Saturday, November 08, 2008

The pump that doesn't

I was in central London yesterday and wandering through Soho when I came across this item in Broadwick Street - a water pump without a handle.

Now, as it happens, I know this pump very well. It's not a working pump (even if it had a handle). It's a commemorative piece and I actually saw it being erected and 'opened' by the leader of Westminster Council back in 1992. It marks an extraordinary story in London's long history, as does the pub nearby - the John Snow.

In 1854, London was in the grip of a terrifying cholera epidemic. There had been a number of outbreaks around the city but Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) suffered the worst. The first case was reported on the 31st August and, within just seven days, 127 people were dead. By the 10th September, the 500 mark was passed.

A local doctor, John Snow, was convinced that current theories about the transmission of disease were wrong. Back then, it was believed that smells or miasmas carried the illness (hence the old stories of people carrying 'nosegays' of flowers or perfumed pomanders to ward off disease). Snow was sure that this was not right but had neither the technology nor the resources to prove it. He therefore began to map the spread of the disease, victim by victim, and eventually traced the source back to a water pump in Broad Street that stood where the John Snow pub now stands. He also noted that brewery workers in Soho were not contracting the disease. They, of course, were habitually drinking beer rather than water. Convinced that cholera was being transmitted by the public drinking water supply, Snow removed the handle from the Broad Street pump, effectively disabling it. The spread of the disease was halted.

We now know that cholera got into the water supply because it was common practice back then to fill the cellar of the house with waste in the form of a septic tank (eek!) or to simply chuck all of the nasty stuff into the river Thames. Snow's work contributed to the decision to invest in an effective sewer system under central London. It was also the basis of the science of epidemiology.

Visitors to London are all too often shepherded around the same tired old tourist attractions. The real story of London isn't built around giant ferris wheels, waxworks or monuments to dead royalty. It's there in the back streets in the curious street names, oddly named pubs and the lives of real ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

11 comments:

doctawho42 said...

I think I've heard that story, on some documentary about modern medicine. Just as interesting now as it was then. Oh, and when I visited your brilliant* city, I would just like to say, I did NOT visit Madam Toussards or however you spell it). But I did go on the big ferris wheel. Sorry.

*Really, quite excellent.

Stevyn Colgan said...

DoctaWho42 - You're forgiven the London Eye as you do get some of the best views of London from up there. And I guess I can forgive people wanting to see things like Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square etc. What I don't get is people who come all the way here and then queue at places like Madame Tussaud's (you were close!) to see waxworks of people already, annoyingly always in the public eye! Or the Hard Rock Cafe. Why? Madness! And anyway, London is just one city in a country rich in history. Why centre a holiday there? There's Shakespeare's Stratford in Staffordshire, Stonehenge in Wiltshire, Windsor Castle in Royal Berkshire, the glorious castle at Edinburgh in Scotland, Snowdonia in Wales ... I could go on. But I won't.

Jon M said...

I was researching this last month for various nefarious reasons! Fascinating stuff!

chris hale said...

Let's face it; proper sanitation in London didn't really get off the ground until Bazalgette's great sewage system was installed during the building of the Thames Embankment.

In the 1830s (only a few years pre-Snow) the life expectancy of a member of the working class was around 22, and only 27 for persons 'of quality', and half the funerals in London were of children under ten.

Thank you for yet another fascinating post on an aspect of old London, a subject dear to my own heart, and upon which I am happy to bore people silly for hours on end!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Jon - Ah curious coincidence strikes again! I shan't ask what the nefarious purpose was ... a history of night soil disposal perhaps? Eek.

Chris - Yes, you are the history man and I am but a humble wretch at your knowledgeable feet. If feet can be knowledgeable that is. It was just too good an opportunity. I had to tell the story once I got the photos.

Anonymous said...

I am sure Shakespeare's Stratford is in Warwickshire.....

Stevyn Colgan said...

Mysterious Anonymous Nemesis - You are, of course, completely right as I well know. Staffordshire? Good grief.

What a nob I can be at times!

Lara said...

Stevyn - not sure if you have ever read the fantastic book, "The Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson. A gripping narrative...and then it suddenly dawns on you it's all true. Scary stuff.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Lara - I haven't. Sounds intriguing. I shall root it out on your recommendation. x

Lara said...

Do Stevyn! I should have included this link too - great info!

Hope the link above works!!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Lara - Ta! The link works!