Mr. Bazalgette and the Fatberg

Of late the dispatches from London have concerned a gigantic “fatberg” that has completely blocked one of the main sewer channels under Whitechapel.  That the capital’s Victorian sewer system is just now reaching capacity is due to the foresight and engineering genius of Mr. Joseph Bazalgette who was given the mandate to update London’s sewer system following a series of cholera epidemics in the 1830s and 1840s.

When calculating out the dimensions of the pipes, he considered the highest population density producing the most amount of sewage.  Then he reportedly said, “Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen,” and doubled the diameter.  It is estimated that Bazalgette’s prudence bought an extra 50 years of life to his brick-lined sewage channels, so that only now is London needing to upgrade its system.

A very informative article in Prospect Magazine investigates the genesis of the Fatberg in more detail.


Fascinating Early Motion Pictures of London

The link below is to an amazing video from of early motion pictures of London, including the oldest (a view of Trafalgar Square) as well as the earliest recording, on Edison wax cylinder, of the chimes of the Clock Tower.

As interesting as it is to see how much has changed in London over the 100-plus years since most of these motion pictures were taken, it is equally interesting to see how much has not changed.

Also great reference for period costumes!


A Japanese View of Victorian London

A View of the Thames by Utagawa Yoshitora, c. 1860s.  Image from the Library of Congress collection.

A View of the Thames by Utagawa Yoshitora, c. 1860s. Image from the Library of Congress collection.

In the spirit of Steampunk Hands Around the World 2015, I’d like to share a view of Victorian London as depicted by a Japanese artist of the time, Utagawa Yoshitora. Whether writing, creating, or defining your steampunk persona, it is always helpful to see through others’ eyes and gain a fresh perspective.

More details on the artist and these prints at the always informative Two Nerdy History Girls blog.

London Bridge is falling down, and going back up, and falling down again, and being rebuilt, and burning down, and…

A link on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog led me to Hidden London, a website replete with interesting articles highlighting little-known sites and facts about London. On this website, I learned about an almost impossibly ancient organization that many Londoners unknowingly interact with every day.

There has been a bridge across the Thames at the present site of London Bridge since the time of the Roman occupation. The bridge was such a crucial transportation link between the Roman roads to the north with the routes heading southward that a small trading post that sprung up on the north side of the bridge grew to become the Roman city of Londinium—the beginnings of the City of London. (Yes, London Bridge is older than London!) Continue reading

The Berners Street Hoax

History tends to lack a sense of humor.  Rarely does one come across a real side-splitting tale amongst the social trends and political machinations that underlie the dates of important treaties and the names of the monarchs that signed them (usually Charles or Frederick, according to my son who studied European History last year).

"The Berners Street Hoax" from The Choice Humorous Works of Theodore Hook

“The Berners Street Hoax” from The Choice Humorous Works of Theodore Hook

In 1810, on November 26th to be exact, one singular event occurred in London which could win the award for funniest historical event (a low bar there…) Continue reading

CSI: Victorian London

Take one part Dr. Gregory House, add a bit of Sherlock Holmes and a pinch of modern forensic science, and you have Dr. John Snow, a man who solved one of the largest mass killings in Victorian London.

The culprit: cholera. Ever since it first appeared in Britain in 1831, cholera periodically ravaged the cities, leaving thousands dead in its wake. In 1848-9, over 14,000 Londoners died; in 1853-4, another 10,000 succumbed. That the disease was somehow related to the deplorable conditions of British cities at the time was clear, but the means of transmission was believed by all authoritative men of medicine to be via “miasma”. Miasma was thought to be a sort of poisonous vapor or mist originating from decomposing matter, called miasmata. (Similarly, the word “malaria” comes from the Italian meaning “bad air”.) To prevent outbreaks, it was thought to be a simple matter of removing the miasmata. That many of London’s cholera outbreaks occurred along the banks of the Thames, the stinking fetid pool that was the depository of much of the capital’s sewage, only served as proof of the theory’s validity. Continue reading

30 Days of Filth

Writing historical fiction, or even alternate historical fiction (or is it alternate fictional history?) as I have been, requires lots of research. In order to create a believable world, you have to get the details right. Or at least make them sound plausible.

For those interested in the Victorian Era, and especially Victorian London, a great source of that kind of detailed information is the website of Lee Jackson, Victorian London, which comprise his Dictionary of Victorian London, his blog The Cat’s Meat Shop, links to purchase his ebooks on Victorian London, and his photography of bits of Victorian London that have somehow survived to the present.

I’ve used this website extensively in researching my book, and it has not failed yet to provide some insight on a specific tidbit I was curious about.

At the moment, Lee Jackson is in the midst of a blog countdown titled, “30 Days of Filth” , marking the publication of his book “Dirty Old London–The Victorian Fight Against Filth”. Today is Day 9 and the blog talked about “Climbing Boys” the youngsters “apprenticed” to chimney sweeps to climb up the chimney flues.

Previous days have included essays about such manner of things as the London sewer system and what it replaced, how to pack more dead bodies into overflowing churchyards, and nude bathing in Hyde Park. The series so far is deliciously filthy, sooty, and muddy, and reeks of sulphurous emanations. This blog (and the upcoming book) will disabuse you of any sunlit fantasies of “the Good Old Days”.