside Cover_MEDIUM WEBhand the sea-water cure sounds as though it would be helpful for what ails him. His wife keeps leaving prints of craggy cliffs and tossing waves about, so he supposes it would keep her happy and the rest of the family seemed keen enough. He would think on it.

What will the earl decide? Will the Gatwicks go to the seaside and, if so, to which resort? You can follow their summer adventures here over the next few months and read about the vibrant world of the early English seaside holiday (definitely not a Victorian invention!) in  The Georgian Seaside: the English resorts before the railways came.

Meanwhile, now the smog has gone, you can find Savory & Moore’s shop for yourself in Walk 2, Walking Jane vis1Band admire Wordsworth’s view in Walk 6, of Walking Jane Austen’s London

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Electrical Sparks, Icy Draughts and Pendulous Parts – Dr James Graham and the Celestial Bed

Catherine MacauleyPopular science has always attracted the gullible and those who prey on them and a combination of sex and science is an almost infallible recipe for making money. Or so the notorious Dr James Graham thought – and for a few years he was proved right.
Graham studied medicine in Edinburgh where he was born in 1745 and, although he does not appear to have taken the examinations, began to style himself Doctor. He sailed to Baltimore in 1769 where he encountered the new craze for electricity – Philadelphia was full of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rods – and began to form his theories for the prolongation of life and vigour.catherine-macauley
On his return to England in 1774 the “doctor” set up a practice in Bristol promoting health, long life and happiness through a regime of healthy living involving eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, taking exercise and ensuring bodily hygiene by the application of quantities of cold water. The basic routine would doubtless be approved by modern doctors and there is no evidence that it did not genuinely help his patients. But Dr Graham’s money-making twist was to add electricity, promoting it as a miraculous aid to long life and health.
He was so successful that he moved to Bath, by which time his approach was gaining a reputation for increasing vigour and especially for improving patients’ sex lives, helping cases of infertility and curing impotence by applying “Effluvia, Vapours and Applications ætherial, magnetic or electric.”
While in Bath he met Mrs Catherine Macauley, a 46 year old widow who was feted for her intellectual activities and egalitarian views. This meeting provided him with a fortuitous piece of PR when his brother, a 21 year old surgeon’s mate, was introduced to the lady and they married almost immediately. The resulting gossip and scandal was a wonderful advert for the older brother’s treatments – here was a middle aged woman who, rejuvenated, could satisfy her lusty young husband. The lady shown in the portrait (above right) would not appear to be someone much amused by such talk.
In July 1780, on the wave of celebrity that the Macauley scandal produced, Graham moved to London and opened the Temple of Health (or Temple of Hymen) in Adelphi Terrace, the hugely fashionable new development by the Adam brothers. (Shown below) Adelphi
The Temple’s centrepiece was a suggestively phallic electrical conductor with a pair of semi-globes attached. The whole place was scented, cunningly lit, luxurious and mysteriously erotic. Electricity was generated by a series of Leyden jars to produce sparks, flashes of lightning and spectacular effects and soon the Temple was hung about, as one visitor observed, with “walking sticks, ear trumpets, visual glasses etc left and placed as most honourable trophies by deaf, weak, paralytic and emaciated persons, cripples etc. who being cured had no longer need of such assistance.”
It proved so successful that Graham opened a second Temple at Schomberg House in Pall Mall with the infamous Celestial Bed, stuffed with wild oats and hair from the tails of, naturally, stallions. Draperies, lights, mirrors, organ music and perfume and the enticements of Vestina, Goddess of Health created an exotic sexual playground. Rumour has it that Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, played the role of Vestina, but this is now disputed.
Graham claimed that the bed, surrounded by lodestones or magnets, was an aid to pleasurable sex and the creation of healthy offspring. Charges to use it are said to range from 50 guineas to £100 a night.Celestial Bed
To quote one of his pamphlets, “The venereal act itself, at all times, and under every circumstance, is in fact no other than an electrical operation…those heart-piercing and irresistible glances shooting at critical moments from soul to soul are no other than electrical strokes or emanations.”
Nor was it all luxury. Dr Graham had not lost his enthusiasm for very cold water and recommended washing the genitals in it frequently, especially “…certain parts which next morning after a laborious night would be relaxed, lank, and pendulous, like the two eyes of a dead sheep dangling in a wet empty calf’s bladder, by the frequent and judicious use of the icy cold water, would be[come] like a couple of steel balls, of a pound apiece, inclosed in a firm purse of uncut Manchester velvet.”
For many people these claims fed into popular beliefs about Animal Magnetism and a new interest in the workings of the body. But more critical observers saw through his claims from the start – Horace Walpole remarked it was “the most impudent puppet-show of imposition I ever saw.”
By the 1780s debts and scepticism overcame Graham and he had to sell up. He fled to Edinburgh where he was gaoled for “publishing lascivious and indecent Advertisements & delivering wanton & Improper lectures.”
He gave up his electrical therapies and developed new theories on the virtues of mud baths which he claimed were the secret to immortality. Perhaps influenced by popular tracts on the virtues of sea bathing, which maintained that valuable mineral salts could be absorbed through the skin by immersion, he argued that soaking in mud would allow all the nutrients essential for life to be obtained. He claimed that he himself had lived for two weeks immersed in mud with only a little water to drink. The fact that this would be a miserable existence did not appear to have occurred to him.

SONY DSC
Somehow, by 1786, he was back in London in Panton Street, Soho, with an establishment promoting mud-bathing – demonstrated by semi-naked women.
He became steadily stranger and, in the grip of religious mania, founded “the New Jerusalem Church” which attracted no followers at all. His extreme behaviour escalated and eventually he was arrested in 1793 for persistently stripping off his clothes as he walked and handing the garments to the poor. The unfortunate Dr Graham died soon afterwards at the age of 49.
The connection of electricity, magnetism and sex did not however die out with the disappearance of the Celestial Bed. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, for example, included Miss Harriet Jones who practised the “Grahamitic method”. She was, apparently, a “desirable bed-fellow who after every stroke gives fresh tone and vigour to the lately distended parts.”
The red brick Schomberg House – without the Bed, unfortunately – can still be seen in Piccadilly on the South side, just past St James’s Palace. (Detail of the front shown right) Later it housed the upmarket and fashionable draper Harding, Howell and Co. (shown below. Ackermann’s Repository 1809)) but there are no reports of any beneficial electrical impulses lingering and the ladies shopping in the fabrics department appear decidedly calm.

Harding, Howel0001

 

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The Funeral of Mr Edward Comely 1811

On April 11th 1811 a funeral procession made its way up Gray’s Inn Lane (now Road) to the New Burial Ground of the parish of St Andrew’s, Holborn. The burial ground is still there and is St Andrew’s Gardens now.
The funeral was that of Mr Edward Comely who had died five days earlier on the 11th April and it was “performed” by Samuel Page, Undertaker, Auctioneer and Appraiser of 232, High Holborn.
005 funeral
I have not been able to find out anything about Edward Comely, other than to deduce that the scale of his funeral and the fact that he lived in a City parish make it likely that he was in trade, probably a as merchant or shopkeeper. His executor who paid the bill, very promptly, on 18th April, was James Meycock, who was probably the same man who appeared as a plaintiff in a burglary case at the Old Bailey in 1809. He was a haberdasher in Broad Street in the adjacent parish of St Giles.
Under the handsome billhead with its picture of a black-clad woman mourning next to a tomb in a churchyard is the detailed account which paints a vivid picture of the details of an early 19th century funeral. Spelling and capitalization are as given in the invoice.
A Strong Elm Coffin covered with fine Black Serge close drove with double Rows of the best Japanned Nails on a Double Flowered Plate & Urn. 6 large Cherubim Escutcheons with wrought handles sett off and decorated with enriched ornaments chas’d and Blk Japanned in the best manner. Lined and furnished. £5 10s
A fine crape Mattress 12s
A fine Crape Shroud Cap and Pillow 18s
3 [?] with the Ditto 6s
Strong screws making up the Body [of the coffin] 3s
The use of a Handsome velvet Pall 7s
A Hearse and Mourning Coach with Pairs [of horses] each 12s
2 Coachmens Cloaks 2s
2 Hatbands and gloves for Ditto 10s
2 Porters in proper dresses to stand at the door and walk in procession 12s
2 Hatbands and gloves for Ditto 10s
4 men to Bear the Corpse 10s
2 Mourners Cloaks 3s
2 Hatbands for use of Ditto 2s
2 hoods and scarves 4s
A man attending the funeral 5s
A hatband and gloves for Ditto 5s
Gravedigger 5s

This totalled £13 16s but a discount of 13s 6d (for prompt payment perhaps?) was given.
Church service etc £4 7s
Paid to Mr Peckring (the clergyman?) £1 9s
The total bill came to £18 18s 6d

Price comparisons are notoriously difficult to make, but at this time a footman in a great house would expect to earn between £25 and £35 a year.
Catherine Arnold in Necropolis: London and Its Dead notes that undertaking as a specific trade developed in the 18th century, probably as a reflection of changing attitudes towards death by the middle classes who both wanted to show a refined sensibility by displays of mourning and meditation on death and also to reflect their growing wealth and confidence by a fine display.
The coachmen, coffin bearers, porters and the ‘man attending the funeral’ – presumably the funeral director’s representative – must all be correctly attired in black cloaks and gloves, with black bands on their hats and with long black scarves, the hearse would move at walking pace and passers-by would have ample opportunity to admire the coffin, draped in its hired velvet pall.
Mourning for the family and relatives would be another major cost to be considered, although that merits a post of its own. However, until I manage to collect all my images and scan them, here is “Evening Mourning Dress” from Ackermann’s Repository December 1810. The afflicted lady sits all in black and white, mopping her eyes next to a suitably funereal urn. Her jewellery is black jet. Although she has dressed formally for the evening she does not seem to be looking forward to socialising, poor thing.

Mourning 1810 crop

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The Unsanitary Business of Sanitation – or, Would You Swim in This River?

What, you might ask, has a diagram of Joseph Bramah’s flushing Valve Closet of 1778 got to do with a rather strange boat on the Thames? Well, it is all to do with unexpected consequences.

Someone asked me the other day if Henry Austen’s London houses had flushing water closets and if, therefore, Jane Austen would have been familiar with them. I have no evidence for Henry’s loos, although his wife Eliza was a bit of a social climber so she may well have wanted one installed.

But Jane would surely have come across them, for they were becoming common in upper class homes from the 1780s, although they certainly were not cheap. The enterprising Joseph Bramah opened a showroom at 124, Piccadilly in the 1780s and charged 8 guineas for his ‘patent apparatus’. On top of that one had to buy valves, a cistern and pipework which could bring the cost up to £11 or more. Even so, by 1797 he claimed to have sold over 6,000 closets. He had rivals of course – seven more patents for flushing water closets were taken out by 1800.

ImageThe illustration shows the Brahmah water closet out of its case, which would probably be made of mahogany, with a comfortable seat.

Even some hotels had water closets. The Pulteney Hotel, on the corner of Piccadilly and Bolton Street, was one of the best hotels of the day and when the Russian Grand Duchess Catherine stayed there she reported with approval on, ‘certains arrangements de commodité.’

We shudder at the thought of living without a flushing toilet but those early ones had  disadvantages that the humble privy with its pail, kept reasonably odour-free with the regular addition of dry soil or ashes and emptied regularly, did not. Of course, the horrors of unemptied cesspits, often actually in the cellars of houses and seeping into wells and watercourses, make the various problems with flushing water closets look trivial, but even so, the early models were difficult to clean and had very poor systems for stopping gasses coming back into the house – the u-bend had yet to appear.

But these were all technical issues that were overcome with improvements in design as the 19th century progressed. Much more serious was the effect of increasing numbers of water closets all flushing into drainage systems that were only intended to carry rainwater away to the Thames – and that is where this strange boat comes in. The Thames in the 18th and early 19th century might have had its problems, especially around the outlets of drains serving butchery areas, tanneries or the big markets, but then as now it was tidal and clean enough for a healthy population of fish, including the occasional salmon. And it was clean enough to enjoy boating trips on and to swim in – which is what the boat was for.

ImageThis print is from Ackermann’s Repository for June 1819 and shows the Royal Waterloo Bath. “This very elegant floating bath is stationed near the north end of the Waterloo-bridge, and has recently been built and completed…at very considerable expense. It contains a plunging-bath, 24 feet long by 8 feet wide, and two private baths, 10 feet long by 8 feet wide. The depth may be regulated at pleasure by machinery, which raises and depresses the bottom as required… To each of the baths are attached small dressing-rooms, commodiously fitted up, with proper persons to attend upon visitors. These baths are so constructed, that the water, being a running stream, is changed every two minutes. The terms of bathing…are extremely moderate… In the plunging-bath: one shilling; For the season: £1 11 shilings and 6 pence; In the private baths: 1 shilling and six pence; For the season: 2 guineas”

The article goes on to compare London’s paucity of bathing establishments with Paris’s numerous vapour, Turkish, Chinese and Tuscan baths. “Yet …we have a noble river filled with the purest and most wholesome waters in the world. The want of baths in London has led to the incommodious and indecorous practice of public exposure in the Thames.” By which I assume they mean nude bathing. Apparently, by letting the bottom of the boat down to increase the waterflow through it, glimpses of the swimmers – all men and all nude, of course – could be glimpsed from passing boats. It became a titilating extra ‘sight’ for the ladies taking pleasure boats on the Thames!

The proprietors and their customers must have felt the water was clean enough for swimming, although I doubt we would fancy a dip – what with all the drains running into it and the fast flow being restricted as more bridges were built across the river. But it was of perfect purity compared with what the river became once the fashion for water closets caught on in middle class homes.

Privies would be cleaned domestically, and the contents tipped onto the vegetable garden, or emptied by the night-soil men who carted the contents out to the numerous market gardens that surrounded London. The water closets, in contrast, simply flushed their contents into the same drains that carried the rainwater to the Thames, pouring thousands of gallons of untreated sewage straight into the river. The private problem of keeping the home free from waste was simply transferred to the public arena and became everybody’s problem – especially as much domestic drinking water came from the Thames via  huge waterworks such as the one at London Bridge which took 4 million gallons a day to supply its 10,000 customers.

The situation got rapidly worse, until the unusually hot summer of 1858 when the stench from the polluted river was so appalling that people fainted, cholera was rife and Parliament was closed. Finally there was the will to get something done and eventually Joseph Bazalgette’s amazing sewerage system was installed and the Thames could begin its long journey back to cleanliness.

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