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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Christopher Hart
Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770
By Emily Cockayne (Yale University Press 355pp £25)

This book inhabits a grubby and squalid world, truffling out details that are vivid, colourful and sometimes downright nauseous. It’s a veritable feast of filth and foulness, and I loved every minute of it. The chapter titles tell you immediately what to expect: ‘Itchy’, ‘Mouldy’, ‘Noisy’, ‘Grotty’, ‘Dirty’. They sound like a South West Trains service. It’s not the benighted line to Yeovil Junction you’re on, however, but a journey back into the past: specifically, the past of an England where people still drank ale instead of tea for breakfast, defecated in the streets as if it were the right of every freeborn Englishman to do so, and hadn’t yet dreamt of Methodism, Temperance, or the Lord’s Day Observance Society. In other words, the emphatically pre-Victorian England of ‘Beef and Liberty’ in all its grimy, rumbustious, unapologetic vigour.

Emily Cockayne does not restrict herself to London, also taking us to Stuart and Hanoverian Oxford and Bath, as well as an overgrown village of some 2,000 inhabitants near the River Irwell, comprising no more than a dozen streets surrounded by meadows and orchards, called Manchester. Her study also delves into an impressive array of diaries, letters and obscure pamphlets. She turns up one Edmund Harrold, a Mancunian wig-maker who recorded his own sex life assiduously in his private journal, boasting one day, for instance, that he ‘did wife 2 tymes couch & bed in an hour an[d] ½ time’. Note how the spelling of ‘time’ changes in a single sentence. You can almost hear Harrold declaring in blunt Lancastrian tones, ‘I’ll spell it any bloody way I please.’ And how astute of Cockayne to point out, regarding another kind of personal liberty, that ‘Pepys was not the sort of man to make too much of a fuss about being accidentally spat on by a lady in the theatre – providing the lady was pretty’. That tells you a lot about Pepys, but also about Restoration London, where even the prettiest ladies still openly expectorated when they felt the urge, and no one had the right to tell them not to.

The personal liberty of every freeborn Englishman and woman to spit, dump and defecate meant considerable misery for everyone. In the streets of London you would stumble over ‘the disagreeable Objects of bleeding Heads, Entrails of Beasts, Offals, raw Hides, and the Kennels flowing with Blood and Nastiness’. I never knew that ‘Mount Pleasant’, near Gray’s Inn, was actually a bitterly ironic name for a huge man-made heap of the most nauseous offal and ordure. It is now, of course, home to the Guardian newspaper.

Nowhere was sacred. Westminster churchyard was always full of offal too, local butchers blithely dumping the ‘soyle and filth of their Slaughter houses and hogstyes’ on the very graves of their ancestors. There were the disgusting animal-fat by-products of the tanners and soap-boilers also contributing to the ‘gungy pottage’ of the city streets. To deal with it, there were whole teams of ‘Gounge fermours’ (‘gunge farmers’) labouring to keep the streets of the capital passable, taking away cartloads of ‘the most Turpitudinous, Merdurinous, excrementall offals’.

Along with the more obvious sights and smells that your historical imagination might well encompass, there was a whole range of noises that are less likely to occur to you. What about the ceaselessly irritating ‘ditties of asparagus sellers’, or the even coarser cabbage sellers? Jonathan Swift, in characteristically benevolent mood towards his fellow man, wished on one of them that ‘his largest cabbage was sticking in his throat’. And then there were the itinerant knife-grinders, their grindstones emitting ‘a skreeching noise’ which makes ‘a shivering or horror in the body’. And the tinkers with their constant ‘Twancking of a brass Kettle or Frying pan’.

Nor was air pollution an Industrial Revolution novelty. English cities were already burning a lot of coal by this time, even though wood was still preferred by gentlefolk. Add to that the smoky emanations from the furnaces and forges of the maltsters, brewers and hammersmiths, plus the vile stench of the woad balls used by dyers, and you have a heady and toxic mix in the heart of the city. Such activities nowadays are all tidied away onto some distant industrial estate, or better still, China.

All in all, they were colourful but not kindly times, and to get some sense of what they must have been like to live in, you could indeed go to some hell-on-earth megalopolis in India or China today and see how it feels. Our Health and Safety goons may be completely deranged with power, but back then, every potter had ‘sallow, pale skin due to lead poisoning’, while painters had withered limbs and blackened teeth, if any. You may feel a certain nostalgia for the sheer street liveliness and ebullience of our past, so far removed from our own sterile and neurotically manicured townscapes, infested with surveillance cameras and ‘community support officers’: the open prison that is contemporary England. On the other hand, you can get some sense of what seventeenth-century street life must have been like by trying to make your way down Chandni Chowk in Delhi and breathe at the same time. Almost impossible. England’s past, as so richly revealed by Emily Cockayne, is a bit like that: interesting to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.