How was it, one might ask, that if there was a cholera epidemic throughout the whole country, John Snow was able to stop the epidemic in Soho merely by limiting it to a single pump? Another question: Most people didn't drink directly from the Thames. They got their water from wells like the people from Soho. How was it that these people were getting cholera and typhoid too? There are a few disgusting answers. The first answer is the Fleet. The Fleet, a river tributary, is not marked in blue like the other rivers on this map. This is because as early as the 1500s, the people of London tried to limit their pollution of the Thames by dumping their sewage into this particular tributary. The Fleet became so polluted that between 1733 and 1766 "the Fleet was canalised and arched over, an acknowledgment of its de facto status as the city's main sewer" (Barnett 138). When in 1844, the early Board of Health "decreed that all new-built houses had to be connected to public sewers," the only sewer around for most people was the Fleet (149). Barnett reports that shortly thereafter, it actually exploded: "bursting through its brick-lined culvert and showering Holborn and Clerkenwell with sewage" (149). Though they were treating it like a sewer, the Fleet would not have passed an inspection--it was not contained, lined, or glazed, and its contents seeped into the ground and leeched into the Thames, corrupting both the wells and the larger river. The second disgusting answer is the shallow wells. In poor areas of London such as Southwark, Anne Hardy reports "wells needed to be sunk only to a depth of 8 or 12 feet, while in the City they had to be sunk to between 30 and 80 feet" (82). Wells this shallow could be contaminated by pollution from the surface, or worse, from cesspits. The road "Fleet Street" is named after the River Fleet. View the timeline.
Barnett, Richard. Sick City: Two Thousand Years of Life and Death in London. London: Wellcomme Trust, 2008. Print.
Frances Thielman, “The Fleet,” Appalachian State University, accessed March 1, 2024, https://omeka-dev.library.appstate.edu/items/show/25.
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