6.2. Sanitation

As to the living conditions outside the factory, obviously these did not change for those families who were already living in the town. Certainly the streets and alleys were narrow, there was a lot of dirt and excrement, and the living quarters were small; but this was already part of their life. For those families who had been living in their cottage in the countryside, where they also farmed a little, the crowding and uncleanliness in the town would have been a change for the worse. But the strange part is that the workers, while they did make representations to improve the working conditions of the children, and to reduce the long hours of work, did not complain to anybody about the bad sanitary conditions in the streets. “Mr. Scott, of West Derby, after a description of the miserable condition of the fever patients attended by him, which has already been extracted, observes – “I have met many similar conditions of misery; yet amidst the greatest destitution and want of domestic comfort, I have never heard, during the course of twelve years’ practice, a complaint of inconvenient accommodation.””

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports, 1842, No. 18, Lancashire, p. 274) 

Not all the streets in Manchester were unpaved or had excrement piled up. We see from the following page that “only” 50 % of the streets in the working class districts (Police Districts 1, 2, 3, 4) were unpaved, and “only” 50 % contained “heaps of refuse, stagnant ponds, ordure, etc.” 

(Kay, 1832, pp. 17-18; “table arranged by the Committee of Association appointed by the Special Board of Health, from the reports of the Inspectors of the various District Boards of Manchester”)

Similarly, 40 % of the houses inspected required whitewashing, 15 % required repair, less than 10 % needed repairs to the “sloughs” (drainage exits), 20 % were damp, less than 10 % were ill ventilated, and 30 % did not have a privy. This is not a good situation, and one would not like to live in these areas, but it is not as bad as the generally accepted description. We could also say “50 % of the streets did not contain heaps of refuse, stagnant ponds, ordure, etc.”, and “70 % of the houses did have a privy”. That sounds better! 

It must also be taken into account, that the upper classes of Manchester did do something – starting in 1830 – to improve the drainage conditions. “In no place in England can more anxiety be shown to remedy the evils which I have described, or more humane and philanthropic desires evinced to improve the condition of the poor, than those which exist on the part of the wealthier classes in Manchester; and the following statement, made up to the end of October in the past year, of the improvements within the last eight or nine years, since the obtainment of the Manchester Police Act in 1830, will prove that the Commissioners have not been inattentive in their duties, as far as their functions enable them to act:

            Number of streets paved and sewered         181

                                                                                    Miles  Yards

            Length of streets paved and sewered             16         540

            Length of main sewers formed                       15         678

            Length of cross sewers formed                         5        1223

Surface of streets paved, 289,971 square yards”

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Population, 1840, 17. Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, Comment by Charles Mott, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, p. 243)

They had also put into operation the first street-sweeping machine in the world in 1843:

(Wikipedia, “Street sweeper”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Street_sweeper)

The authorities in Stockport in the 1820’s and 1830’s also carried out some improvements:

“Besides the number of houses, have the conveniences of the town increased with respect of water and lighting, and so on?” “It is supplied with water by a company, with gas by a company. The town is increasing; the houses and the shops not only in number, but likewise in magnitude and in splendour. There is a general improvement in everything; it is better paved and lighted.”

“Is the sewerage also improved?” “They are making improvements in it. The old town is built upon a very uneven site, and many of the streets and alleys are inconvenient in everything; but the new parts of the town are laid out with more taste and convenience.”

(Select Committee on Commerce, Manufacture, and Shipping, 1833, Evidence of Mr. Henry W. Sefton, Stockport, p. 622)

In Leeds, the authorities – according to a report that they commissioned in 1840 – were very clear that nearly the whole town was in a bad sanitary condition. 

(Statistical Committee of the Town Council, Leeds, 1840, Table I, p. 406)

However, there are a large number of people with good incomes:

(op. cit., p. 422)

At this point, we should revise the oft-quoted report of Dr. Robert Baker, “On the State and Condition of the Town of Leeds in the West Riding of the County of York” in “Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of England” (1842), pp. 348-409. 

This has a number of disagreeable descriptions of the living conditions of the working class in Leeds and of the filth in the streets, and which give a very bad impression of the town. These are clearly true and accurate; he personally went to inspect the houses. However, he himself notes that they are not applicable to the whole of the township: “The higher parts of the town are ordinarily clean for so large a manufacturing location; but the lower parts, which lie contiguous to the river and the Becks or rivulets are dirty, confined, ill ventilated, and in many cases self-sufficient to shorten life, and especially infant life, when exposed to their influence.” (p. 349).“The lower parts of the town are furthermore disgusting, particularly on account of a general want of paving and draining, …” (p. 350).“Thus, in Leeds, by drawing a line through the centre of the map from north to south, the deaths in proportion to population on the east side of the map were, in 1839, as 1 to every 24; while on the other hand, in those parts of the town where the streets are spacious and wide, and the drainage sufficient, the deaths were only as 1 to 36; both ratios being exceedingly high, but the difference remarkable.” (p. 366).

But what we have to take into account, and what was clear to his readers, is that the year 1842 was the last year of the worst industrial recession in the century. There was a general reduction in liquidity and in sales, and the working class suffered simultaneously a lowering of the wage level and a loss of jobs, which obviously led to a situation of hunger. In the Hansard report of the parliamentary debate on “Distress of the Country”, six pages were devoted to the extremely bad news about unemployment, hunger, loss of sales, insolvencies and factory stoppages in Leeds alone. “Taking into account the fall of wages and diminution of employment, the earnings of the operatives have diminished at least 50 per cent.” “I speak from personal experience, when I say there is a manifest alteration in the physical appearance of this class in the last twelve months. There is deficient sustentation written in their haggard countenances.” “Mr. Child, a butcher, believed from calculations there was one-third or one-fourth the less meat killed, and there is this striking fact – at present the best pieces realise high prices, the inferior very low; a strong proof that the working classes were much less able to purchase meat than formerly.”    

(Hansard, Distress of the Country, 6th July 1842, pp. 1023-1029)

There is only one reference to the consumption of meat, which quotes the Irish children that they eat flesh-meat “never” or “perhaps once a week”. This might give us the impression that the working classes in Leeds in general (before the recession), ate little meat. But in the Hansard report, we have: “The shambles, which used to be crowded with working-men purchasing meat, were now ill attended” (Hansard, Distress of the Country, 6th July 1842, p. 1026). We can also find in the Commercial Directories of the 1830’s, that there were 200 butcher’s shops in Leeds. Which shows that impressions may not be true. 

M. Faucher, who visited it in 1844, thought that Leeds had a number of advantages against Manchester, due to the air in the woollen factories being better than in the cotton factories, the working day being shorter, the workers having higher salaries (?), the population having less Irish, the poor families being able to find lodgings at a reasonable price in districts with clean air. But he also says “never has the hand of man done more to ruin nature.” (Faucher, 1844, pp. 28-29)  

The Report on “Great Towns” has in the introduction a “status report” on sanitation measures in each town (here only one section).


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