The parish pump, and the evil that came of it

03 April 2007

It’s a bit curate’s-egg, this history, declares Leigh Hatts


The Ghost Map: An epidemic and the two men who battled to save Victorian London
Steven Johnson

Penguin Allen Lane £16.99 (978-0-713-99974-7)
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

STEVEN JOHNSON, an American, tells how in the 1850s Dr John Snow, a vegetarian, and a young curate, Henry Whitehead, proved that cholera was spread not by air but by water.

They lived in Soho, where a cholera outbreak in 1854 killed huge numbers of people. They began investigating independently, but it was, claims Johnson, the curate who produced the final crucial piece of evidence that confirmed the theory and saved lives. The Vestry Committee’s report triumphed over The Lancet and the General Board of Health.

This story of how a curate’s obsessive and fearless visiting gave him intimate local knowledge is worth telling, but the manner is disappointing. American spellings and odd phrases jar in descriptions of London. The book has plenty of padding, including a description of Elizabeth I’s lavatory, and specula-tion about future epidemics.

There is even an account of Queen Victoria giving birth, but the baby (Leopold) is not named. The author describes Soho’s terrible sanitary conditions in minute detail, but fails to give even a general portrait of the Soho buildings. There is no description of White-head’s base: the Gothic St Luke’s, completed in 1838 and therefore to many, in 1854, a church as old only as the young Queen’s reign.

A key player who missed the vital clues was the Board of Health President, Benjamin Hall. Like a Sir Humphrey, he had decided the conclusions of his official report long before the Commission sat. But it would help the reader if he were also identified as a well-known figure of the day. Although Johnson mentions Big Ben, he fails to remind us that it was the pompous Benjamin Hall who gave it his name.

In the last chapter, the author mentions the John Snow pub, opposite the site of the pump that was the source of the cholera epidemic, where the doctor is remembered every year. Sadly, St Luke’s, where there might be a memorial to the curate, has been demolished.

Leigh Hatts is editor of In SE1, a South Bank arts magazine.

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