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Dirt, disease and the Inspector of Nuisances

The first incarnation of the environmental health inspector was the Inspector of Nuisances, tasked with prowling poor neighbourhoods and stamping out insanitary habits. Discover how Southwark’s John Errington rose to this overwhelming challenge.

Words by Kristen den Hartog

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Photograph of part of a coloured aquatint of a man covering his mouth with a handkerchief, walking through a smoggy London street. In the background are two snorting horses and linkboys running about bearing burning torches. The other part of the photograph contains the dirt and dust from a vacuum cleaner bag.

Inspectors of Nuisances’ first began prowling British streets in the mid-1800s, a period that saw tens of thousands perish in cholera and influenza epidemics. Medical experts believed the spread of disease was caused by ‘miasma’, or bad air wafting from decomposing organic matter, and the passing of a Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act in 1846 gave individual parishes the power to deal with issues threatening public health. They duly appointed inspectors, who investigated filthy dwellings and soupy gutters, steaming accumulations of dung, or animals kept in squalor.

By the 1850s, the appointment of an Inspector of Nuisances in each area was mandatory, and the duties had expanded; the inspector now also sniffed out foods unfit for human consumption. Essentially, he was the man on the street for the Medical Officer of Health (MOH), gathering evidence in the form of refuse, rotten mackerel, and milk diluted with dirty water. Amid the grime of Victorian England, he was a busy man – and, to some, a nuisance himself.

London MOH reports suggest people found these sanitary inspections intrusive, and likely insulting. “Can we really hope,” mused one MOH, “… to moralise those people, adults or children, who are constantly surrounded by degradation and filth?” The job went beyond giving things a good scouring; the new measures aimed to scrub out “social evil and defect”, and improve the overall lot of the “man in the alley” who lived in a “dingy and repulsive” environment. Read today, these reports, searchable at the Wellcome Library, reveal the gap between reformers and those they hoped to reform.

Cows in the city

My ancestor, Benjamin Jones, was a cowkeeper in St Saviour’s, Southwark, a desperately poor area in those days, and the nature of his work – keeping cows and selling milk in a densely populated neighbourhood – often brought him up against the local inspector, John Errington. On numerous occasions, Errington caught Benjamin diluting his milk, and reported that Benjamin had allowed dung and filthy matter to accumulate on his premises.

Cowkeepers were severely scrutinised as potential public health threats, since their cows often lived in cramped quarters, the sheds makeshift and unclean. One MOH wrote in 1857, “the existence of many thousands of feet of almost stagnant foul liquid, slowly running from cow-sheds and piggeries, cannot be right in close neighbourhoods”. Though sanitary regulations tightened, cowkeepers were typically slow to change, “careless, and sometimes thoroughly ignorant”, the MOH wrote. “Many feel annoyed at such demands being made upon them.”

More: How the right fragrance might save you from bubonic plague.

Photograph of a close up of the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag, showing dust, human hairs and other pieces of dirt.

I was a little taken aback when I first discovered Benjamin’s transgressions. Did he make people ill? Did anyone die from drinking the milk he sold? It’s impossible to know now. But the more I read about this era, and my own family’s place in it, the more curious I became about the challenges people faced when they lived in poverty, and the limited choices they had to keep their families fed and sheltered – and out of the workhouse that stood in every poor neighbourhood. 

Inspecting must have been challenging work for the Guernsey-born Errington, poking around where frequently he wasn’t wanted. He was the parish’s first inspector, hired in 1856, probably because of his connection with local Poor Law officials. On the 1851 census he was a yardsman at the Bermondsey workhouse, but by 1861 he’d become the Inspector of Nuisances, living on-site, as the job description stipulated, at the St Saviour’s Board of Works office.

A bottomless pit of problems

He was required to assess a wide array of problems ranging from mouldy cherries to rotting corpses, and on to dilapidated houses. Each example shows poverty at its root, like an invasive weed: pluck one nasty sprig, and the root shoots off underground, sprouting elsewhere.

In the case of the cherries, Errington had seized four baskets of the rotting fruit one summer day from a street vendor, who’d bought them from a wholesaler in Borough Market. The magistrate admonished that selling such fruit in hot weather was sure to spread disease among the poor who consumed it. But the wholesaler challenged that the vendor knew what he was getting when he made the purchase, and wondered what he’d expected for a shilling a basket.

An old woman’s body, taken from the workhouse, had been left unburied for three weeks.

In the case of the corpse, Errington followed up on complaints of a horrible odour coming from an undertaker’s premises. An old woman’s body, taken from the workhouse, had been left unburied for three weeks. Her daughters could not pay, and the undertaker was also too poor to cover the costs of burial. In the end – and not for the first time – Errington’s boss, the MOH, paid out of his own pocket.

And finally, in the case of the falling house, the tenants had been evicted long before, but had nowhere to go. Errington had visited repeatedly, and even called in a building inspector, who recommended the buildings be demolished – it was suggested that a heavy gust of wind could blow them down. Only after one and then another fell, killing a child, was the rest of the teetering row removed. If Errington breathed a sigh of relief, it was only a slight one; he knew that other houses with bulging walls and holes in the ceilings loomed in streets nearby. 

Photograph of a close up of the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag, showing dust, human hairs and other pieces of dirt.

Poverty and poor health

John Errington likely saw the problems more clearly than most. How to fix them was another matter. In many instances, his was the insurmountable task of holding the poor to account and protecting them all at once, without being able to alleviate their poverty. He held the position of Inspector of Nuisances for some 25 years, until he died in his mid-60s in 1880. The Board of Works praised his long contribution, and ran newspaper advertisements for a new inspector, who would “devote the whole of his services to the duties of the office”.

And so the scrubbing cycled forward, though over the years it evolved and expanded. The Inspector of Nuisances eventually became known as the sanitary inspector, who in turn became known as the public health inspector. Myths about miasma were set aside as medical experts gained a clearer understanding of how disease was spread, and how best to keep the population safe and healthy.

There have been huge leaps forward between then and now, though poverty is still with us, and quite often those of little means face the greatest health challenges. Looking back in time with the vast amount of knowledge we believe we have now makes me wonder how we will be judged in the future. It’s impossible to guess which of our actions and choices could seem just as misguided, or even preposterous, as the notion of disease spread by miasma.

About the author

Kristen den Hartog

Kristen den Hartog is a novelist, and the co-author of ‘The Cowkeeper’s Wish‘, a social history that follows her family’s working-class path through poverty, war and love from 1830s London, England to 1930s London, Ontario. She lives in Toronto, Canada.