After years of effort, engineer
Joseph Bazalgette designed and supervised construction of a sewer
system, completed in 1866, that drained sewage away from the Thames
and used the ebbing tide to wash it out to sea. London's air was
not much cleaner than its water. The burning of coal for heat and
cooking caused the greasy yellow "London fog" that Holmes and Watson
prowl about in:
In the third week of November,
in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London.
From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible
from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite
—from "The Bruce Partington Plans"
Watson does not
exaggerate; in the worst London fogs,
it was impossible to see past your nose
Inhabitants of London had
more to fear from their city than an unhealthy environment. Barely
thirty years before Doyle's birth, London was a criminal's paradise.
Whole areas of the city were "owned" by criminal groups, and honest
citizens hardly dared to walk through certain neighborhoods at night,
even armed. In 1829, the Metropolitan Police was founded by Home
Secretary Sir Robert Peel (hence the nickname "Bobbies"). By Conan
Doyle's birth in 1859, there were over 200 police constabulary units
in England and Wales, under the jurisdiction of individual counties.
As Conan Doyle represents them in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the
constabularies were highly bureaucratized organizations that did
things "by the book"; constables themselves tended to be seen as
good-intentioned, but plodding, and not always successful. Luckily,
unlike Inspectors Lestrade and Hopkins, Holmes's erstwhile colleagues,
the Metropolitan Police was not actually forced to match wits with
Holmes's brilliant nemesis, Moriarty, leader of the most insidious
criminal syndicate in England.