“Perambulating fever nests of our London streets”: Cabs, Omnibuses, Ambulances, and Other “Pest-Vehicles” in the Victorian Metropolis

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Cambridge University Press


In this article I seek to ground this historiographical and theoretical context in an examination of peculiarly Victorian concerns about the dangerousness of public vehicles after hire by the infectious sick. Periodically gripping Victorian Londoners from the 1850s to 1870s, this vehicular infection anxiety led directly to the introduction of the first municipal ambulance service but not before generating a wrenching debate about the contradictory aims and effects of mobility in the modern metropolis. The discursive appearance of “infectious conveyances” can be mapped across two important and related cultural registers: class contaminations and corrupting influences (always near and dear to the Victorian imagination) and legibility and spectatorship on the urban landscape. That infected cabs and omnibuses haunted a generation of Londoners should be read as a cultural event in which Victorians attempted to sort out contradictory desires regarding mobility, circulation, and visuality with regard to the profuse but ultimately also diffuse notion of contamination.