In 1854, London was full of scavengers: working-class people who survived by going through trash. At night, “toshers” could be seen waving lanterns on the banks of the Thames, searching for anything they might be able to use. Meanwhile, “pure-finders” made their living collecting dog excrement, while bone-pickers picked the meat off of thrown-away carcasses. In short, “the scavengers lived in a world of excrement and death.” In London, the richest city in the world, an entire class of poor scavengers had emerged. There was a vast underground market for refuse, for which there were full-time merchants and expert appraisers. In a way, the scavengers of 19th century London were some of the most important people in the city: they performed the crucial civic function of getting rid of trash (and, in fact, recycling it).
The book begins with a nightmarish scene, all the more bizarre because it takes place in the not-too-distant past, in a city that is often regarded as one of the most sophisticated and advanced in the world—London. In the Victorian era, Johnson argues, London’s municipal government had no idea how to run a metropolis. As a result, the city’s poorest people had to take care of themselves, and developed a bizarre, complex economy of trash harvesting, selling, and reusing. The beauty of the scavenger economy was that, although individual Londoners were just looking out for their own interests, they benefited the city overall by recycling.
Few people realize that recycling is an ancient practice—even the ancient Greeks had composting pits. In the Middle Ages, farmers recycled waste of all kinds to nourish their soil. In nature, waste recycling is “a crucial attribute of diverse ecosystems.” Microbes do most of nature’s recycling work, decomposing waste into its molecular components. It’s likely that, if the bacteria responsible for natural recycling disappeared overnight, “all life on the planet would be extinguished.” But although microbes can play a vital role in preserving life, they played the opposite role in 1854: indeed, they threatened to wipe out London’s human population.
The passage is typical of Johnson’s encyclopedic knowledge and penchant for combining different disciplines (in this passage alone, we get microbiology, urban studies, history, and ecology!). The implicit message here is that in the natural world, there’s a delicate balance of life and resources—but in early modern cities, such as London, people disrupted this natural balance, and had to figure out new ways of coexisting with their environments.
Like every socioeconomic class, London’s scavengers had their own system of rank and privilege. City landlords paid “night-soil men”—i.e., people who harvested excrement—a good wage. As London grew (eventually becoming the biggest city in Europe), night-soil men began earning higher wages, since it took hours for them to travel to the edges of the city to dump the excrement. In the middle of the 19th century, the modern water closet (i.e., toilet) was patented; as a result, the average Londoner used more water than ever before. London’s plumbing system wasn’t equipped to deal with the additional water and excrement, meaning that sewers often overflowed. Altogether, the practices of night-soil men, the popularization of the W.C., and population growth meant that London was filthier than ever before.
Three major factors (the scavenger economy, the invention of the modern W.C., and population growth) contributed to the growing filthiness of London. The passage is a good example of the kind of analysis that Johnson uses throughout his book, showing how a big, seemingly inevitable historical trend (London’s public health crisis) emerged from the confluence of multiple unrelated factors.
As London grew bigger, the city experienced “a surge in corpses.” Often, the dead bodies of the poor were buried in mass graves—a sight that inspired the author Charles Dickens to write that, in London, “civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together.” Dickens’s point was that the growth of civilization hinged upon filth and misery. Around the same time, the political philosopher Karl Marx was living in London; Marx’s impressions of the city’s decay inspired his theory of Communism.
The decay of Victorian London inspired figures as different as Charles Dickens (often regarded as a liberal reformer) and Karl Marx (the father of Communism, one of the most radical responses to the advent of Western capitalism). Both Marx and Dickens believed in some of the same premises: above all, that something was fundamentally wrong in London. Furthermore, both Marx and Dickens took a dialectical approach to their society: they recognized that urban squalor was not a footnote to the growth of a capitalist civilization, but rather its direct result.
At the time, Londoners believed that dead bodies and bad smells spread disease—a belief that turned out to be completely false. In Soho Field, for example, there had once been a mass burial of plague victims. For years after the burial, few dared live in Soho; however, beginning in the late 18th century, Soho suddenly became one of the “hippest” parts of London, and a magnet for artists, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals. By the 1850s, Soho was also one of London’s most densely populated neighborhoods. Soho’s streets were narrow and cramped—indeed, they’d been designed this way, by urban planners who’d intended for Soho to be a working-class neighborhood. During an outbreak of disease in 1843, wealthy Londoners claimed that the disease was killing a disproportionate number of poor people because the poor were immoral or debauched—but in reality, the disease spread more rapidly through the dense, cramped neighborhoods where the poor lived.
The passage juxtaposes two of the most harmful myths of 19th century England: first, that bad smells spread disease (a misconception that probably caused thousands of deaths), and second, that poor people deserved their diseases because they were immoral in some vague way. In a sense, these two myths are manifestations of the same instinct: fear of the unknown. Thus many people, desperate for some explanation for the epidemic, convinced themselves that there was a method to the cholera’s madness: cholera spread in a certain way, or only killed certain people. This instinct to define, rationalize, and “tame’ the unknown is one of the most important themes of The Ghost Map.
In the 1840s, a London police officer named Thomas Lewis was living on Broad Street, near the heart of Soho, with his wife, Sarah Lewis, and his young, sickly child. The child died after ten months; then, in 1854, Sarah gave birth to a baby girl. On August 28, 1854, around six a.m., baby Lewis began vomiting and excreting. Sarah took her baby’s soiled diapers and threw them in the cesspool in her basement. “This,” the chapter concludes,” it how it began.”
This simple event sparked a deadly epidemic and a total reconsideration of epidemiology and urban planning. In a densely populated metropolis such as London, even the simplest behaviors (such as throwing out some soiled diapers) can have enormous repercussions.