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David Sellers (Leeds, England)


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In the early years of the Nineteenth Century most of the area presently occupied by Leeds City was still characterised by rural tranquility. Miles of rolling pastures and woodland separated Sheepscar from Seacroft Village. Viewed from the fields to the west of Wellington Bridge however, the Leeds of the 1830's presented an industrial panorama dominated by textile mills. The skyline bristled with tall chimneys belching their smoke and attendant lung diseases onto a largely helpless population.

The factory owners and middle classes lived to the west and on the hillsides of Woodhouse or Headingley - protected from the swirling smog by the prevailing westerly winds.

Crowded into the terraces and tenements in the heart of the township were the working classes. In consequence of the furious expansion of industry, the population of Leeds had increased from 53,000 in 1801 to 123,000 in 1831. To cater for this influx of people unscrupulous landowners had crammed dwellings into every imaginable nook and cranny. Very few of the streets and yards were paved or drained. The result was that only in dry weather could the inhabitants venture forth without sinking ankle deep in mud. Domestic and human waste would be deposited in the street: sometimes in designated middenheaps, which would be cleared by scavengers - sometimes not. Stagnant pools in the streets were a common feature and at times the stench was unbearable. The insanitary conditions in the street inevitably spilled into the dwellings.

"The surface of these streets", wrote a local doctor, Robert Baker, "is considerably elevated by accumulated ashes and filth, untouched by any scavenger; they form the nuclei of disease exhaled from a thousand sources. Here and there stagnant water, and channels so offensive that they have been declared to be unbearable, lie under the doorways of the uncomplaining poor; and privies so laden with ashes and excrementitious matter, as to be unuseable, prevail, till the streets themselves become offensive from deposits of this description: in short there is generally pervading these localities a want of the common conveniences of life."

It was from these quarters that the Cholera sprang during the national epidemic of 1832. The first victim in Leeds - in May of that year - was the child of a weaver living in a 51/2 yard square cottage in Blue Bell Fold (near Marsh Lane). With good reason the disease was called 'King Cholera' - having more the aspect of an almighty curse than a plain disease. It had spread rapidly since the first case was recorded in Sunderland. The victims would be afflicted by a violent pain in the stomach, followed by diarrhoea, sickness and death. Seven hundred people in Leeds died of Cholera over a six month period.

Soon after the 1832 Cholera outbreak, Robert Baker wrote a detailed report on the marked geographical pattern to the disease in Leeds. Worst hit were the poor areas to the East of the town centre. There was shown to be a clear link between the disease and poor drainage. The report was sent to the Home Secretary in London, but appears to have been promptly shelved.

Cholera struck again within two years. Although centred in the working class areas, the middle and upper classes were smitten too. It is easy to understand their panic: Cholera was like a mad dog no one could be sure where it would pounce. Disease was not yet understood; the germ theory had not yet been propounded (it was commonly thought that disease was transmitted by smells); Koch's discovery of the microbe had yet to be made. Most of the cures and preventitive measures current at the time were 'quack' remedies.

Following a suggestion in Parliament, a National Fast Day was held on 21st March 1832, as a day of atonement for the sins which had presumably invited the scourge of Cholera.

To working class radicals this was the height of hypocrisy. In response the National Union of the Working Classes mounted a demonstration of 120,000 in London to protest against the Government's handling of the crisis. The radical viewpoint was expressed by Henry Hetherington in the "Poor Man's Guardian" (18/2/1832):

"The Cholera has arrived amongst us, and this, among other blessings, we have to lay at the door of our 'glorious constitution', for it is a disease begotten of that poverty and wretchedness which are occassioned by the wealth and luxury of the few to whom only the constitution belongs."

The Government was frightened into establishing a Commission of Enquiry into the circumstances leading to such epidemics.

The resulting report of Edwin Chadwick on "The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes" (1842) was a best seller. It's central thesis was the same as Baker's earlier report. Indeed, Chadwick included Baker's statistical map of Leeds and wrote:

"By the inspection of the map of Leeds which Mr.Baker has prepared at my request to show the localities of epidemic diseases, it will be perceived that they ... fall on the uncleansed and close streets and wards occupied by the labouring classes and that the track of the Cholera is nearly identical with the track of the fever. It will also be observed that in the badly cleansed and badly drained wards to the right of the map, the proportional mortality is nearly double that which prevails in the better conditioned districts to the left."

Even where drainage was available, it left a great deal to be desired. It was common in the early Victorian towns for the sewers to be chiefly flat bottomed passages and conduits, laid in a piecemeal fashion, with inadequate gradients. These sewers were totally unsuitable for the mixture of rainwater, waste water and excrement which they received. The flat bottoms and shallow slopes ensured that they soon became choked up with noxious accumulations. The putrefying organic material deposited in this manner, gave rise to poisonous gases such as methane, which would often find its way into the houses through untrapped drains. Even the wealthy houses were affected, according to evidence given to a House of Commons Committee in 1834, but it was the servants sleeping in the 'lower rooms' who took the brunt of the resulting ill health!

Regular removal of the large quantities of sewer deposits was a real head-ache. Mr. John Roe, Civil Engineer to the Holborn and Finsbury Commission of Sewers, explained the usual method in a statement given to Chadwick's Enquiry:

"... the streets were opened at a great expense and obstruction ....; men descend, scoop up the deposit into pails, which are raised by a windlass to the surface, and laid there until the carts come; it is laid there until it is carted away, sometimes for several hours, to the public annoyance and prejudice. The contract price for removal from the old sewers without manholes was 11s. per cubic yard of slop removed; where they have manholes it was 6s.10d. per cubic yard."

No wonder, with removal being such a chore, the deposits were allowed to remain for 5 to 10 years in the sewers.

In Roe's own area great strides had been taken in organising the sewerage system on an entirely superior basis: the outlets had been made low enough to enable all the outlying areas to be drained with sufficiently steep sewers and the sewers had curved bottoms to reduce the rate of deposition. Moreover, Roe's plan of flushing the sewers and carrying off all the refuse by water had been adopted. The cost of sewer cleaning in Holborn and Finsbury was consequently reduced from 12,000 per year to 600.

Amongst public health agitators, there was a growing conviction that this 'water-borne' sanitation represented the way forward. An essential requirement for this to be implemented effectively however, was that every house had a reliable supply of water, which could be used for flushing away soil matter. There was no way in which Leeds of the 1830's could boast such a supply: The Leeds water supply was an entirely class-based affair.

Leeds was one of the first towns in Britain to have a piped water supply to houses. It came into operation in 1694 and was designed by the engineers George Sorocold and Henry Gilbert. A water wheel built near Leeds Bridge, Lower Briggate, pumped water from the River Aire through 11/2 miles of 3-inch diameter lead pipes to a storage reservoir - or 'cistern' - in Wade Lane, whence it served the wealthier inhabitants in a town of 7,000. The only materials available for pipes at that time were either lead or the bored trunks of elm trees. Sixty years later, when the total population had risen to approximately 17,000, new works were built at Pitt Fall Mills, near The Calls. In the 1790's three storage reservoirs were built near Albion Street.

In the early years of the nineteenth century the waterworks company was supplying about 2,000 houses. Most of the inhabitants of Leeds relied instead on wells, boreholes, water-carriers and the River Aire. Water-carriers it should be noted charged 2 shillings per week for many, a sum almost as much as their total weekly rent for accomodation. The River Aire by 1830 however, was completely unsafe for drinking. According to Charles Fowler in the 'Leeds Intelligencer' (21/8/1841), it was:

"..charged with the contents of about 200 water closets and similar places, a great number of common drains, the drainings from dunghills, the Infirmary (dead leeches, poultices for patients, etc), slaughter houses, chemical soap, gas, dung, dyehouses and manufacturies, spent blue and black dye, pig manure, old urine wash, with all sorts of decomposed animal and vegetable substances from an extent of drainage between Armley Mills to the Kings Mill amounting to about 30,000,000 gallons per annum of the mass of filth with which the river is loaded."

Small wonder that the death rate in Leeds rose from 20.7 per thousand in 1831 to 27.2 per thousand in 1841. The average life expectancy in Leeds,according to figures given by Chadwick, was as follows:


44 years


27 years


19 years

The Leeds Waterworks Company discontinued its use of the Aire for drinking water in 1841 and used instead, as a temporary supply, the water leaking into the partially complete tunnel linking Leeds with the proposed Eccup reservoir. For most people however, a wholesome water supply was still beyond reach: in 1842 the number of Leeds houses with a piped water supply was still only 3000. By 1852, when the Waterworks Company was bought by Leeds Corporation (for 1/4m), the number of connected properties had risen to 22,732.

2. The Improvement of Leeds