Water, Water

Asa Briggs

  • The Conquest of Water: The Advent of Health in the Industrial Age by Jean-Pierre Goubert
    Polity, 300 pp, £25.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 7456 0508 7

Water is news in Thatcherite Britain in a way that would have surprised politicians – or economists – a generation ago. In some parts of the world, like California or Colorado, water has always been politics – bitter, tough, even violent politics. On a global scale we divide the world into arid and non-arid zones and probe the oceans. Some of our greatest engineering projects in every generation, back to the ancient world, have been concerned with the movement and control of water. Steam-engines were used to pump water out of mines before they, were used to drive machines. It is arguable whether the best treatises on water since the 18th century have been written by engineers or by doctors. Chemists have been almost as active. It was a landmark when Lavoisier described water as H2O.

Introduced concisely by Le Roy Ladurie, who adds nothing and subtracts a little from what the author of this valuable monograph has to say, The Conquest of Water is mainly about France, and the perspectives throughout are indubitably French. Britain and the United States appear from time to time, sometimes as influences, more often as subjects of brief comparison. There are even more cursory references to Italy and to Germany, and a few to Third World countries, where water is often not accessible even when it is abundant.

Viewed from outside, French concern for water has often seemed to centre on bidets, vespasiennes, eaux minérales (after Vichy, the image of which was dimmed for reasons which had nothing to do with water, came ubiquitous Perrier), and at least for the historically-initiated, water power: France was short of coal. There was a time, too, not all that long ago, when another aspect of French concern was expressed in the requirement to pay for water in the locked bathroom for which the key was always carefully kept locked away at the hotel or pension desk.

A few of these subjects are mentioned in Goubert’s work, which, for example, traces the bidet back to the times of Francis I and through the château and the brothel before it was transferred to the home. Yet the author has surprisingly little to say about spas or eaux minérales. He is informative, however, on washbasins, fountains and washhouses. On the first, he reminds us that the French word for washbasin, lavabo, is borrowed from the language of ecclesiastical liturgy: lavabo inter innocentes manus meas. Of the second he rightly notes that the justification for erecting fountains in the 19th century lay, as in Britain, more in the allegorical messages that the fountains conveyed than in the water that they distributed. On the third, he demonstrates conclusively that their social functions were more interesting than their laundry operations. Compare My Beautiful Launderette.

The communal washhouse, described by Goubert in the first instance as ‘of the British type’, was sometimes attached to the town hall as proof of the ‘democratisation of water’, but it was as a centre of social life – and of gossip – that it made its way from politics into literature. In Zola’s L’Assommoir there is a vivid account of ‘the wagging of tongues’ as the washing went on. Thus, of Clémence, we read: ‘The cheeky beggar had her say, some dirty word or other, over each article; she laid bare all the misfortunes and all the misconducts of the customers, joking over all the holes and all the stains that passed through her hands ... so that, at every sorting, the whole neighbourhood of the Goutte-d’Or was taken to pieces at the shop.’ This chapter in French social history is firmly ruled off by Goubert, who cannot always be – or chooses not to be – quite so chronologically precise: ‘after 1960, the introduction of domestic washing-machines turned what had previously been a public activity into a private, family affair.’

If there is an occasional note of nostalgia in Goubert’s book – and it is certainly present at the end, when he discusses lost or disappearing ways of peasant life – his approach is orderly rather than impressionistic. History falls into three stages: cosmological, the age of the sacred and magical fountain, the religious age, the age of ‘the dews of heaven’, and ‘the third age, which had its roots in the 16th century’, but which did not blossom until ‘the age of progress’. Likewise, his book is carefully divided into three parts: ‘water, purity and hygiene’; ‘mass diffusion’, an interesting section, concerned not with water pipes but with the media and with contrasts in the treatment of themes concerning water in different media, and with the role of hospitals and of schools; and ‘the effects of the conquest, the case of France’, which ends with a useful summary, ‘water in everyday life’, and a short conclusion on ‘the significance of change’.

‘Water,’ Goubert concludes, ‘conquered man in a triumph linked to increasing industrialisation and an economy that devoured water.’ At the same time, water retained some of the ‘ancient power’ that it had exerted in the pre-industrial, pre-scientific age. The three stages overlap. With an almost inevitable reference to Gaston Bachelard, therefore, Goubert emphasises that water is still a ‘substance of life and death’ which gives rise to all sorts of rites intended to tame it.

It was not only ‘ancient power’ that was associated with water, for, as Goubert shows, in ‘ethnographic culture’ there might be a deep-seated distrust of it. Contact between the body and water was dreaded. Dirt might be deemed to provide a protective barrier against disease, ‘a kind of cordon sanitaire’. What Goubert calls ‘the conquest of water’ was a new 19th and 20th-century development – and in France as much a 20th as a 19th-century development. It involved in the first instance the creation of an expensive and intricate infrastructure, ‘an entire sanitary system based on newly discovered hygienic standards’: ‘water was now monitored, distributed and drained away. As a result, the environment underwent a profound change, particularly in towns and cities.’

Mentalités changed, of course, as much as the environment, sometimes under pressure – as in parts of France – sometimes ‘naturally’, particularly in urban areas, as ‘hygienic standards were internalised’ and ‘a new body code of behaviour and new sets of attitudes emerged.’ Families, particularly mothers, were more influential than schools or hospitals in changing attitudes, and in the process ‘both the body and the physical environment underwent ‘a radical transformation’.

Some of the most original – and memorable – sections of Goubert’s book are concerned with the human body. It was not only peasants who were suspicious of too much contact with water. Religion set its own terms. Bathing the naked body was disapproved of as heathen inside and outside convents and monasteries: ‘the Holy Virgin herself has never seen her own naked body.’ Even after ‘new attitudes’ developed, it was mainly the washing of ‘the decent parts of the body’ that was recommended. There was nothing ‘peasant’ about this emphasis: for the Comtesse de Pange, ‘the idea of immersing oneself up to the neck in hot water was considered pagan.’ Goubert refers at the very end of his discussion to what he calls the Medieval precepts of the School of Salerno: ‘First wash your hands in clear fresh water. Splash it on eyes in order to refresh them. Comb your hair, clean your face and then brush your teeth.’ That was as far as you might be legitimately expected to go. Unfortunately just what the School of Salerno was or why it advocated what it did are matters relegated to a brief footnote.

In a report of the Committee on Hygiene in Schools, set up in 1882 by the Ministry of Public Education, it was ‘admitted’ that

of all the civilised nations, ours is one of those which cares least about cleanliness ... even among the well-to-do classes strict bodily cleanliness does not always extend beyond the visible parts of the body ... Habits are even worse among rural populations. One has only to practise medicine in the country to know the terror that the recommendation of a bath inspires in most peasants.

Comparisons with England and with the United States are pertinent here; and Goubert identifies one particularly interesting ‘reverse’ passage on the subject of the body by an English writer on science, S. Parkes, whose book The Chemical Catechism was published in 1818: ‘The human body is itself a laboratory, in which by the various functions of secretion, absorption, etc., composition and decomposition are perpetually going on ... Every inspiration we take, and every pulse that vibrates within us, effects a chemical change upon the animal fluids.’ It is significant that, according to Goubert, France, unlike England – or Italy – had no doctors specialising in the field of hygiene and public health in the 19th century. The field was left to others.

Even in England, where there were such specialists, there were many continuing signs of trust in the virtues of dirtiness in the 19th century – and that despite the fact that, in the century before, John Wesley, not mentioned by Goubert, had preached – and was not alone in preaching – that cleanliness came after godliness. Wesley far more than any of his contemporaries also knew about ‘the internalising of standards’. The omission of Evangelical religion from a work such as this would be impossible in England, and to an English reader it is surprising to read a wide ranging book on water that makes no reference either to Wesley or to Bentham, only three en passant to John Simon or to Lord Shaftesbury, and, sadly, none to Charles Kingsley’s The Waterbabies (1862).

Kingsley, like George Eliot, was a firm believer in ‘the Sanitary Idea’, a phrase that is not mentioned by Goubert but was of crucial importance since it implied getting behind Fate. He preached and wrote also on the merits of pure water, on the unequal access to it of the poor, on the delights of the stream, and, not least, on the science of the subject. Of The Waterbabies itself Kingsley told a friend that ‘the physical science in the book is not nonsense, but accurate and earnest, as far as I dare speak yet.’

Goubert’s analysis, which in pieces is genuinely pioneering, would have been more satisfying throughout had it had a firm rather than a perfunctory comparative dimension and had the author read rather more widely. Philip Hamerton, in his French and English: A Comparison (1889), includes a particularly interesting chapter on comparative cleanliness which ends with the judgment that ‘France and England may be ranked amongst the tolerably clean nations, England taking the lead: but real cleanliness is not general in either ... The majority prefer a modest degree of dirtiness as being more conducive to their true comfort.’

There is a mass of later secondary British writing on the subject of water and health which is strictly relevant and easily accessible; and Goubert’s failure to use it demonstrates that there is still too big a gap between French and British versions of social history. None of the substantial volume of British writings on cholera seems to have been read by Goubert, and this is all the more unfortunate in view of the fact that some of the best, like Richard Evans’s prize-winning Death in Hamburg, are not concerned with Britain at all. The literature of cholera is now abundant. Nor has typhoid been completely neglected.

On more topical themes there is little in Goubert that will be of help in relation to current debates in Britain about water privatisation, for although he includes information both on public and private providers of water for family and for industrial purposes before the 20th century, he concludes, perhaps a little too easily, that ‘it is extremely difficult, just as it would be for the present period, to conduct an analysis of the price of water.’ For the present period Goubert refers to a Rapport de la Cour des Comptes in 1976 and to the articles that appeared around that time in the daily and weekly press. Given present British preoccupations, a fuller account of Compagnie Générale des Eaux, established in 1853, would have been useful. It would have had to deal with both investment, including new investment, and pricing.

Goubert’s book marks a beginning stage, therefore, rather than an end stage, in the study of the history of water, which he has shown to be a fascinating subject, capable of stimulating the imagination as well as the intellect. One English poet whom he does quote, Coleridge, produced what is perhaps the best-known line in English poetry about water. It is not this that Goubert quotes, however, but his poem on the River Rhine:

In Köhln, a town of monks and bones ...
I counted two and seventy stenches,
All well defined, and several stinks!
Ye Nymphs that reign o’er sewers and sinks,
The river Rhine, it is well known,
Doth wash your city of Cologne;
But tell me, Nymphs, what power divine
Shall henceforth wash the River Rhine?