“The Smells of London” and their Sources at the Fin de Siècle

By Jess Clark

In September 1889, the London Times printed a complaint from a disturbed Kensington resident. Under the heading “Smells of London,” Arthur Clay challenged “[t]he apathy with which Londoners submit to be bathed in disgusting odours.”[i] The author complained of distressing smells blanketing North Kensington, typically at night and often in the summer. Despite his claims that Londoners didn’t care, the response to his initial letter proved otherwise; Clay’s submission set off some three years of correspondence from displeased and disgusted residents. Despite sanitary initiatives, they described nuisance smells that they ascribed to a number of different sources: polluted waterways, dirty streets, blocked drains, poor ventilation. Contrasting official messages about the efficiency of London’s orderly modern infrastructures, correspondents instead foregrounded olfactory disorder.

In this early etching, George Cruikshank criticizes the expansion of building schemes across London. “Building materials marching out of London of their own accord to build suburban housing over greenfield sites,” 1829. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

In taking to the London Times, correspondents discovered a forum to express their displeasure over London’s transforming urban smellscapes.[ii] In the wake of rapid growth and residential development, some nineteenth-century Londoners found themselves living next to chemical works and other industrialized sites. The mixing of residential and industrial space proved a recipe for Londoners’ dissatisfaction: in the lack of municipal action, in the lack of private responses, in the horrible stenches that wafted into their homes each and every night.

Indeed, if we look to letters in the Times between 1889 and 1891, many Kensington residents were deeply upset by the smell nuisances. To capture their frustration, they tapped into anxieties around smell’s “subjectiv[ity], variabi[lity], and uncertain[ty],” which had long been the source of its “social and cultural power,” in the words of Will Tullett.[iii] For some, this meant framing smells as night-time invaders of the home—a domestic sanctuary, which was supposed to be a refuge from public, daytime lives. One lady and her young ward, for instance, “both smelt the bad smell” in Eaton Place, Belgravia. She continued, “It awoke me; she was awake. It was very nasty and quite different to any other smell.”[iv] In another example, a letter writer “actually went downstairs in the belief that some part of the house was on fire.” He was not alone. “Other members of my family have had the same experiences, and not long ago searched the whole house from roof to basement for the supposed combustion going on.”[v] In a period of heightened distinction between private and public space, invisible nocturnal smells disturbed the illusion of domestic safety, as an external disorder that penetrated the sanctity of the private abode.

Other authors foregrounded the alleged health effects of these nocturnal smells, suggesting the longstanding influence of miasmatic theories of illness, which had dominated an earlier period. For one author, the smells were “like the breath of Tartarus, death-laden with horrid stenches and health-destroying fumes….” Meanwhile, the vicar of St. Matthews ominously observed “[t]he wonder is that we are alive to tell the tale.”[vi] For these authors, the stench was a disruption but moreover—it was a health hazard. “In my house, which looks across the whole of Hyde Park, the smell leaves us with headaches and sore throats,” explained another author, before demanding “what must be the effects in the narrow streets of small dwellings?”[vii]

Detail from Charles Booth’s “Life and Labour of the People in London” (1898), showing Kensington and the easterly edge of Hammersmith (including its brickfields). Courtesy of LSE Charles Booth’s London, public domain mark.

After three years of correspondence, one question remained; what comprised the horrible smells that so distressed residents of North Kensington in the late 1880s? After considerable debate, the source was allegedly identified: brickfields in neighbouring Hammersmith, which produced a “horrible and nauseous smell” each night “lasting for several hours.” This was not just any stench. Brickmakers burned refuse—garbage—to fire their bricks. What’s more, this “fuel” most likely came from the local government’s efforts to collect vestry rubbish, as part of modernizing efforts in city management. In a compelling twist, attempts to rid London of garbage – a visual nuisance –made for new and horrible smell nuisances for residents. By focusing on the unsightliness of garbage, well-meaning officials neglected a key element of urban life: its smells.

        

[i] Arthur Clay, “The Smells of London” Times (4 September 1889): 10.

[ii] See Jonathan Reinarz, “Smell and Victorian England,” in Smell and History: A Reader, ed. Mark M. Smith (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018). On the importance of public complaints in the American context, see Melanie A. Kiechle, Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).

[iii] William Tullett, “Re-Odorization, Disease, and Emotion in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 62.3 (2019): 787.

[iv] G. J. Symons et al, “The Smells of London,” The Times (10 September 1889): 6.

[v] J. E. Latton Pickering et al, “Diphtheria in London,” The Times (17 October 1890): 10.

[vi] W. Domett-Stone et al, “Offensive Smells in London,” The Times (20 October 1890): 14.

[vii] E.H. Carbutt, “Diphtheria in London,” The Times (15 October 1890): 7.


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