6.1. Housing

We have the impression that all the districts of Manchester (apart from the mansions of the wealthy, on the outskirts of the town), were uniformly poor, dirty, with dirty water and excrement in the streets, and with houses with small rooms and people living in cellars. But the truth is that there was a great differentiation in the housing for the working class.

“Of the first or lowest class, averaging 1s. 3d. per week rent, the occupants are of the poorest description of persons, paying frequently one-fourth of their income for rent; by which the landlords or owners realize about eight per cent net on the outlay; whilst the dwellings are without ovens or boilers, and are often filthy, damp, and unfit for habitation; generally deficient of privies, or drainage; or, in manufacturing towns, one privy to 10 or 15 houses.

The second class of dwellings are occupied by a better class of labourers, paying about one-sixth of their incomes for rent; producing, perhaps, 8 ¾ per cent to the owners as interest on their capital; and although many of them are very defective, as regards drainage and privies, they are still much better provided than the class before described; and many of them have ovens or boilers. 

Of the third or best class, the occupants being generally more skilled and a better class of workmen, whose rent amounts to about one-eighth of their income, producing 9 ¾ per cent on the outlay to the owners; and here we find far superior accommodation and comparatively comfortable dwellings, well drained, and provided with privies; frequently gardens, and in most of them ovens or boilers.

These results confirm the lamentable fact, that the lower the poor are reduced in the social scales, the more they are subject to imposition and extortion.

The cottages erected by the manufacturers, and other respectable owners of cottage property, are very superior in every respect to those built or purchased by avaricious speculators, whose sole object is gain, and who enforce the payment of their rents with rigid severity. They are moreover commodious, clean, white-washed, and in many cases have the advantage of school-houses.”

(These comments refer to the whole region of Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Staffordshire, not just to Manchester)

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Population, 17. Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, p. 247)

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Population, 17. Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, p. 242)

The table above shows that there were, for example, 3,700 families in Manchester and Salford who could pay 4 to 5 shillings a week for rent, and 2,200 families who paid 5 shillings to 8 shillings. Supposing the ratios of income to rent given above, namely one sixth and one eighth, then the medium workers had total family incomes of from 24 to 30 shillings, and the well-paid workers had total family incomes of from 40 to 64 shillings. 

The houses in Manchester were built by people who used a flimsy form of construction in order to get out a maximum of profit from the property. The houses were built at a minimum cost, without cellars or foundations, and with walls of only half a brick thickness. 

But the investors were not rich people, but “building clubs”, whose members were workers with good earnings and tradespeople. There had been possibly 150 of these clubs in Manchester and nearby towns; if each club had 100 “investors” at 100 pounds each, this would correspond to a total of 1,500,000 pounds. At 60 pounds cost of construction each, this would be 25,000 houses which had been built with this scheme. 

The members paid 10 shillings per month, thus every 2 months the club had 100 pounds to start a building. This shows us that there were a good number of working-class men who could save 10 shillings a month, and also had taken the decision to use this amount in an “investment”. A person who wanted to build at this moment on a given lot, could take up all the money for the house, and contracted to pay the money in the following months to his co-investors. The payments for the house were assured by a mortgage on the house.

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Population, 17. Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, 1842, pp. 240-241)

(J. T. Slugg, Reminiscences of Manchester Fifty Years Ago, J. E. Cornish, Manchester, 1881; Chapter XXV, Building Clubs)

The lodging houses where the indigents could sleep for from 1 penny to 3 pennies a night, were the least sanitary housing units in Manchester. There were probably 5,000 to 8,000 people sleeping in these places each night.


No. of houses 

District No. 1         0      District No. 9             0                    
2    108                         10           12                    
3.     51                         11           26                    
4.       0                         12           –                    
5.       6                         13           60               
 6.       0                         14             1                 
7.       3                                      ___                    
8.       0                                       267  

(Kay, 1832, p. 20)

“In some of these houses as many as 6 or 8 beds are contained in a single room; in others, where the rooms are smaller, the number is necessarily less; but it seems to be the invariable practice of these “keepers of fever beds”, as the proprietors were styled by Dr. Ferrar, to cram as many beds into each room as it can possibly be made to hold: and they are often placed so close to each other that there is scarcely room to pass between them. The scene which these places present at night is one of the most lamentable description; the crowded state of the beds, filled promiscuously with men, women, and children; the floor covered over with the filthy and ragged clothing they have just put off, and with their various bundles and packages, containing all of the property they possess, mark the depraved and blunted state of their feelings, and the moral and social disorder that exists. The suffocating stench and the heat of the atmosphere are almost intolerable to a person coming in from the open air, and plainly indicate its insalubrity.”    

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Population, 20. On the Prevalence of Diseases …. Manchester, 1842, pp. 319-320)

In Bradford a large number of the workers owned their houses:

“Do many of the labouring classes own houses?” “Many of the working classes have built their own cottages; those that have saved perhaps 60 l. or 70 l. have purchased land and raised money on mortgages, and then have erected others. In some instances clubs, sustained by monthly payments, have built, and the houses are divided by valuation and lot.

“What proportion of labouring class houses are held directly or indirectly by themselves?” “I cannot state precisely; probably there might be one-third of the cottage houses owned by the labouring class.”

“Are there other classes that are wholely dependent on cottage rent?” “Yes; I know several who sink all their capital in cottages, and depend on the rent.”

(Report of the Commissioners on the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts,1845, Vol. 2 p. 183; Bradford, Dwellings of the Working Classes, evidence of Mr. Joseph Farrar, one of the Secretaries of the Mechanics’ Institution)

Bradford, Back-to-Back Houses, Construction 1830’s, Photograph 1915

(George Sheeran, Bradford in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing, Stroud, 2017; Item 4, Gathorne Street, Great Horton)

The fathers of the inhabitants of these houses, who had probably lived in the countryside, could not have expected that their sons would have lived in a well-constructed house like this, and even less, that they might be owners.

In 1821, the owner of medium size flax mill in Dundee, Mr. William Brown, visited Leeds to inform himself about the spinning of flax there. He found a normal industrial town apparently without housing overcrowding or sanitary problems in the streets. 

“The hands employed in the Leeds mills are nearly the same in manner, dress and appearance as those of Scotland. I observed them several times dispersing from the mills and took notice of them. A greater proportion of them seem to be young boys and girls of from nine to twelve years of age. In general they are not so stout and healthy as the Scotch – scarcely one of them to be seen of a ruddy complexion. They are certainly more comfortably lodged, their houses are but two storeys high and each family occupied a whole house. Cooking and eating in the lower flat or room and sleeping in the upper. They seem remarkably clean, and few are without neat and substantial furniture. The streets, roads and lanes are however, as irregular, narrow, wet and dirty as any in Scotland. In passing some mills on Sunday I heard knocking of hammers within, and learned that it is quite common to repair on Sundays. Indeed, tradesmen in most parts of England don’t stick at doing a bit of work on that day.”

(Brown, 1821, p. 97) 

Leeds in the 1820’s was still a “pre-Industrial Revolution” town. It had a population of 49,000 in the town proper and a further 35,000 in the surrounding “out-townships”. The Museum was opened in 1821. In 1828 there were concerts (6 in the winter season), and a theatre (only in summer). The Baths were opened in 1820. The new Market Hall was opened in 1827, in a classical style, and had a large number of stalls for butchers and other tradesmen. The industries were woollen cloths, flax spinning, pottery, plate glass, and iron foundries (Meidinger, 1828, pp. 310-311).As in Manchester, there was considerable variety in the industry sectors (in both towns, only 25 % of the labour force worked in the textile mills). 

The question is, how was it that the town in twenty years developed (?) into a place of extreme filthiness, as documented in the Report of the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Edwin Chadwick in 1842. In 1832 the town had an outbreak of cholera, which took 700 lives.

The primary cause was the increase in the population of 80 % in 20 years:

HousesPersons p. HousePopulation with

1801, 1811, 1821, 1831: Census/ 1839: Statistical Committee Town Council, 1839/ 1841, 1851, 1858: Baker, 1858

But as we see that the number of houses increased practically in proportion to the number of persons, it is not clear how the density of the population increased, and the sanitary condition of the town got worse (prosaically: the tons of filth, divided by the number of streets, increased).            

The explanation appears to be that the new houses were not built on extensions to the area of the town, but rather were “inserted” into the existing street blocks. We can see from a comparison of the town plan of Mr. Fowler in 1817 and the Ordnance Survey Map 218 of 1846, that the continuous built-up area increased by only about 25 % between these two dates. Equally, the number of streets increased only from 450 to 586 from 1817 (Commercial Directory, Baines) to 1839 (Statistical Committee Town Council).

The method of inserting (“infilling”, “back-building”) the houses was to add new “twins” to the houses in a street. “Back-to-back houses” were formed of two houses, stuck one to another, without only one common wall forming the back wall of each. The majority were “one up, one down”, that is, the living area was below, and the sleeping area was above. What happened in the working-class areas of Leeds, was that originally there was one row of houses on a street, one row of houses on the other street of the block, and a large “court” between the houses with the privies and washing areas. It was easy and cheap to build a house on the space behind; the owner of the land had already paid for the second piece of land, and only had to pay for three walls, as the back wall already existed. The court was made much “thinner”. The population density per 1,000 sq. ft. (for example) doubled, but the number of persons per house remained the same. 

The builder also did not have to add sanitary arrangements, as would have done if the houses were built in a new street. But this also meant that the inhabitants of the houses, instead of being (for example) 30 families with 5 “out-offices” were now 60 families with 5 “out-offices”. The filthiness was even greater than before. 

(Ordnance Survey Plan OST (57) City of Leeds, taken from Yasumoto, 1995, Figure 18.1, p. 301, Working-class housing (back-to-back houses))

We note that every two or three houses, a passage or “tunnel” is inserted to give access from the front door of each house, via the street, to the court.

Following, a drawing of back-to-back houses in an outer area of Manchester; the houses in each block were all built at the same time, on new “streets” (we can see the washing hanging out, over the streets!).

(Hatton, 1854, plate after p. 8)

The back-to-back houses in Leeds (and in other towns, principally in Yorkshire) were usually 15 feet by 15 feet, and 12 feet to the ceiling, for each of the two rooms. In Leeds, these houses usually had 5 persons (2 adults, 3 children); if the house had a cellar, this was often sub-let to an Irish lodger. These houses were not pleasant or healthy to live in, but it must be said that these dimensions were roughly the same as those of the country cottages, where their fathers or grandfathers had lived. 

(Hatton, 1854, plate before p. 9)

This house is more “splendid” than the majority of back-to-backs; normally they had only two storeys, and did not always have a cellar room.

According to opinions in the nineteenth century, the main disadvantage of the back-to-back’s was that there was no through current of air from front to back, and also no movement of air up to the upper room. This caused certainly respiratory problems in the inhabitants. The building of back-to-backs by “infilling” made the back court much smaller, and the proportion of sanitary arrangements to the number of persons much worse. Also, if you lived in a house which faced (from the front door) to the north, the sun did not enter in your house for the whole year.      

We do have a detailed survey of the difference in health conditions and mortality between “through” houses and back-to-back’s, reported by Dr. Darra Mair in 1910 for the years 1898 to 1907 over thirteen industrial towns in the West Riding (A Report on Relative Mortality in Through and Back-to-Back Houses in certain Towns in the West Riding of Yorkshire).The general conclusion in the introduction was “that even relatively good types of back-to-back houses, when compared with through houses, have a death-rate from all causes taken together which is 15 to 20 per cent. in excess of the death-rate in through houses”. “… in back-to-back houses there is excessive mortality from certain important groups of diseases … The groups of diseases thus showing excess are diseases of the chest, like bronchitis or pneumonia, and diseases especially associated with defective growth and development of the young child.” 

In the whole of Great Britain, according to the Census, the number of persons per house remained the same from 1801 to 1851, around 5.6; the figure was the same for England and Wales. (Cheshire, 1854, Table IV, p. 47). This means that the overcrowding in the towns was not due to an increase in the number of persons per house, but rather to the fact that the houses were being built closer to one another, i. e. inserting the houses in old parts of the town, or building in new areas with narrower streets. 

The industrial towns were not more crowded in terms of persons per house, than the rest of the country (1851): Birmingham 5.1, Bradford 5.3, Leeds with out-townships 4.8, Liverpool 6.9 (cellar dwellings), Manchester 6.0, Newcastle 8.4 (tenement buildings), Sheffield 5.7, Wolverhampton 5.4 (Cheshire, 1854, Table XVII, pp. 63-68).

We also know that the houses were not being built smaller. We take the factor of decennial increase in houses from 1801-1811 to 1841-1851, 334,000 / 222,000 = 1.50 times (Cheshire, 1854, Table III, p. 52). We then take the increase in brick production, decade 1840-1849 against 1800-1809, 1,593,000,000 / 779,000,000 = 2.04 times (Lucas, 1997, p. 31). The number of bricks increases somewhat more quickly than the number of people.


This town was known to have worst sanitary condition in England at mid-century. The Medical Officer, Dr. Duncan, wrote his report to the Commission on the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts (1844), with the title “On the Physical Causes of the High Rate of Mortality in Liverpool”. 

The reason for the high mortality and horrible problems of housing and sanitation, was that the working class-people were squeezed together even more tightly than in Leeds, and the streets and alleys were even narrower. 

Liverpool had more persons living in cellars than any other town. In 1842 there were 6,294 cellars with 20,168 persons, which was 10 % of the Census population of the Parish; in 1847, the number of persons had risen to at least 30,000, due to the poor Irish who had had to flee Ireland due to the Famine. The cellars were 10 or 12 feet square and 6 feet deep below ground level; obviously they had no exits for rubbish or personal necessities.    

But a larger proportion of persons were “housed” in “court dwellings”. These are sometimes described as houses, three stories high, around an open space. But the reality was much harder, and we show a model and a museum reconstruction to make clear the “claustrophobia”. 

Court Housing model card

“Densely packed court housing in a state of severe delapidation in the St. Anne Street area is clearly shown in this model. 

The 124 three-storey houses had been built prior to 1828. The majority were of the worst type of insanitary house, placed back-to-back without through ventilation and yard space, the closet accommodation unsuitable and inadequate, and the water supply obtained from a standpipe in the court. 563 people lived here and the general death rate was three times higher than in the rest of the city. [Your author is not in agreement with this figure]

The model, originally part of the collections of the School of Hygiene (established 1898), was used as a teaching aid for students studying public health.”

We can see that the small passageways make the movement of refuse very difficult, as also the ventilation.


Here we have a reconstruction of a central court, with the house entrances. Usually there were about 6 houses per court, each with a separate door. The houses were of 3 storeys, one room on each floor, the room was about 12 feet by 14 feet. There would be one toilet area per court. 

Galkoff's and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place | National Museums ...


In 1842 there were 1,982 courts with 10,692 courthouses, inhabited by 55,354 persons (25 % of the town’s population). In 1864, when new construction was prohibited, there were found to be 3,073 courts with 17,825 courthouses, inhabited by about 110,000 persons. On average 5.5 persons lived in each courthouse (480 sq. ft). 

Those of the population who did not live in cellars or in courthouses, inhabited “back-to-back” houses, or shop/warehouse buildings which had been abandoned by their owners (better income level) when they left the commercial centre to live in the newer parts of the town. These had more square feet per person, but the sanitary installations were just as bad. 

Dr. Duncan, who would be named the first Medical Officer of the town of Liverpool, and carried out many projects to improve the living and health conditions of the people, was of the opinion that the main cause of the high mortality was the extreme density of the people in the houses, and of the houses in the area of the town.

DeathsInhabitants to
sq. mile
(total area)
Inhabitants to
sq. mile
(builded area)
Metropolis1,870,7271 in 37.3827,42350,000 ?
Birmingham138,817   “  36.7933,69940,000 ?
Leeds168,667   “  36.7320,89287,256   
Sheffield85,293   “  32.92
Bristol64,298   “  32.38
192,108   “  29.6483,224100,000 ?
223,054   “  28.75100,899138,224

(Dr. Duncan, Table 3 and Table 7)

But the mortality rates per ward (12 in the parish) actually varied from 1 in 23.50 (Vauxhall) to 1 in 41.62 (Rodney-street + Abercromby). 

The population of these areas seems to have good incomes in the first third of the century. We have a report of the majority of the families in Vauxhall ward in 1835 (Fitch, 1842). 15 % of the men were middle class, 45 % were labourers, 25 % were mechanics and artisans; of these last, 150 were engineers and smiths, 160 joiners, 250 shoe and boot makers, 140 tailors, and 190 sailors and ship pilots. The gross income on an average of 50 families was 17.5 shillings per week; of which 2.5 shillings was spent on meat, 3.1 shillings on bread, 0.3 shillings on oatmeal, 1.0 shillings on potatoes, and the rest of 10.5 shillings on rent, clothing, etc. Of the totality of habitations, 581 are good or comfortable, 1355 are tolerable, 764 are bad, 680 are miserable, 218 are destitute (these housing data are from 1842, at the end of the Depression). 

The financial situation of the people was made catastrophic by the Depression of 1839-1842. The average income was reduced to the half in 1842, and one third of the families had no visible means of support. They did however return to reasonable level in the following years.

But in 1847-49, at least 60,000 Irish persons arrived and stayed, fleeing from the Famine in their country; and this was at the same time as an epidemic of typhus. They generally found a place to sleep in the cellars, as they had no money, which meant that in many cases 9 persons were sleeping in one cellar. These persons for the first years were absolutely destitute, so they had to be given soup and bread at the cost of the town council. The ratepayers were assessed to pay 1 shilling in the pound, 3 times, additional to their basic rate (Lowe, 1974, p. 160); this at a time when “outdoor relief” was illegal in the country.

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