Sunday, August 21, 2005


Dickens vs. The Water Works

Plenty of coverage in the London papers this weekend for Liza Picard's latest in her series of London histories, Victorian London. In addition to glimpses into consumer goods -- "did you know that in the mid-1860s a top-of-the-range velocipede, complete with umbrella and sketch desk, would set you back 100 guineas?" -- the book is praised in the Guardian for its attention to everyday needs among householders:

Picard is particularly good on the sort of thing that contemporary chroniclers didn't always think to put in: her chapter on "Practicalities" is fascinating, especially with regard to water and gas supplies, refuse collection, postal services and the like. By the late 1840s, many houses were connected to a primitive water mains, the service being supplied by one of any number of private companies. Water was provided either at basement level or, for a 50% premium, the "high service" allowed it to be pumped to a height of 13 feet, thereby serving a first-floor bathroom. Charles Dickens was one of the few to pay the extra, and his frustration with the service rings clearly down the years: "My supply of water is often absurdly insufficient and ... although I pay the extra service-rate for a Bath Cistern I am usually left on a Monday morning as dry as if there was no New River Company in existence - which I sometimes devoutly wish were the case."

Picard gets not one but two reviews at the Telegraph, including a nod to two varieties of crime that I too have always had a weird fascination with when I come across them in old newspapers:

Crime was a growth industry in Victorian London. Women's hair had a sale value for use in wigs, consequently women were sometimes robbed of their hair by violent muggers. More genteel was the crime of purloining lapdogs: they were lured away from the owner using a bait of meat or a bitch on heat and then returned in answer to the advertisement by the distracted owner, in order to collect the reward.

Each of the reviews -- including one at the Times -- pegs Picard for not advancing any Grand Theory. But her book sounds tempting anyway... and if someone's appetizers are good enough, you don't always need a main course.

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