I’m recently reading a lot about the concept of ‘nuisance’ in the Victorian city, and have been really taken by discussions by David Churchill, Christopher Hamlin and Andy Croll about the concept.
Podcast on my initial reflections:
The extract above from a talk given to the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association urged for the necessity of public playgrounds in easy walking distance of all districts, not least because working-class children had little opportunity to play out. ‘to play in the street is illegal … an infraction of municipal law’.
As far as I am aware, there were no specific byelaws against children playing in the street at that time, but they could be accused of obstructing the highway under the 1835 Highways Act. They would also be picked upon by the legion of sanitary inspectors who began to police ‘nuisance’ and ‘annoyance’ in public spaces, who would (as well as local curtain-twitching property owners and ratepayers) raise grievances to the local police about such activity as snow-ball throwing and play-fighting (Churchill, p. 104; Crook, 373).
I’m drawn to the idea of the ‘urban commons’ as (not the technical definition of a common in the boundaries of a borough, but rather) an ideal of a public realm and being the parallel to the rural commons in this period. Property owners and local government and policing determined what this ideal was, often centred around the right to use the king’s highway, and with similar debates and contests over who had customary right to use it, and who could police and regulate it. As Hamlin discusses, urbanisation and over-crowding stretched the capability of the public realm to cope with the numbers, in effect creating a ‘tragedy of the urban commons’ in its over-use (Hamlin, 374). Regulation was enacted in byelaws and local policing as well as inspection regimes. But this often excluded those deemed to be trespassing or encroaching or taking advantage of the urban commons.
David Churchill, Crime Control and Everyday Life in the Victorian City: the Police and the Public (Oxford University Press, 2017)
Andy Croll, ‘Street Disorder, Surveillance and Shame: regulating behaviour in the public spaces of the late Victorian British Town’, Social History, 24: 3 (1999), 250-68
Christopher Hamlin, ‘Nuisances and Community in Mid-Victorian England: the attractions of inspection’, Social History, 38: 3 (2013), 346-79
Tom Crook, ‘Sanitary Inspection and the Public Sphere in late Victorian and Edwardian Britian: a case study in Liberal Governance’, Social History, 32: 4 (2007), 369-393