Report into towns 1842

Extracts from the Second Report of Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Large Towns and Populous. Districts, 1842, [published in 1844] Catalogue ref: HO 45/416.

This Report built on the work of Edwin Chadwick’s earlier ’Inquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain’, 1842, into the urban health of 50 of the largest towns. It directly related disease to poor living conditions. The Health of Towns Association, a political pressure group formed in 1844 also campaigned to improve sanitary conditions in towns and cities. It strongly supported the creation of local Boards of Health that were obliged to appoint an Inspector of Nuisances. The Association was key in putting pressure on the government to pass the Public Health Act in 1848.


The report, in reference to Birmingham discloses a similar extent of evil. The courts in the parish of Birmingham, alone are above 2000 in number, and their inhabitants exceed 50,000, besides many in the adjoining parish of Aston. The description common to many of these places shows that they stand greatly in need of regulations for cleansing. The atmosphere, which is necessarily close and confined, is often further deteriorated by the presence of open privies, close to which there is often one or more pigsties, tubs full of hogs’ wash, and heaps of offensive manure. These courts are frequently unpaved, and the open channel for dirty water ill-defined, so that stagnant puddles are the consequence.

Similar evils prevail in all towns, varying in their intensity, in proportion to the number of courts and streets, excluded from the jurisdiction of the local authority. The effect of this want of a general and systematic superintendence [regular control], is well illustrated by the statement of a gentlemen at Norwich who ascribes the neglected condition of the other courts to their having “three or four proprietors, who cannot agree on the point of having them clean”.

Example at Hull

We are not aware of any instance of such a frequent and systematic execution [carrying out] of these duties, in any town of England under the direction of the local authorities; but as a further and more convincing proof, if any were wanting, that such a frequent removal of the refuse can be conducted with economy [cheaply], we would refer to the account given in regard to Hull. It appears that the inhabitants have there found out, that they can profitably dispose of, and the farmers that they can profitably collect, with great regularity, the refuse from the houses, even in the courts and alleys, which are inaccessible to carts. This is carted away without any aid on the part of the local authority. The courts and small streets are described as bearing a marked appearance of cleanliness.

The principle that may be deduced from the practice at Edinburgh and Aberdeen, is, that all parts of the town require cleansing every day, and the portions inhabited by the poor more frequently than those occupied by the rich. At Hull the regular removal of the refuse is an accident, and, as far as the authorities are concerned, the poor are as much neglected as elsewhere.

The law which the legislature [local authority] has made so stringent at Aberdeen, and which has been carried into execution there and at Edinburgh may with equal advantage be applied generally to all parts of Britain.

Further [economic] advantages of a frequent cleansing of roads and streets by the speedy recovery of the surface mud and moisture, and consequent improvement of the roads, is shown in the statement of Mr. Whitworth, the inventor of the street-sweeping machine, which is now in successful operation at Manchester, and part of London. This machine will execute for the same price twice the work that can be performed by hand labour.

The want [lack] of some general regulations for the cleansing of privies of the poorer classes has been witnessed in every town visited by the Commissioners. The filthy condition of many of the courts, from the absence of the public scavenger [refuse collector] and the neglect of the drainage and paving, is rendered still more disgusting by the abominable state of the necessaries [privies]. They are frequently open to view, having no protection whatever from the public eye, and from the number of persons resorting to them, soon become full, and not uncommonly run over. In addition to the foetid exhalations [bad smells] from the overflowing privies, there are found in many towns, open middens, or cesspools, which receive the ashes, night-soil, and all other refuse, both animal and vegetable, from the adjoining houses. The infrequency of the scavenging has partly created the necessity for these receptacles. These places are entirely open, and their contents allowed to remain in a state of putrefaction [decay] until a sufficient quantity is collected in one spot to form a waggon load.

We think it is unnecessary to enter into further details upon this topic. The information appended [attached] to this Report contains ample evidence of the general want of regulations throughout all towns and the same evils resulting from it. We shall occasion presently, in speaking of the structural arrangement of houses, to recur to this subject, and to show the deplorable deficiencies of accommodation in this respect. The statements that we shall there present will fully establish the conclusion that the deficient number of privies in the poorer quarters of towns, and the large number of inhabitants resorting to them, deprives them of any right to be considered private, and renders it absolutely necessary for the safety of the public health, that some alteration should be made in the law regarding them. That they should be in a condition generally described is not surprising, when we state that in one district in Manchester there were found to be only 33 necessaries [privies] for 7095 persons, or 1 to every 215 inhabitants. Throughout the town of Sunderland the proportion is only 1 to 76 persons. We have also met with an instance of only 1 necessary to 30 families, and it appears that throughout the courts in Liverpool, the proportion is generally about 2 to 80 persons. The town of Merthyr Tydvil presents even worse instances. These are quoted as instances of the general deficiency, not as isolated cases.

Prevalence of other nuisances

XIV. Our attention has been called to the frequent existence of other nuisances from which great injury arises to the neighbouring population, and of which the present state of the law affords no summary means for the removal. Collections of dung, frequently kept for sale, pigsties in the most densely populated situations, the various noxious [poisonous] matters from manufactories [factories], and above all, the animal refuse that is almost invariably to be found in the vicinity of slaughter-houses, all contribute in their several degrees to increase the impurity of the atmosphere, and to lower the physical condition of the population. In addition to these causes of disease, which ought not to exist in a well ordered town, we have the injury from the smoke of steam engines as well as the other offensive emanations [smoke] from manufactories, to which we shall refer in their proper order.

Middensteads [cesspools] and dung-heaps

In a very full report made by a Committee of the Inhabitants of Sunderland, in reply to the questions issued by us, the extent of the nuisances created by the dealers in manure is strongly illustrated. It appears that there are no less than 182 public middensteads, [cesspools] receptacles of filth of all kinds, which are stated to constitute one of the greatest nuisances in the borough. They are generally situated in the close narrow streets and lanes inhabited by the poorer classes and are frequently resorted by them. In some cases the Committee adds, “These middensteads are actually in the basement floor of a dwelling-house, the upper stories of which are occupied by bedrooms, etc. The contents of these middensteads are afterwards conveyed to large depots, of which there are two in the parish, “one very lately advertised as containing 1000 tons for sale”. This belonged to the borough. It is on the Town Moor, closely adjoining to the most densely populated part of the town. We shall presently state the powers vested in the Town Council for the abatement of such nuisances.

The state of the slaughter-houses is an almost constant source of complaint. They are very rarely placed under any regulations with regards to the constant removal of the animal refuse, their proper ventilation, or a sufficient supply of water to ensure due cleanliness. The improper situations in which these places are found, sometimes even under dwelling-houses, and the effect produced upon the health of the inhabitants, is described in the report on the towns Lancashire.

Return to Victorian Industrial Towns