England has gone through some serious strides in hygiene. Back in the day, with people living in such close quarters, it was common that bathrooms were basically the street. I read a book that said courtiers would just relieve themselves in the hallways of certain palaces whilst drunk or out of laziness. Between the lack of Listerine and toilets, I bet the palaces were a lovely place to visit and smell. No wonder I see oranges with cloves stuck in the skin as a prop in most period-piece films.
In the 1800s specifically, the River Thames was the main conduit for the sewage line, so contamination ran right through the entire city infecting people, animals, and the air quality. One summer, it was particularly hot, and this time was dubbed “the Great Stink.” There is even a Wikipedia page about it. The smell caused the House of Commons and other legal courts to seriously fix the issue at hand.
Thankfully now that Jeff and I have decided to move to England, there is indoor plumbing and sanitation in place. But we do see remnants of the famous W.C.s in the streets which does mean Water Closet. It is literally a closet with running water for those who have to use one. It does also force you to always carry change as the public toilets usually cost 50 pence (or ‘p’ not unlike cents). And since you’re paying for it, it also means they are usually clean. A great relief to someone who dreads the idea of a port-a-potty.
We’ve noticed this city is full of street sweepers and maintenance cleaners, and I could not be more grateful. Several weeks ago, we made a trek up north to Neasden and there was litter just everywhere. It was incredible the amount of trash we had to slog through along the sidewalks. While Ealing has its share of trash and litter, it gets cleaned every morning.
But what stands out to me the most is the outdoor mall or “arcade” that I walk to everyday. The workers get there every morning and soap down the staircase, floors, they vacuum the tiny areas of carpet and even clean out the grates for water collection.
It always makes me think the eternal “why” since the outdoor mall will always be filthy with people walking through it and dumping trash. But I am quite grateful for the hygiene. If they had left the mall alone for one day, I can’t imagine what it would look like after watching people continuously miss the trash can and carelessly let paper fly away in the wind.
But on the flip-side, I think the constant cleanliness is making the English rather complacent. The tubes are always full of trash. There are maintenance people who come on and pick up after everyone, but I just watch commuters leave their coffee cups in the train, dump their newspapers on the floor, and drop their cigarette butts anywhere they please.
So it’s no wonder other parts of London aren’t as clean because only in select parts do people come and clean up after them.
The other historical moment that comes to mind was the Winter of Discontent during the 1970s. There were many things that were being protested during this time period, but one of the main thing were the waste collectors demand for more pay (most deservedly so). People had no place to put their trash, so piles and piles of garbage let to another “great stink” and rat infestation.
But again, even with waste collectors employed and working tirelessly to keep this city clean, it amazes me that commuters make them work so hard for their money.
I will still be forever grateful that it’s not a giant sewer or landfill, but I certainly do wish people would take the Texas mentality to heart and don’t mess with it.
(They are even making a movie about it with Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara.)