Posted by: scott28k | December 15, 2020

Victorian Frontline Workers and Frontline Workers Today

The book Street Life in London is an account, of sorts, of the various jobs and lives on the streets of London. These jobs ranged from necessary to peculiar. For example, the “Flying Dustmen,” who were hired to remove dust and any useless materials from homes, or “Wall Working,” or “fence working,” where part of a wall or fence could be rented or obtained for free for advertising purposes. The one profession however, that caught my attention, was that of the Public Disinfectors. Reading about them immediately brought to mind what we are presently experiencing with COVID-19. Although there are similarities with our current situation and that of the Victorian era, there are differences as well. The main difference is the actual job of the Public Disinfector himself.

Firstly, the Public Disinfector was highly recognized and honored, just like our doctors and nurses who are on the front lines. The Public Disinfectors are described as “modest heroes,” and “the humble rank and file of the army enrolled in the service of science and humanity.” It states in this section that they risk their lives daily, and the same can be said of our fearless frontline workers. What is also striking is that, even in the Victorian era, there were laws in place, specifically the Sanitary Act, to try to combat the spread of whatever germ, virus, or disease that was plaguing the public at that time. We have a mask mandate today. Although there were laws/ordinances in place, not everyone followed them (sound familiar?) and that is where the Public Disinfector, or a representative of that team, comes in. An inspector goes to the home of the purported infected party and inquires as to whether or not someone in that household is sick/infectious. If that particular party is found to be telling untruths about the status of their household, they would be either fined or imprisoned, under the Sanitary Act. I have yet to know of anyone who has been fined because they weren’t wearing their masks. It seems as if the laws were enforced more in the Victorian era.

What makes this job stand out from other jobs of frontline workers is that these men actually go into the homes (if they are permitted) of the infected person to start the process of disinfecting it. The infected person either has to leave the premises and most likely go to the hospital, or stay isolated in a room, and that room will need to be disinfected, as well. All textiles need to be disinfected: clothes, bedding, carpet, curtains. They are taken outside and put into a disinfecting oven. Today we have to take care of it ourselves, and sometimes it is the very person who is sick who must do it. That must be difficult, especially for those who are suffering more than just the general symptoms of COVID-19.

Photograph - Public Disinfectors
Street Life in London, Public Disinfectors

After noting the similarities and differences of disease and disinfecting in the Victorian era and today, one thing is certain: disease knows no bounds. It doesn’t care about class or race. The Public Disinfectors “alike disinfect the house of the poor and the rich; one day destroying the rubbish in a rag merchant’s shop, and the next handling delicate damask…in some Belgravian mansion. Another thing is certain: the frontline workers of today, without question, are putting their lives on the line to try to save as many of ours.

Works Cited: Thomson, J. “Public Disinfectors.” Street Life in London, edited by Adolphe Smith, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, pp. 16–18.


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