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A Bad Odour

The smells of London linger. They are “always more pronounced in the heart of the City,” according to one late nineteenth-century Canadian writer, Sara Jeanette Duncan, “than in Kensington for instance.” She went on to report that “it was no special odour or collection of odours that could be distinguished—it was a rather abstract smell.” It has been likened to the smell of rain or of metal. It may be the smell of human activity or human greed. Yet it has been claimed that the smell is not human at all. When rain falls upon the city one of the most characteristic odours is that of “refreshed stone” but that dampness can also produce “the tired physical smell of London.” It is the smell of age or, rather, of age restored.

In the fourteenth century the odours were varied and multifarious, from the smell of baking meat to that of boiling glue, from the brewing of beer to the manufacture of vinegar; decayed vegetables competed against tallow and horse-dung, all of which made up “a richly confected cloud of thick and heavy smell which the people had to breathe.” This “medieval smell” is at this late date difficult to identify, although perhaps it lingers in stray doorways and passageways where a similar medley of odours confronts the passer-by. There are also parts of the world, as, for example, the souks of North Africa, where it is possible to savour something of the atmosphere of medieval London.

Every century, too, has its own smells. In the fifteenth century the dog house at Moorgate sent forth “great noyious and infectyve aiers,” while others complained about the reek of the lime kilns situated in the suburbs. The smell of sea coal, in particular, was identified with the smell of the city itself. It was, essentially, the odour of trade which proved unbearable. Thus in the sixteenth century the foundries of Lothbury were a source of much public disquiet. From the north came the smell of burnt bricks, while in the City itself by Paternoster Row emerged “a nauseous smell of tallow.” The smell of the Stocks Market, at the eastern end of Cheapside, was so strong that the worshippers in the adjacent church of St. Stephen Walbrook “were overcome by the stench” of rotting vegetables. Those who attended church risked other olfactory perils, however, and the odours emanating from the burial ground of St. Paul’s Churchyard alarmed Latimer in the sixteenth century. “I think verily that many a man taketh his death in Paul’s Churchyard,” he expounded in one of his sermons, “and this I speak of experience, for I myself when I have been there in some mornings to hear the sermons, have felt such an ill favoured unwholesome savour, that I was the worse for it a great while after.” This odour of graveyards was in fact one of the most permanent and prolonged smells of the city, with complaints against it from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

But there is the smell of the living as well as of the dead. References in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dramatic literature point to the distinctive odour of a London crowd, in particular what Shakespeare described in Cori-olanus as “their stinking breaths.” Julius Caesar is felled by the savour of filthy bodies which belong more to London than to Rome. In the eighteenth century George Cheyne, in The English Malady, recoiled from “the clouds of Stinking Breaths and Perspirations … more than sufficient to poison and infect the Air for twenty miles.” In social reports of the nineteenth century, there are accounts of the noisome scents of “low” tenements and lodging houses which left inspectors faint and sick.

In a city of work and trade one of the principal inconveniences will be that of perspiration, “of greasy cooks at sweating work.” London is a kind of forcing house, and within it lies “the mixture of Scents that arose from Mundung as Tobacco, Sweaty Toes, Dirty Shirts, the Shit-Tub, stinking Breaths and uncleanly carcasses.” Certainly the more refined Londoner would, on a still day, be aware of the presence of other citizens without necessarily seeing them. The image generally employed is one of close, suffocating contact as if the inhabitants were pressing in on all sides with their rank bodies and dirty breath. This was one of the reasons why strangers and travellers at once felt so anonymous in London: suddenly they became aware of, and part of, the intimate yet cloying smell of human life. When a sixteenth-century report notes that the sick and infirm lie upon the streets of London where “their intolerable miseries and griefs … stunk in the eyes and noses of the City,” the olfactory sense is linked with the visual to suggest an overpowering sensory horror.

It is also an ageless smell. To walk down a narrow and evil-smelling passage in contemporary London—and there are many such off the main thoroughfares—is to walk again down Fowle Lane or Stinking Alley. To pass too close to an unwashed vagrant is to experience the disagreeable sensation of an eighteenth-century Londoner when confronted with an “Abraham man” or a common beggar. In its smells the city can inhabit many past times.

It should not be assumed, however, that the entire citizenry were unwashed. There was soap as early as the fifteenth century, as well as lozenges to sweeten the breath and unguents to perfume the body. The real problem, as with so many others in the city, concerned the presence and the perceived contamination of the poor. In the seventeenth century the smells of poverty intruded into fashionable areas with “stinking Allies” and “suffocating Yards” beside newly designed squares. The smells of London were a great leveller. The rushes laid upon the floors of poorer households harboured “spittle, vomit, scraps of food, and the leakage of dogs and other animals.” In areas such as Bethnal Green and Stepney some of those animals were pigs; in Orchard Street, Marylebone, there were twenty-three houses, which between them contained seven hundred people together with one hundred pigs creating “very nauseous smells.” Once more the difference between smell and no smell is decided in London by money. Money is odourless. In the city of finance, poverty stinks. So in the mid-nineteenth century an urban traveller visited the slums of Agar Town by St. Pancras which not even wind and rain could cleanse and where “The stench of a rainy morning is enough to knock down a bullock.”

In that century, too, other localities had their own especial odours. The area around Tower Street smelled of wine and tea (in the previous century its aroma was of oil and cheese), while Shadwell’s odour was that of the adjacent sugar manufactories. From Bermondsey issued the smells of beer, tanyards, pickle and “the odour of fruits fomenting for jam” while by the river itself Thomas Hardy, lodging in Adelphi Terrace, suffered from illness as a result of the smell of mud at low tide. In nineteenth-century Islington the smell was of horse-dung and fried fish, while the area around Fleet Street and Temple Bar was apparently permeated by the “odour of brown stout.” Visitors recall that the “characteristic aroma” of the City itself was of the stables, with an “anticipatory stench of its cab-stands.” The experience of walking from the Monument to the Thames, however, would unleash a series of identifiable smells from “damaged oranges” to “herrings.”

There were delightful smells as well as disagreeable ones. In the seventeenth century, at midnight, when the bakers of London began to heat their ovens, and when the kitchens and stoves using sea coal were finally at rest, then “the air begins to clear and the smoke of the bakeries, which are heated with wood rather than with coal, spreads a very country-like smell in the neighbouring air.” There were also London streets which had a reputation for being sweet-smelling; such a place in the sixteenth century was Bucklersbury in “simple” or herb time, and newly built Pall Mall. A Japanese visitor of 1897 said that the city smelled of food, while at the same time commenting unfavourably on the breath of London servants. The French poet Mallarmé suggested that the city had the odour of roast beef as well as the scent of fog with “a special smell you only find here.” At a slightly later date, J.B. Priestley recalled the odour of “greasy little eating houses” as well as that of “a smoky autumn morning … with a railway station smell about it.” The smell of transport, in all its forms, has always been characteristic of the city. In the spring the omnibus, for example, had the odour of onions and, in winter, of “paraffin or eucalyptus”; in the summer it was simply “indescribable.” Fog caught the throat “like a whiff of chlorine.” Rose Macaulay remembered a passage off High Street, Kensington, which “smelled of vaseline.” Long Acre smelled of onions, and Southampton Row of antiseptic. Twentieth-century London has been filled with odours, from the smell of chocolate along the Hammersmith Road to the smell of the chemical works down Chrisp Street in the East End and along the locally named “Stinkhouse Bridge.”

Old smells have lingered, like the odour of the river and of pubs, while whole areas have retained their own especial and identifiable atmosphere. An account of the East End written in the late 1960s notes “an almost overpowering smell of fish” and “boiled cabbage,” together with “a musty smell of old wood and crumbling bricks and stagnant air”; almost a century earlier in 1883 the area was similarly described, in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, as imbued with “the fragrance of stale fish or vegetables,” and the nineteenth-century odour “of drying matchboxes.”

The ubiquitous twentieth-century smell, however, has been that of the bus and the motor car. The “air is tainted with their breath,” wrote William Dean Howells in 1905, “which is now one of the most characteristic stenches of ‘civilisation.’” Other persistent presences include the smell of dog excrement upon the pavements, and the greasy savour emanating from fast-food restaurants. And then, too, there is the dull acrid smell of the underground which is also the smell of London dust and burnt London hair. Worse, however, is the clinging odour of the morning rush hour below the ground with lungfuls of morning breath leaving a metallic quality at the back of the throat. It is both human and inhuman, like the smell of London itself.

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