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Champion Of The Poor

Nicola Gordon Bowe

In the Fever King’s Preserves: Sir Charles Cameron and the Dublin slums, by Lydia Carroll, A & A Farmar, 250 pp, €30, ISBN: 978-1906353209

The warm glow of Walter Osborne’s colourful painting The Fish Market, Patrick Street on the cover of this meticulously researched, sympathetic book, gives little indication of the abject degradation of the lives of the very poor in Dublin in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Only when you look at the sad, downcast eyes and the shaved heads of the children and the muddy ground their bare feet would have stood on as they gather round the cart of the hunched fishmonger is there a hint of the misery so many people endured in the “run-down, vermin-infested and overcrowded” city that Ireland’s formerly thriving capital had become by the 1840s.

With one of the largest city populations in the United Kingdom, with sharply declining opportunities for the many skilled workers who became victims of deteriorating circumstances, work was frequently only seasonal, irregular, unskilled and predominantly for men, so that rents were beyond a growing number of people. The former mansions of the rich were transformed into death-traps for the poor, with eight to ten families living in one dilapidated, unfurnished house, amid human and animal waste, and half the families in the city living abjectly in one room. Many were homeless.

It was only after Dublin Corporation assumed responsibility for the city’s inhabitants in 1840, and the publication of pioneering social reform reports after the 1841 census, like that of Sir William Wilde, connecting the locality of streets to mortality rates, that deteriorating health, hygiene and housing problems began to be addressed. Until then, the dire effects of contagious diseases, contaminated water, milk, and clothing, adulterated food, lack of sanitation and severe overcrowding had not been studied. Nonetheless, it would be over seventy years before the government would finally even acknowledge the causes of the resulting disease, destitution and homelessness that prevailed among an increasingly unemployed population, many of whom had been forced by the effects of the Famine to migrate from the countryside to Dublin (the 1911 census records a third of Dubliners not born in the city), if not to Liverpool, Glasgow or America.

The author, a statistician and seventh-generation Dubliner, offers us a vivid, carefully documented account of the cumbersome bureaucracy, legislative neglect and vested self-interest of government officials, greedy landlords, middlemen and complacent, rate-avoiding suburban entrepreneurs with whom the single-minded, courageous and determined sanitary reformers had to contend. Chief among these in Dublin was Charles Cameron (1830-1921), appointed the city’s public analyst in 1862, and medical officer of health in 1874, posts he continued to actively and defiantly hold until his death more than half a century later.

An anti-sectarian Protestant Unionist with Scots military ancestry (whose biographical details Dr Carroll has unravelled and chronicled for the first time), raised in humble circumstances, speaking Irish, who was knighted, decorated, admired and respected by his contemporaries, Cameron is now barely acknowledged by those who take for granted what he fought for so tirelessly. Because of him, hundreds of decaying houses, once inhabited by rich gentry in the city centre, were cleared as he sought public housing for the starving hordes ‑ dismissed as the “undeserving poor” ‑ who crowded desperately into them, unable to afford even the minimal rents of speculative philanthropic housing.

She emphasises the commercial nature of the Dublin Artisans’ Dwelling Company, run as a profitable business for its shareholders rather than as philanthropic housing for the poor. Even the Iveagh Trust’s housing was beyond the reach of the very poor. As Cameron was continually forced to confront the commercial interests of landlords, rentmen, cattle traders, butchers, property mongers, and recognise them as harmful to the poor, this pioneering consumer watchdog was necessarily undeterred by their wiles and retorts. With skill and vision, he adapted legislation and fought for its reform so as best to protect the welfare of those who were powerless to do so themselves.

Without the ceaseless campaigning, inspections, court attendances, detailed reports, publications and the popular practical demonstrations and lectures Cameron gave, thousands more Dubliners would have perished from the prevailing abysmal lack of water closets, running water, the contaminated slaughterhouses and dairies whose waste joined open sewers in streets, courtyards and inhabited cellars, the virulent diseases and fevers that spread to all social strata (including four of Cameron’s own sons), and the unimaginable hardships of chronically overpopulated tenements. Because of his energy, efficiency, determination and fearless commitment, the notoriously high death rate (“the highest in Europe”) in Dublin was halved by 1910, the thousands of miserable, overcrowded dairy yards were closed and hygienic city abbattoirs opened. We learn that only in the 1880s was contagion recognised as the cause of the rapid spread of diseases like scarlet fever, tuberculosis, typhus, typhoid fever and syphilis. On the basis of his relentless analysis of the horrifying contents of the food he examined, he was able to make the 1860 Adulteration of Food Act work to stem the addition of red lead, strychnine, sand, plaster of Paris and mercury to basic diets, to prevent narcotics and hallucinogenics being added to popular drinks, and polluted water and salt being added to milk. According to his own reckoning, no less than eight million pounds of contaminated food was detected, analysed and condemned during his time as public analyst.

The meteoric career of this seemingly tireless freeman of the city began when he returned to Dublin, fatherless and penniless, aged fifteen, with his Cavan-born mother. Well versed in chemistry, medicine, Irish medical history, public health, geology, journalism and theatre criticism, Cameron had begun his scientific self-education at the Apothecaries Hall Medical School, before being elected a precociously young professor of the progressive Dublin Chemical Society in Capel Street, aged twenty-two. Described by Dr Carroll as an “archetypal Renaissance man”, it was he who discovered the white clay that led to the setting up of the Belleek Pottery, who captivated after dinner audiences with his speeches, held the highest office of sovereign grand commander of the Masonic Order in Dublin, and extended his widely praised analytical skills to pathology and toxicology, for example after the 1882 Phoenix Park Murders.

Despite being ridiculously badly paid (in 1863, Dublin Corporation offered him £100 a year as the city’s public analyst; its mace bearer received £125), he persevered, using his laboratory facilities at the Royal College of Surgeons with no charge, and only stopping his countrywide reports and investigations when the corporation was eventually obliged to “recognize his calibre and contribution” in 1881 by giving him full control of the Public Health Office. As late as 1916, when he was eighty-six, his disapproval of the dormitory facilities in the Sinn Féin internment camp at Frongoch in Wales led to improved conditions for the prisoners while two years later, his prompt foresight in stalling the spread of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic by isolation and disinfection was his last great contribution to the city he was devoted to.

Although the reader may sometimes lose track of Cameron and his own ‑ sometimes tragic yet stoically borne ‑ family life (recorded in his hitherto unconsulted diaries) amidst the vicissitudes of sanitary legislation and its exemplary medical and scientific pioneering reformers, Lydia Carroll has done him proud. Every Dubliner should read her book, and this much loved, undervalued hero (unjustly vilified by the misguided 1913 government Inquiry into Housing conditions for the Poor) should be commemorated like his former student, Surgeon-Major Parkes, whose statue Cameron was instrumental in erecting in Merrion Square.

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