Soho: the cultural heart of London, a district in the parish of St Anne’s, epicentre of the West End’s smut, sleaze and sex trade, and unquestionably the must-see place for all manner of weirdness, whether you’re looking to ogle an octogenarian punk with an plethora of questionable piercings, to pour praise upon a paraplegic drag-act, or marvel as a homeless man busks for a “quid to get a boob-job”. Trust me, this is all very standard fare for Soho.
But would you expect to find someone eating their own poo? Hmm, possibly. But as a piece of performance art, by one oddball, with an crazy idea of what entertainment is – but not everyone.
So, why did several streets in Soho, during two weeks in a not abnormally hot summer, all eat each other’s poo, resulting in the death of 616 residents? Was it an odd arts festival? A strange cult? Or simply the people of Soho… being “quirky”? In fact, it was neither.
During the mid-19th century, Soho (a district whose fortune continually rises and falls owing to its ever changing populous and situated in the busy West End, where few people put down roots or stay for longer than is necessary) was – again - one of the more impoverished parts of town.
At its heart was Broad Street (now Broadwick Street), formerly the site of one of the city’s largest inner city plague pits - covering Carnaby Street to Poland Street, Great Marlborough Street to Broadwick Street – see my blog on Carnaby Street's Plague Pits - was now in the grip of yet another epidemic, owing to the large influx of people, and unsanitary conditions, as London’s new sewer system built by Bazelgette had only reached the posh parts of town – not Soho.
So, with no sanitation at their disposal, the Soho residents (like most of England) simply dumped the expulsion of their bodily functions - that’s wee and poo to you – into the city’s streets, causing the gutters, walkways and cellars to become cesspools of people’s filth, with thousands of tonnes of rotting, stinking and feted faecal matter floating underneath people’s floorboards as they ate.
On 31st August 1856, there were several outbreaks of Cholera (which causes vomiting, diarrhoea, dehydration and eventually death) across the city, with one major outbreak in Soho. In just three days, 127 people died in or around Broad Street, and ten days later, over 500 people had died, 12.6% of the population, leaving 616 residents dead by the time the epidemic had ceased.
The scientific theory of the day - which hadn’t been expanded on since The Great Plague of 1665/6 – was miasma, that diseases travel upon clouds of “bad air”, at least until Louis Pasteur poo-poo’d (pardon the pun) this idea with his “germ theory” in 1861.
Luckily for the Soho residents, Dr John Snow, a local physician who lived on Frith Street, was never an advocate of the “bad air” theory, and began talking to those who become ill, and the families of those who’d died, to find a common thread or source for this epidemic. Very quickly, Dr Snow had discovered one fact that unified them – they’d all collected their drinking water from the Broad Street pump. But what was it about the pump that was making everyone so ill?
As a matter of precaution, the pump was dismantled, examined and the locals were forced to seek their drinking water from another source, other pumps across the city, where the Cholera outbreak had been practically non-existent. And very quickly, within days in fact, the epidemic was gone.
Oddly, during an era when water wasn’t considered “clean” and many residents (including children) chose to drink beer instead of water, and even brushed their teeth with it, none of the workers at the Broad Street brewery contracted Cholera, as each had drank their daily allowance of beer, which is boiled during the process and destroys the Cholera bacteria.
Upon further investigation, Dr John Snow discovered that the water source of the Broad Street pump had been dug barely one metre from a large, bubbling, faeces-filled cess pit, of a family who, like everyone else, dumped their waste, either in a cess-pit, or in the street, whichever was easier. In this case, their overflowing cess-pit contained the nappies and faeces of their baby… who had recently died of Cholera.
Unwittingly, the Soho residents hadn’t consciously eaten each other’s poo – either as a dare, a party-piece, or to appear a little bit “wacky” (although I wouldn’t put it passed them) – instead, they’d each drank particles of everyone’s plop which had leaked into their everyday drinking water.
Today, (when and if the contractors return it) a replica of the Broad Street pump sits on Broadwick Street, opposite the site of the original pump street, where a lovely pub stands, named after Soho’s famous saviour – The John Snow. Go there, have a drink, maybe have a wee or a poo too, as they no longer flows to/from the same source… we’ve been informed. Although steer clear of the Guinness, it’s a bit… frothy. (that’s a joke)
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime historian, writer and tour guide of Murder Mile Walks.