Tuesday 25 July 2017

Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink

It's a pleasure to welcome Monica Hall, author of A Visitor's Guide to Georgian England, for a look into the murky matter of Georgian water...


Water, water, everywhere
Nor any drop to drink
‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Well, hardly any drop fit to drink, at any rate.  The first half of the 18th C was unusually dry, as it happened though, which makes it all the more remarkable how many people managed to drown themselves.  (http://booty.org.uk/booty.weather/climate/1700_1749.htm)
 A Visitor's Guide to Georgian England,
Deep water in wells, ponds, rivers and mill-races was a particular hazard as very few people could swim.  Water was for work, not recreation, so the opportunities for learning to swim were rather limited.  People fell into their own wells, lost their footing when getting in and out of flimsy ferries, got swept away in tidal rivers, or trapped in quicksands and mud when trying to fish or empty eel traps, or simply trying to get clean.  Very often their clothing bogged them down.   Poor women often did the laundry in rivers and if they fell in, due to pregnancy or advancing age, their long and bulky cotton and woollen clothes absorbed huge amounts of water leaving them unable to climb muddy and slippery banks to save themselves.  You could drown in quite shallow waters.  Another hazard among the young particularly was skating on frozen ponds and falling through the ice.
Sailors and fishermen were notorious for being unable to save themselves by swimming to a shore which was sometimes close by.  When Captain Cook was murdered on Hawaiian beach, members of his crew were close by in an open boat, hoping to save him if he ran into the sea.  But he didn’t, because he could not swim, unlike the scantily-clad Hawaiians of course.  But learning to swim in the tropical waters off an island paradise is rather different to the chilly and murky waters of British rivers and seas. 
It is, of course, difficult to compare accidental death statistics from over 300 years ago to ours because of lifestyle changes.  Drowning does not figure so high up in ours partly because children are taught to swim, and partly because we have so many more ways in which to kill ourselves, such as high speed transport and electricity.  But humans can be remarkably stupid when it comes to assessing risk.  If you want to see exactly how stupid we are today, then check out the 2014 Darwin Awards (http://www.darwinawards.com/darwin/darwin2014.html) which are  –
“… named in honour of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, (they) commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.”
Nonetheless, some people in the 18thC eventually decided that something should be done, which may be an early example of Health & Safety, or it may have just been due to entrepreneurialism.  The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (Strutt, 1801) confirms that, by the late 18thC, people were swimming more, and the first recorded swimming pool, open to the public (i.e. males) was the Peerless Pool in Baldwin Street, City Road, which opened in 1743 and was used for over a century.  The annual subscription rate was £1 10s, or 1s a visit.  There was a marble changing pavilion and marble steps down into the waters which ranged from 3 – 5 feet in depth with a gravelly bottom.  So not for the poor, then.  But then, accidental death by any means was expected among the poor, and nobody would want them sullying the Peerless Pool anyway.  It was closed in 1850 and built over, but its memory is preserved by Peerless Street and Bath Street.  But in the 19thC public schools were beginning to teach their pupils to swim for sporting and health reasons.  One can imagine that swimming races in icy waters were considered character-building for the scions of the rich who were being raised to run the Empire.  But at least the waters in India would have been warmer, even if patrolled by rather more dangerous wildlife, as the most that could menace a swimmer in British waters would have been an irate pike or an angry seal.  
Peerless Pool

But people didn’t just work around water, or drown in it, or gradually discover its value as a health and leisure facility.  They had to contend with the problems of drinking it and washing in it, which were very considerable.  The Georgians, of course, had little idea about water-borne diseases, and the proof of that had to wait until Dr. John Snow tracked the source of a cholera outbreak to one water pump in Soho in 1854.  Whilst all the while being obstructed by authorities and his colleagues, of course.  But they did have a vague idea that disease was communicated by odiferous air, or miasma, and in this they were on the right track, albeit for the wrong reasons.  Poor water hygiene certainly smells.  No efficient sewage disposal systems, no understanding of the water table, and a tendency to regard all rivers and streams as convenient conduits for waste disposal meant that water was not safe to drink.  So they drank alcohol.  I am always pleased to contemplate this when being urged by our Government not to exceed 14 units a week.   
In the early 18thC the Fleet River in London was still open, flowing from its sources in Hampstead to the Thames.  It was notorious for being an open sewer in which a tide of excrement, dead dogs and the waste from tanneries, and more besides, rolled down to the Thames in an overwhelming stench (miasma).  Oddly, they built rather attractive Venetian-style bridges over it.  

By 1737, however, they’d had enough and slowly began enclosing stretches of it.  It was finally fully enclosed into the Victorian sewage system, although you can still hear it running below a grating in Clerkenwell, and it disgorges into the Thames just below Blackfriars Bridge as a storm drain.  
One might think one would be safer with water in the countryside rather than the cities.  But probably only if you lived on a hill and drew your water from a well up high as livestock and industrial activity waste ran off fields and into rivers, thus polluting the waters downstream.   Water chlorination was not widely introduced into the UK until 1905, although sand filtering was known and spasmodically used in Georgian times.  In fact, the quest for clean water has continued since 2000 BCE, according to Sanskrit writings, so they certainly knew it was both essential and dangerous.
But today, the bottled water industry is worth billions, even though western countries have safe potable water from the tap.  One American has done his sums.
“That’s right – 4,787 bottled waters could be filled with tap water for $2.10! So every time you buy a bottle of water for $1, you are paying 2,279 times what you would if you filled that same bottle with tap water.”
Oh dear.

About the Author
Monica Hall has spent her working life in marketing and advertising, both in industry and academia. When not making ends meet and raising two sons, however, she has devoted years to delighting in the social history of her favourite era, the Georgians. She has written articles for several online historical resources, including the renowned Madame Gilflurt and Encyclopedia Titanica, as well as reviewing historical books and TV programmes. Monica lives in Hampshire with a cat who seems to have discovered the secret of eternal youth.

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