The Dual Work of "Wastes" in
Chadwick's Sanitary Report

Priti Joshi

Rutgers University

OUR MUTUAL FRIEND is regarded by many critics as the last of a Victorian genre, the "social problem novel," which emerged to address the "crisis of industrialism." Particularly acute between 1830 and 1860, this crisis was marked by a dramatic increase in urban population; shifts in production and consumption behaviors; poor harvests; economic uncertainties; a break-down of established social hierarchies and relations; social and political unrest resulting from an emerging sense of divergent and irreconcilable differences between classes; and the contradiction of prosperity for many and increasingly degraded conditions for others. In the central decades of the 19th century, many Victorians -- social critics, legislative reformers, novelists, philanthropists -- grappled with the ugly "underside" of industrial progress. Much of Dickens's oeuvre can be read as an engagement with and intervention in different aspects of this crisis, and Our Mutual Friend is seen as his contribution to the "sanitary question."

First introduced 20 years earlier in THE REPORT ON THE SANITARY CONDITION OF THE LABOURING POPULATION OF GREAT BRITAIN, the "sanitary idea" took hold of the Victorian imaginary. Compiled by Edwin Chadwick, secretary to the Poor Law Commission, the REPORT sent profound shock waves through the Victorian reading public when it was published in 1842. It exposed its audience to what physicians working among the urban poor, poor law officials, and the poor themselves already knew: that working-class neighborhoods and streets were appallingly and dangerously filthy, that the poor were getting sicker more frequently and dying at a younger age than the better-off, and that "filth and disease" were causally related. Chadwick untiringly argued that all the causes of filth, and therefore much of the disease, were "preventible." Almost every Dickens novel contains vivid descriptions of poor neighborhoods, with Jacob's Island in Oliver Twist and Tom-all-Alone's in Bleak House being the most famous. In his final completed novel, however, Dickens engaged with the sanitary idea most directly, and his intervention was both shaped by and struggled against Chadwick's conception of the problem.

The REPORT drew attention to the deteriorated environment of the poor, but it accomplished this through a curious narrowing of their world: it focused almost exclusively upon the residences of the poor. Beginning with the debatable proposition that the working classes spent the preponderance of their time at home, Chadwick targeted their dwellings and immediate neighborhoods. His descriptions were distressing: on page after page one reads of drains overflowing into streets, stagnant pools of filth and garbage, cellar dwellings with inches of water and walls oozing untold horrors, mounds of putrefying animal and human wastes, poorly constructed and repeatedly subdivided houses, small spaces housing too many people, poorly ventilated rooms, and a stench everywhere. The following entry is typical and bears quoting in full:

Shepherd's Buildings consist of two rows of houses with a street seven yards wide between them; each row consists of what are styled back and front houses -- that is two houses placed back to back. There are no yards or out-conveniences; the privies are in the centre of each row, about a yard wide; over them there is part of a sleeping-room; there is no ventilation in the bed-rooms; each house contains two rooms, viz., a house place and sleeping room above; each room is about three yards wide and four long. In one of these houses there are nine persons belonging to one family, and the mother on the eve of her confinement...The cellars are let off as separate dwellings; these are dark, damp, and very low, not more than six feet between ceiling and floor. The street between the two rows is seven yards wide, in the centre of which is the common gutter, or more properly sink, into which all sorts of refuse is thrown; it is a foot in depth. Thus there is always a quantity of putrefying matter contaminating the air. At the end of the rows is a pool of water very shallow and stagnant, and a few yards further, a part of the town's gas works. In many of these dwellings there are four persons in one bed. (91-2)

Three-hundred-and-fifty such pages later, one is oppressed by the sense of the poor drowning in wastes. It is crucial to note that the "wastes" targeted in the REPORT are only those produced from within residences "i.e. ashes from fires, refuse from food preparation, and human excrement," not those produced by manufactories, mills, mines or any of the large industry that was changing the face of the landscape. In this regard, Chadwick's text is quite different from two of his contemporaries'. Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) used Chadwick's text as a source, but arrived at strikingly different conclusions. While Engels also noted the horrifying conditions in which the working class lived, he identified the source of much of the filth as the factories and mills that surrounded poor neighborhoods, blanketing them in smoke and transforming the rivers into foul streams (see "The Great Towns" chapter, especially 89, 97 & 98). Engels concludes that "everything which here arouses horror and indignation is of recent origin, belongs to the industrial epoch" (92; emphasis in original). Meanwhile, William Pultney Alison, a Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University and leading poor law reformer, also focused attention on conditions of employment by arguing that the only meaningful deterrent to the sanitary problem was not improved physical conditions, but higher wages and less poverty, a position that challenged Chadwick's and angered him (see Flinn 63-4 & Cullen 56-7). Engels's and Alison's arguments alert us to the fact that Chadwick's disengagement of industry from the deteriorated environment of the poor was neither uncontested nor inevitable.

In fact, Chadwick's determination to focus on poor homes was so complete that he went out of his way to exculpate industry from the problems he identified. Not only did he ignore it as a producer of wastes and source of pollution, but he also argued aggressively that work conditions were not responsible for the poor health of the working classes. He took it upon himself to "disabuse the popular mind of much prejudice against particular branches of industry arising from the belief that causes of ill health really accidental and removable, and sometimes unconnected, are essentials to the employment" (181; emphasis in original). Given the green hair and teeth of brass and copper workers, the blue gums of pottery and earthenware workers, the "trembles" of those who worked with mercury, and the skin boils of confectionery workers (Wohl, 57, 264-5), Chadwick's claim appears untenable and misplaced. But he went further: using the shoddiest statistical methods and erroneous reasoning, he argued that the lower mortality rate of children aged 5-10 years as compared to those 0-5 years "proved" that factories were safer than the homes of the poor because children started to work in factories at age five (223-4). At a time when reformers were attempting to enforce minimum age requirements in factories, Chadwick's "proof" provided a paternal gloss to abuses in child labor.

Resolute in his residential focus, Chadwick placed "dwellings, drainage and ventilation" (77) in the public consciousness and obscured the wider context in which they belonged. Although "dwellings" referred to the physical structure of buildings, the narrow lanes and back-to-back housing; "drainage" to the land itself, stagnant pools and wastes removal; and "ventilation" to the air inside close rooms, the effect of speaking of the poor almost exclusively in their homes was to place undue attention on their behavior, habits, lifestyle, and morals. In the following passage, for instance, the author begins by citing a structural defect and then seamlessly slides to criticizing behavior:

Many of the streets are unpaved and almost covered with stagnant water, which lodges in numerous large holes which exist upon their surface, and into which the inhabitants throw all kinds of rejected animal and vegetable matters, which then undergo decay and emit the most poisonous exhalations. These matters are often allowed, from the filthy habits of the inhabitants of these districts, many of whom, especially the poor Irish, are utterly regardless both of personal and domestic cleanliness, to accumulate to an immense extent, and thus become prolific sources of malaria, rendering the atmosphere an active poison....(93; emphases added)

The slide between structure and behavior is repeated as the author continues:

It may be also mentioned, that in many of these streets there are no privies, or, if there are, they are in so filthy a condition as to be absolutely useless... Many of the yards and courts in various parts of the town are so built up as to prevent the movements of the atmosphere, and are in a horribly filthy state in consequence of dunghills which are situated therein being allowed to grow to an immense size, and the water which drains therefrom being permitted to flow over the surface. (93; emphases added)

Thus, despite Chadwick's recognition of structural problems and concrete proposals to address building codes and poor drainage, the language and grammar of the REPORT lays the central responsibility for the filth in poor neighborhoods on the poor themselves.

No object more directly implicated the poor than the dunghills mentioned in the previous quote that many maintained besides pig sties to collect ashes, refuse, animal manure, perhaps even human nightsoil. Several of Chadwick's informants noted that dungheaps were "cherished" by the poor (89), used for manure in their gardens (115, 306), and often the source of income. But the REPORT shrank from these heaps: one informant reported entering a court in Glasgow that "was occupied entirely as a dung receptacle of the most disgusting kind...There were no privies or drains there, and the dungheaps received all filth which the swarm of wretched inhabitants could give; and we learned that a considerable part of the rent of the houses was paid by the produce of the dungheaps. Thus, worse off than wild animals, many of which withdraw to a distance and conceal their ordure, the dwellers in these courts had converted their shame into a kind of money by which their lodging was to be paid" (98). The allusion to animals and marked revulsion indicate the distance this utilization of wastes put between the Victorian classes. Carting, drying and selling the manure involved labor to transform it into a saleable commodity. Yet, the practice was neither viewed in terms of a productive transformation of "raw materials," nor in light of the dungheaps' obvious monetary value to the poor. Instead, they were regarded as a "nuisance" and, in the words of a minister, "a temptation to dishonesty" (328).

While the initiative and labor required to transform wastes into a productive commodity was reviled, the same transformative process was preformed by Chadwick himself on two separate levels. In the process of writing the REPORT, Chadwick contacted over 2,000 poor law guardians, physicians, factory inspectors and local officials from whom he solicited reports on the condition of the poor in their local areas (Flinn 47-51). He received volumes of "raw materials" which he then, not unlike the dust collector, sifted for nuggets and "valuables," sorted into topics, labeled, and sold for "profit." The sale of the REPORT not only makes explicit Chadwick's metaphoric relation to the work of the dust contractor, but is also the most unusual aspect of its history: as a government document, it had a limited audience and circulation until Chadwick arranged for its separate publication in quarto form, and sold or distributed copies to all the major dailies, Mechanics Institutes, and important thinkers such as J.S. Mill and Dickens (Flinn 55-57). This publicity ensured Chadwick's fame and claim to the title "Father of the Sanitary Movement."

On a more material level, Chadwick developed a project that was identical to the poor's use of dungheaps, only on a different scale. Arguing that waste removal by cartage was expensive and lead to the "loss of value of [the] manure" (118), Chadwick devised an elaborate plan that purported to solve the problems of both rural and urban Britain. According to him, agricultural lands suffered from improper drainage, while urban areas lacked sufficient supplies of water. Thus, he proposed to pipe water from the drainage of the land into the city where it would supply each home with ample water; in turn it would carry away human wastes (suspension in water was more efficient than hand cartage) which would travel back to the countryside where they would be used as manure, increasing agricultural yield. Thus, in one gesture Chadwick proposed to solve several problems that had emerged with or been exacerbated by the advent of industrialism: poorly drained rural lands, water shortages, human wastes, and food shortages. As he wrote to a friend, with the utilization of wastes as manure "we complete the circle, and realize the Egyptian type of eternity by bringing as it were the serpent's tail into the serpent's mouth" (qtd. in Finer 222).

While biographers and scholars of Chadwick have considered this his most fanciful scheme and dismissed it (Flinn 60), we would be ill-served to do so as it encapsulates the central impulse of the REPORT and indeed the organizing principle of industrial capitalism: the transformation of raw materials through a process of labor into productive and profit-making commodities on a large scale. The mills and mines and manufactures that made Britain the leading industrial power in the 19th century did precisely this and Chadwick borrowed their principle for sanitation. However, he also extended the principle by demonstrating that the "raw materials" could themselves be the "wastes" or end products of other processes. Indeed he suggested that an increasing number of careful industrialists were turning wastes to productive use, such as the mill owner who provided the otherwise-discarded hot water from his steam engines to employees for baths (316-18). Thus, by presenting the engine of industrial "science" as the solution to the problems created by industrialism, Chadwick offered comfort to those who were troubled by the excess of industrialism and at the same time dependent on it.

This dual work that "wastes" performed in the REPORT "as filth that poor Victorians had to be taught to notice and abjure, and as a potential commodity for profit " is seldom noted by Chadwick's critics, but lies at the heart of his complex text and provides one explanation for its enormous impact on his contemporaries. Providing as it does both a blue-print for managing the poor and a principle of productive transformation, the REPORT not only spoke in the industrial vernacular, but also extended it to other spheres, thereby attesting to its power.

The REPORT'S publication was followed by more Parliamentary inquiries, journalistic reports, and lobby groups. Within six years, this agitation led to the Public Health Act (1848) which created an oversight commission with limited powers, but in 1854 the commission was dismantled, the victim of a power struggle between local authority and central power. Despite its spotty legislative history, however, the "sanitary idea" itself was immensely successful among middle-class Victorians. In the years following the REPORT'S publication, the dualism of wastes that Chadwick highlighted was one that many Victorians returned to repeatedly. For instance, Household Words published an article in the July 13, 1850 number entitled "Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed," and another on July 24, 1858 titled "Dirty Cleanliness"; both articles no doubt influenced Dickens's thinking on the matter.

Also central to Dickens' thinking was the work of Henry Mayhew, himself writing within the frame-work established by Chadwick. Published 20 years after Chadwick's REPORT, Mayhew's magisterial London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2) is thoroughly informed by Chadwick's ethos of the reclamation of wastes. Particularly in the discussion of street-sellers, street-buyers, street-collectors, and street-finders (vol 2), Mayhew's text makes explicit the extent to which objects such as old screws, broken glass, rags, bones, paper, kitchen drippings, rope, dead horse parts, even animal dung that were considered wastes by one class were gathered, sorted, labeled and resold for profit by another.

But while the REPORT reviled the poor's use of wastes (while promoting its own larger scale proposal for using human manure), Mayhew displayed a far greater sympathy for and appreciation of the labor and value of the poor's efforts. Indeed, he elevated their reclamation efforts to "industrial proportions" by a subtle sleight of hand: by insistently calculating the aggregate income and return for each "marginal trade" for instance, he put the total value of dead horses in London at £130,000 per year (9) and the yearly income of all the street-sellers of second-hand goods at £33,461 (101). Mayhew repositioned waste as critical to the national economy. Yet, even as his representation of the poor differed from Chadwick's, his approach to wastes didn't: Mayhew borrowed Chadwick's commendation of reclaiming wastes on a large scale, and merely sifted and "re-sorted" the poor such that they too were seen as involved in such a reclamation.

In addition, Mayhew's discussion of the "London Dustmen, Nightmen, Sweeps, and Scavengers" (II:159-166) is framed by an idea plucked straight from the REPORT. Insisting that refuse removal in urban areas is of the utmost social consequence, he first looked to "nature, ever working in a circle and reproducing in the same ratio as she destroys" (II:159-60), and then turned to "science" and "organic chemistry" for a system in which "that which we excrete as pollution to our system, they [plants] secrete as nourishment to theirs" (II:160). Repeating Chadwick's proposal for using human manure as agricultural fertilizer, Mayhew concluded that "what appeared worse than worthless to us was Nature's capital "wealth set aside for future production" (II:160; emphasis in original). He cautioned his readers to maintain the "balance of waste and supply" by attending to "the principle of universal compensation" because "both the health and the wealth of the nation depend upon it" (II:160).

Mayhew's genius lay in his ability to powerfully and eloquently weave together disparate strands of mid-19th century thought into a coherent narrative for the collective imaginary. In this case, he produced a seamless narrative in which science discovered nature's larger purpose which was the same as the capitalist one, and which ultimately led to a stronger nation. Moreover, he made explicit what was only implicit in Chadwick's text: the connection between commodifying wastes and industrialism. Mayhew's easy use in this story of nature and the nation of words like capital, wealth, worthless, production, compensation, and supply not only naturalizes the capitalist venture ("Nature's capital"), but also posits economic value at the center of the transformation of wastes, something Chadwick only hinted at.

The REPORT focused the nation's attention and trained the bureaucratic eye on dirt and the poor as it simultaneously taught Victorians to eschew and embrace their wastes. But it also made the critical industrial move itself: it took the problems plaguing cities and, by proposing to shift them to a larger scale, both hid them from view and transformed them into profit. Thus, the syntax of Chadwick's proposals reproduced the scientific and economic processes that brought about the deteriorated urban conditions in the first place, and in doing so it helped Victorians come to terms with the ambiguous impact of industrialism. This was the cultural work the "sanitary idea" performed when Dickens joined the conversation with dust-heaps, dredgers, dolls' dressmakers, and buried treasure.


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