Living Conditions Endured by Working People in 19th Century Preston

Following the introduction by John Horrocks of the first successful cotton mill enterprise in Preston in 1792 and the addition of a further four mills under the same ownership by the end of the century, the town expanded rapidly. From a population of 11,887 in 1801 Preston grew significantly over the next decade with 17,065 persons living within the town borough by 1811.

Attracted by the promise of regular work, mass migration from the surrounding countryside districts and beyond fuelled the need for labour at the onset of the industrial revolution, as more and more mills and factories were constructed in the emerging towns and cities of the North of England. In Preston the new arrivals sought accommodation wherever it could be found. The areas immediately behind the main thoroughfares of the town soon filled with small poorly constructed homes built in a haphazard unregulated manner, where space was at a premium.

As the population continued to increase the need for new housing became apparent and hastily built back to back terraced housing soon filled the areas adjacent to the town centre and beyond. Within these cramped streets, narrow alleys and courtyards, overcrowding soon became a problem. Adequate sanitation was virtually nonexistent with no suitable sewage disposal system, while access to water was confined to a number of pumps dotted about the town. Whole streets would often share a few toilets situated at the end of the block of houses, the contents of which would either be consumed into an earth privy, or be carried away at various intervals by laborers during the night who were known as “scavengers” or “night soil men”. Human waste, household rubbish, debris and ash from the coal fires would often be thrown on open heaps, the stench from which must have been unbearable during the summer months, not to mention the flies.

A few short years after Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 upwards of 40 cotton spinning and weaving mills were operating in Preston and in 1841 the population had again increased dramatically to over 50,000. Further expansion brought the numbers inhabiting the town to 68,000 in 1851, 95,000 in 1881 and a staggering 112,000 by the end of the 19th century and at its peak, the cotton trade employed over 25.000 people in over 70 cotton mill establishments.

A concerted effort by the town council to develop an efficient sewer system and pipe clean running water to every dwelling in the town began in the 1840’s and 50’s but it would be many years before these vital projects were completed in full. In the meantime disease in Preston flourished and spread quickly within the overcrowded terraced streets and courtyards due to inadequate sanitation, polluted water and the ever present swarms of flies which thrived on the sewage and rubbish which frequently littered the streets and alleyways. For many years Preston had the unenviable reputation as one of the worst places in Britain for mortality rates, even worse than the worst slum areas of major cities such as Manchester, and London. It was a shocking statistic.

The rising death rates in Preston and other similar industrial towns did not go unnoticed and led to Parliament calling for a national investigation into the relationship between disease and living conditions. In 1842 Edwin Chadwick a Poor Law Commissioner and social reformer published his conclusions on the subject in a detailed report named Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842).”

This groundbreaking report became an instant best seller and was compiled with the help of other officials who presented Chadwick with localized investigative reports of their own towns. In Preston the evidence was collected and presented to Chadwick by the Reverend John Clay who named his work, “Report on the Sanitary Condition of Preston”

John Clay wrote, “The State of the town with regard to health and mortality varies with the social rank and with the employment of the inhabitants, with the cleansing, draining and ventilation of their dwellings and of the streets, courts etc in which those dwellings are situated.”

From the mortality registers of 1841 for the Preston Borough the population being 50,131 and the average deaths for 1839, 1840 and 1841 being 1,734, the mortality was upwards of 3.4%, a rate exceeding that of Manchester 3.2% and nearly approaching that of Liverpool 3.5%. It appears further that these causes producing the excessive mortality affect the labouring classes, for whilst the average life of a Gentleman in Preston is 47.39 years and that of a tradesman is 31.63 years, that of a labourer, that is to say one of the labouring classes, is only 18.28 years. Also with respect to infantile mortality, it appears that while the gentry lose only 17.5% of infant life, the operatives lose 55.5%.”(Rev’ John Clay-Sanitary Condition of Preston 1842)

John Clay had clearly understood the link between high infant mortality and the poorer areas of Preston where the worst housing was situated and which was chiefly inhabited by the poorest of the poor. He referred to these locations saying

“There is in the lowest deep a lower deep and in the districts of the worst kind, there are certain streets and courts, etc, the worst of the district. These have been minutely and carefully examined by the agent of the Preston charitable society, a person well qualified by his intelligence for the task he has performed. The names of those streets are Canal St, BackCanal St, Hope St, Holden’s Square, Holden’s Yard, Edward St, Savages Court, Buckingham St, Clarence St, Poplar St, Willow St and Queen St. In these streets the mortality for the year 1842 was as follows.” *

Under 1 56 deaths or 44.4%

Above 1 and Under 5 37 deaths or 29.4%

Above 5 33 deaths or 26.2%

*The Canal St, Holden’s Sq/Yard and Savages Court area were located at the current site of the Adelphi St/Fylde Rd roundabout today. Parts of Hope St and Edward St are still visible off Friargate. From the 1840’s onwards this area was chiefly inhabited by Irish immigrants. Buckingham St, Clarence St and Poplar St were situated off Marsh lane, while Willow and Queen Streets were in the Avenham area.

Edwin Chadwick’s report eventually led to the Public Health Act of 1848 and inspectors were appointed to visit selected towns and recommend improvements. A man named George Thomas Clark was one of these inspectors and his findings in Preston led to a publication named, “Report to the General Board of Health into the Sewage,Drainage and Supply of Water and the Sanitary Condition of the Inhabitants of the Borough of Preston (1849)”

Clark’s report concluded that in Preston at the time of inspection in 1849.

Average age of all deaths = 22.0 years

Average age of deaths above 20 = 51.10 years

Proportion % to all deaths under 1 = 25.5 %

Proportion % to all deaths under 5 = 48.4 %

Proportion % to all deaths under 15 = 57.7 %

Proportion % to all deaths under 20 = 61.7 %

Inspector George Clark also enlisted the help of prominent local medical men to compile his report. The following first hand accounts portray quite vividly the conditions prevailing in the worst areas of the town previously described by the Reverend John Clay in 1842.

Fever Localities. This Report Compiled by H. Fearnside M.D Medical Officer of Preston Union 1849

The prevalence very recently of epidemic and contagious diseases in particular localities has been brought under my notice by evidence from a great variety of sources.

A favorite situation for the diseases in question is the district West of Friargate between Heatley St and Fylde St. In this locality may be particularized Simpson St* (especially the back street), Bridge St (West side of Marsh Lane), Hope St, Savages Court, Canal St**, Fosters Square, Dawson’s Square and Anson’s Square.”

* Denotes without sewers

** Denotes sewered, but has a dirty open channel traversing at the back yards on its South side

If fever exists in the town it is sure to be met with in the streets just mentioned. During the autumn and winter several cases of dysentery have come under my notice in Foster’s Square and Canal St. Here the population is dense, the drainage imperfect and the accumulation of animal and vegetable refuse often considerable. Back Canal St, Hope St and Savages Court are fruitful nurseries of fever, dysentery and other allied complaints.

Another part of the town generally rich in contagious disease is the triangle bounded by the East side of Friargate, Lower Walker St, Snow Hill and Back Lane. Vicar St invariably supplies a large share of such cases and many of the houses in this street and the adjoining yards are, (or were a short time ago), in a state of filthiness which affords an abundant explanation of the fact.”

Mr. Fearnside was particularly concerned about localities in the Marsh Lane area when he concurred,

Many cases of fever and dysentery have presented themselves in the streets adjoining Marsh Lane and chiefly in those on the South side comprising, Markland St, Buckingham St, Clarence St and Poplar St. Here, Rhodes Square and especially the back court or square, may be mentioned as especially prolific in disease and it would be difficult to imagine a combination of conditions better adapted for its development or propagation than those united in the crowded, wretched and filthy court”

Turning to the East side of the town the Medical Officer commented,

“Another district which deserves to be signaled as unhealthy, although probably in a less degree than some of those mentioned, is the tract East of Park Rd lying between Hopwood St and Edmund St. During the last months I have met with several cases of fever in these streets and especially in George’s St. Dysentery has also been somewhat common in the streets between New Hall Lane and Gilbert St, viz: Witton St, Eden St, etc. Measles has also prevailed in this district.”

Dr J Pilkington and his Observations of the St Peters Ward in Preston 1849

In the St Peters Ward typhus fever has occurred in Tank Row, Sleddon St,Brougham St, Singleton Row and Great George St. Dysentery in a severe form has been general throughout the whole ward but more particularly in Singleton Row, Crown St, Atkinson St, Bedford St and Sleddon St. Influenza with high febrile action has prevailed to a great extent through the ward, as also have whooping cough and measles amongst children without being confined to any particular locality. Scarlatina prevailed to a great extent in Singleton Row, Crown St, Atkinson St and Bedford St and many of the cases were of a malignant character”


On the specific subject of Typhus Dr Pilkington confirmed that,

“The cases of typhus fever reported occurred in portions of the town where the drainage was imperfect and where ventilation and cleanliness were neglected.”

James Hall Surgeon-To the Board of Guardians of Preston Union 1849

In answer to your enquiry respecting the places in which epidemic, endemic and contagious disease have been most frequent of late, I beg to give you the following list.”

Heatley St, Simpson St (bad), back Simpson St (bad), back Mount Pleasant St, Bridge St, Back Bridge St (bad), back Edward St, Hope St (very bad). Savage’s Court (bad), back Hope St (bad), Canal St, back Canal St, Dawson’s Square (very bad), Friday St, Hanson’s Square, back Fylde St, Smiths Yard, Yards in Walker St, Pearsons Row, Back Lane, Dobson’s Court, Hardmans Yard, Gradwell St, Bleasdale St, Back Leeming St, back Charlotte St, cellars in Vauxhall Rd, top Albert St.”

Surgeon Hall added,

“The places marked as bad and very bad are occupied almost entirely by Irish and I believe far more than one half of the cases of fever seen out of the whole of St John’s and St George’s districts, come from those few streets and their neighborhood, the chief cause of what I believe to be, the intolerably overcrowded state of the houses together with their great want of cleanliness.”

Inspection of the Town-By Mr. Park Corporation Steward, Mr. Myers Town Surveyor and Clerk to the Commissioner and his Partner Mr. Veevers

Black Bull YardEast of Cheapside though open and flagged, has no efficient drainage. It has a covered entry and a large open and filthy cesspit connected with the privy.

Turks Head Yard-On South side of Church St is a long irregular alley, rather narrow, paved and without efficient drains. Here are several filthy corners and a very large cesspit, said to be the largest in the town, receiving the contents of six privies. Close by is a large slaughterhouse in a dirty condition and giving out a most offensive smell. Mohammed’s lodging house, in a dirty crowded position is in this yard.

Bolton’s Court-Situated in a yard, has a range of open dung heaps with a large trough for the storage of manure. In Bolton’s Court are also eight public slaughter houses. They are in a very discreditable condition and are stocked with pigs. The smell at the time of my visit was very bad.

Between Backs of Stoneygate and Library St-Is a narrow and very filthy passage with an open gutter between two rows of open cesspools, clogged with accumulations of night soil * .It seems to have been the plan at one time to build rows of cottages with this sort of narrow alleyway between them for the purpose of getting at the back premises. Such an alley in Preston is sure to be a receptacle of filth.

* Human excrement

Rose St-There is here a dirty and offensive slaughter house, badly pitched, ill supplied with water and much complained of by the neighbours.

Laurel St-A quarter in bad repute has cellar dwellings and an unpitched roadway.

Willow St-Is unsewered, dirty and the seat of fever, the footways are badly pitched and without kerbs. The cellars though inhabited are deep, damp and blocked up behind. 6d a week is paid for them.

Queen StIs well supplied with privies though as usual with offensive cesspools, here placed under occupied rooms. There is neither drainage nor water supply and remains in a state highly unfavorable to health. Here, as in most other of the bye streets, the filth is collected from the open gutters into heaps by the wayside and their remains a nuisance until the “scavenger” * removes it.

* Scavengers were men, usually elderly or paupers, who were employed by the Town Council to remove night soil and filth from the streets.

Gilbert St and Sergeant St-To the rear and common to these streets are two

long narrow alleys in a state between passages or sewers and in fact, serving for both. Many of the privies discharge at once into these passages and the night soil is occasionally wheeled off in barrows. The whole state of things is extremely revolting. This I understand to be the place represented in a plan and perspective drawing attached to Mr. Clay’s report.

Since that time the landlord appears to have done very little. The water is not even laid on. The rent paid for each tenement is about 2s/3d per week. In front of Adelaide St and at the back of the Queen Adelaide pub are filthy open ditches and a pool in which sewage is stored.

Saul St-In Saul St is a public manure depot, the property of the commissioners and occasionally containing as much as 2,000 tons of manure. This is very objectionable.

High St-Here are many cellar dwellings, low and close built for handloom weaving shops.

Higginson St and Atkinson St-Between these streets is a long narrow alley skirting the high road with filthy open gutters adjoining the footpath, a receptacle for all kinds of filth.

Crown St-Vies with Sergeant St as the very depth of dirt and neglect. The houses are badly built with close back yards, offensive open cesspits and the cross or party wall. The landlord refuses to lay on the water and the tenants, who have laid it on at their own cost, are charged by the water company double rents. That is to say 10s per annum instead of 5s, besides having to pay 5s/6d for the pipe and tap.

Bedford StAre several very neat cottages well arranged but deficient in drainage. In these new parts of the town the old plan of an alleyway between the back premises of each two rows of houses, has been abandoned and instead a covered cross passage (lobby), introduced between every pair of houses and common to both. The intention of this is to allow the night soil and ashes to be removed without passing through the house.

Great Avenham St-Stands in a good position, is broad and airy, fairly paved and the houses are well built, but it has no drain and is reputed to be very unhealthy, so that at present seven out of forty four houses are untenanted.

At this stage the inspectors report interestingly contains a comment concerning the unscrupulous nature of some landlords at the time and the difficulties tenants endured when faced with this problem as seen here in Pleasant St.

Pleasant St-Though containing houses of an inferior class and unpaved and dirty, is well laid out and has many natural advantages but there is no drainage and the landlord in several of the houses declines laying on the water. Instead the tenants are referred to a pump at the street end which is placed in a manure depot and at the time of my visit gave out tainted water. In another house the landlord had refused to whitewash the house, a usual landlord’s expense. It may be said that this neglect will cure itself and the tenants will go elsewhere. In practice however tenants of this class are by no means independent. They bear a great deal of oppression before it becomes worth their while to incur the consequences of quarrelling with a landlord. The muck yard already referred to in which the pump is placed, is a public nuisance.

Blue Bell Yard-Near here is a passage used as a sort of sewer and also nearby is a very crowded lodging house with seven beds in three miserable rooms.

Remarks-The paving of the streets is seldom good and that of the courts is usually either very bad and full of holes or wanting altogether and except in the main streets, scavenging is performed in a very slovenly way. The privies are for the most part in bad repair and almost invariably communicate with a large open cesspit, into which most of the house refuse is cast. There is also a dirty custom of laying gutter drains from each yard along the covered entry across the foot pavement, the consequences of which is that offensive streams traverse the footway and collect in long pools in gutters by the roadside.

The number of cellar dwellings in Preston is considerable. They were built for shops for hand loom weavers and have since been let out as dwellings. It will be evident from the state of things that notwithstanding the natural advantages of Preston, the condition of the dwellings of the lower classes have been but little attended to and in consequence of the inefficient sewerage, the scanty supply of water, (or rather the scanty application of a very copious supply), the unremoved collections of putrid animal and vegetable matter and the general absence of the means of ordinary cleanliness, disease is engendered or aggravated, and the mortality increased.

The experience of Preston confirms what has already been laid down as the result of very widely extended observations that the high mortality of towns can be traced to crowded lodgings, dirty dwellings, personal uncleanliness and the concentration of unhealthy emanations from narrow streets without fresh air, water or sewers.

The final report came from,

Robert Snell Williams, Inspector of Nuisances May 20th 1849

The filthy damp and unwholesome state of the cellars in Canal St, back Canal St, Hope St, Walker St, Patten St, Snow Hill, Vicar St, High St, Back Lane, Dale St, Stanley St and North Rd, some without ventilation. The filthy state of Canal wharf caused by the commissioners depositing the sweepings and refuse of the town therein and by other parties depositing and allowing to remain, great quantities of “night soil”. The filthy and bad state of the yards and passages in Pitt St, Raby’s Court, Poplar St, Canal St, Walker St, Crown St, Blelock St, Laurel St, Shepherd St, Stoneygate, Rose St and Ansons Square.

The filthy and unwholesome state of many yards caused by the keeping of pigs. The filthy state of the cesspools and bog holes caused by insufficient drainage. Many inconveniences arising from the little or no accommodation in different parts of the town, especially in Buckingham St and Rhodes Square, where there are 35 cottages thickly peopled with only two necessaries. * The filthy and bad state of the necessaries in Queen St.

* Privies

Of the 31 slaughterhouses in Preston, 21 have no drainage at all. In Preston’s 43 lodging houses situated for the most part in the worst quarters of the town, within two of them 10 persons dwell in one room, in one case containing an area of 104 and in the other 66 square feet and in each but two beds. In the whole number 551 persons are lodged in 266 beds placed in 141 rooms. ( George Thomas Clark-Report 1849)

A Further Description of Canal St Area by the 1861 Census Enumerator.

Almost 20 years after the Rev John Clay first exposed the terrible living conditions existing in the Canal St area of Preston, little appeared to have changed in this locality by 1861 as the Census Enumerator who visited these

Homes explained on the official document. He wrote.

“District 27 is one of the poorest and most neglected districts in Preston. It is chiefly inhabited by natives of Ireland and their descendents, with the exception of the public houses and a few shops in Friargate and Fylde St. The houses are all cottages and many of them are sadly overcrowded, there being lodgers at most of the cottages. In many cases there are two families besides other lodgers living in one cottage and in a few cases there are three distinct families living in one cottage.

In all the district there are only seven lodgers who take a separate room. In all the other cases the lodgers eat at the same table but provide their own food, paying a rent of 1s to 2s/6d per week per adult. The cottages are very dirty and miserable. Indeed there is such an entire absence of social comfort that few respectable persons would imagine that there was such an amount of misery and destitution in Preston.

In Fosters Square about one third of the cottages have a bed in the kitchen and in some of the cottages in Canal St and back Canal St, there is also a bed in the kitchen. But there is one feature to which I wish to draw special attention, namely the serious insufficiency of conveniences for the easement of nature. (LCRO. 1861 census enumerator report of Canal St area of Preston RG9/3131 f-54)

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