Holding back the tide

By Juliana Adelman

‘Dead cats and dogs and offal of all sorts’ in Clanbrassil Street.  A sewer full of dead animals, refuse and the bedding from cholera patients at Newcomen Bridge.  Dozens of pigs to the rear of a house in ‘Pleasant’ Street.  A scavenging depot at Whitehorse Yard with manure overflowing its walls.  A slaughter house in Sackville Lane pouring rancid blood and offal down the street.  400 milch cows in Mahony’s Lane (off Great Brunswick Street), lying in ‘the most disgusting filth’.  Fumes from fat boilers, bone boilers and gut factories poisoning the air.  It is a wonder that nineteenth-century Dubliners did not daily drown in their own waste.

As those of you who caught some of the recent BBC Two series ‘Filthy Cities’ will have noticed, dirt is in.  For some of my research I have been going through the nineteenth-century minute books of Dublin’s Public Health Committee with growing empathy and affection for the sanitary sergeants.  The sergeants spent day after day sticking their noses into everyone else’s malodorous business, attempting to hold back the city’s growing tide of filth.  You have to admire their determination in the face of what must have been an overwhelming and potentially hopeless task.  Those of us who live in the city are the beneficiaries of their success.  The literature on dirty cities tends to focus on the provision of sewerage and clean water, both of critical importance.  But another important effect of the sanitation movement was the eventual banishment of food animals and their wastes from the city.

That animals could and would be removed from the city was by no means obvious in the mid-nineteenth century.  Without means of refrigeration it was necessary to keep animals as close to their consumption as possible.  Fresh milk meant backyard dairies.  Fresh meat meant inner city slaughtering of cattle, sheep and swine.  Reading through the public health committee’s reports would provide a good advertisement for veganism.

The belief that urged that sanitarians forward was that bad smells were not simply unpleasant, they were also the cause of disease.  So the 1866 cholera epidemic induced the Dublin Corporation to spend extra resources on scavenging streets, cleaning drains and installing privies in an effort to prevent the ‘miasma’ or bad air from bringing disease.  Cholera was also believed (correctly) to pass through water, so special attention was paid to the supply of clean water to city residents.

But before we congratulate the sergeants for their good common sense in eliminating sources of dirt and disease, we have to consider that animals were differentially singled out for exclusion.  Horses were never considered as comparably dirty as food animals and they were arguably banished entirely as a result of technological innovation.  Pigs topped the list of dirty animals despite the fact that contaminated milk was a routine source of illness.  Pigs, of course, were the animal of the poor and their small size meant that they were often kept inside the home.  In just three months in 1866, over 400 pigs were removed from inside of dwellings in Dublin.  A further 600 were removed from unsuitable or dirty yards.  Cleaning up the filthy dairy yard described above, however, was viewed as a bigger obstacle.  A public health committee member anticipated ‘much difficulty’ in dealing with the problem, due to the objections of the ‘wealthy and obstinate community who are interested in maintaining the present state of things’.  Dairies could be large and lucrative businesses, probably owned by ratepayers and voters.  By contrast, a single pig was the home savings account of a virtually voiceless slum dweller.

5 Responses to “Holding back the tide”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    Very interesting stuff Juliana. It reminded me of a dilemma faced by Cairo’s city planners a couple of years ago: whether to kill off the city’s 250,000 pigs in an effort to contain swine flu or value them for their waste-processing abilities. Not sure what happened in the end, but in that case it raised some very interesting questions about religion – Muslim attitudes to pigs, and the fact that the pigs belonged to the city’s Coptic Christian minority – and the Economist’s report on the issue contained a line quite similar to what you describe above: ‘the crowded pig pens, surrounded by mounds of self-combusting biodegradable slime and hemmed in by dense human settlement, are a stinky eyesore’.



  2. Póló Says:

    As late as the 1950s we used to visit a friend of my mother’s, who kept pigs in a shed in her back yard in Wood Lane.

  3. puesoccurrences Says:

    @Pol: So the sergeants missed a few!

    @Kevin: Thanks for the link. Really interesting stuff.


  4. Brian J Goggin Says:

    According to Ruth Delany’s histories of the Grand and Royal Canals, manure or dung (mostly horse-dung) was a significant element in the canal traffic out of Dublin, being carried on at least one occasion at least as far as Richmond Harbour (where the Royal meets the Shannon, near Longford). In her breakdown of tonnage for selected years on the Grand, she gives these figures:

    – 1801 11,790.5 tons outward from Dublin, of a total of 28,724.75 tons; coal, coke and culm, the next most important item, accounted for less than 4,000 tons

    – 1810 17,912.25 tons of a total of 205,255 tons carried on the canal: that total is not broken into inward and outward figures. In that year coal etc was over 13,000 tons

    – 1825 14,361 tons of a total (not broken down) of 188,731 tons

    – 1844 17,994.5 of an outward total of 55,573,75 tons

    – 1847 25,494.5 of an outward total of 131,956 tons (which included 40,043.5 tons of grain)

    – 1912 3,359 tons of a total (not broken down) of 308,851 tons. That is the first year in which artificial manures were listed and the last mention of natural manures.

    That horses were seen as less of a problem may therefore reflect their importance for transport and the fact that there was a market for their, er, output.


  5. puesoccurrences Says:

    @Brian: yes horse manure had a market and was supposed to smell less. Those figures are great, I must check out the book on the canals.

    @pol: My husband just showed me a passage in John Giles’ autobiography where he refers to selling food scraps to a woman in Drumcondra for her pigs!

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