Modern York: Public health in the nineteenth century

A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.

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'Modern York: Public health in the nineteenth century', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) pp. 281-286. British History Online [accessed 21 April 2024]

Public Health in the 19th Century

The improvement commissioners, during their term of office, did little but construct defective sewers of inadequate length. (fn. 1) In 1850, when responsibility for public health was transferred to the corporation, the city remained substantially as it had been in 1844. The water-supply then had been from two main sources. Out of the 7,000 houses in the city, some 3,000 were supplied with water by the Waterworks Company at a charge of between 9d. and 1s. in the pound of rental value. Many of these houses had taps in the yard only. The water thus supplied was pumped from the Ouse and not filtered, though filters were used privately by the 'middle and higher classes'. Others, mostly the poor living near them, got their water directly from the rivers. Into the rivers, the drains and sewers discharged, but at a lower point on the Ouse than that at which the waterworks obtained their supply. The Ouse at least flowed swiftly. The Foss, dammed at Castle Mills, was 'a stagnant water replete with vegetable and animal matters'. Moreover, since the underground drains were inadequate, there were still open drains, falling into the river, into which the slaughterhouses, dungheaps and pigsties poured their fetid contents. (fn. 2) The second and equally important source of water was from wells. These were no less contaminated, for the strata from which they sprang were said to be covered in places by 'the rubbish of centuries' to a depth of 3 or 4 yards. In some parts of the city the wells were tainted by the drainage from burial grounds. (fn. 3) Little wonder that prudent families like the Rowntrees filtered the water from their well. (fn. 4)

Apart from 'houses of the higher classes and all the more respectable houses recently built', which had water closets emptying into drains or cess pits, sanitation was provided by privies. In the newer 'cottages' there was sometimes one privy per house, but more usually one was shared between 4 to 14 families, while in the Water Lanes the deficiency was such that 'the inhabitants have to use those of their neighbours by stealth or go into the street'. The contents of privies were removed to dunghills within the city: a large heap close to Layerthorpe Bridge, and some smaller ones in the neighbourhood of the Foss 'into which the liquid contents of all are discharged'. (fn. 5)

The city Act of 1825 empowered the commissioners to clean the courts and alleys 'occupied by the poorer classes', for which the cost in 1844 was £900 yearly, but it gave 'no control over the builders of houses, nor can they be compelled to sewer, drain or prepare the ground'. There were not, however, any cellar dwellings of the type frequently encountered in the West Riding and Lancashire towns, and the slums were mainly found 'in the large houses and their out-buildings, formerly the mansions of the wealthy and now [i.e. in 1844] sub-let as apartments. Houses of this kind abound . . . very few have sewers.' (fn. 6) Of the 2,195 families visited, 26 per cent. had only 1 room; of the 1,545 houses inspected, 11 per cent. were in bad or indifferent repair, and 36½ per cent. were damp and cold. (fn. 7)

It must be remembered that York during the first few decades of the 19th century, although increasing less rapidly than the industrial towns of England, had nevertheless added about 75 per cent. to its population. The needs of some 12,000 extra people had been added to those already dependent upon the city's inadequate sanitary resources. Now, in the 1840's, with the reversal of the trend of migration, the pressure was further intensified and that in a particularly acute manner, since the migrants of the 1840's included a large contingent of Irish vagrants. Comparison of the 1841 and 1851 Census Returns (fn. 8) shows in detail the way in which Irish colonization of parts of the city took place. In 1841 there were 327 Irish in York. Ten years later they numbered 1,928, scattered over all but two of the 32 York parishes but heavily concentrated in the Bedern, St. George's, St. Margaret's, and St. Peter-le-Willows.

The pattern of settlement is generally clearly defined. During the 1840's and especially after 1845, whole streets were colonized. In Minster Yard and Bedern there had been only seven Irish in 1841; by 1851 the 338 Irish there formed 30 per cent. of its population. Merrington's, Pulleyn's, and Snarr's Buildings had been almost wholly taken over by 329 Irish. Moreover individual houses were further subdivided into colonies from particular Irish counties. The Boynes, Merlerkeys, and Colphens who tenanted No. 1 Snarr's Buildings were from Sligo; those in Nos. 10–13 were solidly from Mayo. Outside the Bedern there were other smaller concentrations. In Long Close Lane, for example, there were 308 living between 13 and 20 to a house; 150 lived cheek by jowl in Britannia Place, and along Walmgate they swarmed in the yards, courts, and passages.

Here, then, were closely knit colonies of new-comers to York, alien in speech and religion and unwelcome in their wild ways and their poverty and disease. It was amongst them that typhus first appeared in the epidemic of 1847 and it was to prevent the spread through this channel that the guardians provided a temporary fever hospital. (fn. 9) For the Watch Committee they presented a problem in the maintenance of law and order. In 1848 and again in 1851 the committee complained of the 'disturbances continually occurring' in Walmgate and the Bedern and of the 'violent and lawless conduct of the Irish'. (fn. 10) For the poor-law authorities they meant not only the provision of the fever hospital but that increased burden upon the poor rates which finally brought the building of the new workhouse. (fn. 11) For the city as a whole, and especially for the local board of health formed in 1850, they underlined, as had the cholera epidemic of 1848, the necessity for improving public health.

The death and infant mortality rates in the city in the 1840's were above the average for England and Wales—24 compared with 22.4 per mille, and 157 compared with 154 per mille respectively. (fn. 12) In 1851 regulations were issued to cover the erection and drainage of new buildings, (fn. 13) and in the following year the local board of health began to inspect projected house plans, (fn. 14) but the problem of the existing slums remained. In 1852 the newly appointed inspector of nuisances reported that in Back Bedern there were five privies shared by 300 persons (fn. 15) and a detailed survey (fn. 16) was made of the sanitary condition of the city after the recurrence of cholera earlier in the year. In Walmgate ward the lodging houses, especially those of the Irish, were filthy, ill lighted, ill ventilated, and overcrowded. In Micklegate ward it was noted that even property owners were 'extremely negligent' in sanitary matters. The attention of the investigators was arrested by the accumulation of 'various fluid matters' which, where there were no private drains or public sewers, were left to evaporate in the heat of the sun. The state of the privies was bad and the water-supply inadequate. Conditions in Monk and Guildhall wards were no better and in The Shambles area were exacerbated by the number of slaughterhouses and piggeries. The committee recommended the building of a municipal abattoir and the provision of covered instead of open drains. Conditions had changed little. In 1845, when they were said to be much as they had been during the cholera visitation of 1831, 'immediate, energetic, and systematic measures' were advocated. (fn. 17) They were not taken and the chief difference between the city of 1852 and that of 1831 was that the population of the municipal borough had increased from 26,260 to 36,303.

Meanwhile, in terms of action as opposed to inquiry, the local board of health had turned its attention to the state of the Foss which exercised such a baneful effect upon the drainage in the eastern part of the city. (fn. 18) Under the Act of 1853 Foss Islands were drained and six years later the navigation was abandoned. (fn. 19) By 1856 there was some improvement in the condition of the Irish. In the 254 lodging houses kept by them there was 'a marked improvement in the cleanliness of the houses and the inhabitants themselves'. This was thought to be due partly to the departure of the vagrant Irish and partly to their absorption in English society. (fn. 20) It was also due to some extent to the supervision by the inspector of nuisances. Between 1850 and 1856 £8,519 was spent on drainage and sewerage; of this nearly £4,000 was for work in The Mount district (fn. 21) which, occupied as it was by the wealthier classes, could hardly be said to constitute a serious part of the problem. Moreover between 1856 and 1863 the main drainage scheme carried out was on the unpopulated Knavesmire. During the whole life of the board £22,348 was spent on sewerage and drainage from 1850 to 1872—an unimpressive average expenditure of just over £1,000 a year. Street improvement between 1857 and 1872 accounted for an average expenditure of £733 a year. (fn. 22) Regulations had been enforced upon builders of new property, but the proposal to build a municipal slaughterhouse was again rejected in 1869 (fn. 23) and the condition of slum property continued to deteriorate. In 1872 there was yet another report on the Bedern, (fn. 24) still densely populated by the Irish; and the inhabitants of Goodramgate petitioned for the closing of houses there. (fn. 25) No more was done than to warn the Bedern dwellers about disturbances, but in that same year the board began proceedings to close, as unfit for habitation, houses in Barleycorn Passage, Walmgate, and 'Church Lane', Petergate. (fn. 26) It was its first and last act of the kind. Not surprisingly the death-rate in York remained unaltered at 24 per mille during the 1850's and 1860's, and rose to 25.2 in the 1870's, while that in England and Wales fell to 22.5. (fn. 27)

Under the Public Health Act of 1872 the board became an urban sanitary authority and in the following year appointed a medical officer of health. (fn. 28) One of his first comments was to question whether slaughterhouses ought to remain in the centre of the city. (fn. 29) There was no immediate change of policy (fn. 30) but a new sub-surveyor was appointed to assist the supervision of works (fn. 31) and by 1875 the new authority was beginning to stir. In that year it received representations that the houses in the Water Lanes were unfit for habitation and should be demolished. The net cost of the work was estimated at £21,000 (fn. 32) and the authority not only approved of the scheme but, acting on the advice of the M.O.H., was prepared to extend it to the whole area embraced by Castlegate, Tower Street, and Nessgate. (fn. 33) An attempt to amend a resolution for the extended scheme was at first defeated. (fn. 34) A little later, however, as a result of a mobilization of ratepayers, the smaller scheme was adopted. (fn. 35) This was the only attempt in 19th-century York to tackle the problem of its slums by wholesale clearance.

Domestic sanitation, too, was only slowly improved. The M.O.H. was anxious to replace dry privies and middens by water-closets, but, although most of the council favoured the scheme, there were those who opposed it. One alderman deplored the 'great multiplication of water-closets', and a colleague on the committee ended the proceedings by saying that the committee should erect as few as possible. (fn. 36) They had no need to be alarmed about the rate of 'multiplication'. In 1884 the M.O.H., reporting on the prevalence of typhoid fever in the city—not merely in 1884 but over the whole period since he had assumed office—reported that 'over the whole city, the common privy and ashpit is the rule, water-closets the exception; in no part has a water-closet system been adopted'. (fn. 37) Some improvement had, however, occurred. In many of the worst places privies and middens had been removed, in others the refuse was being put into scavengers' carts; many backyards had been laid with impermeable material and the surface drainage much improved. Nevertheless the city was still a midden town; in 1886 there were 8,000 midden privies. (fn. 38)

Sewage disposal was equally poor. There was no systematic collection of night soil or refuse and it was common 'to retain the contents of privies and ashpits for weeks and months'. The street gutters were easily clogged and fouled the sewers. (fn. 39) When the river was in flood, as it frequently was, the sewers were affected, the flood water backing into them 'in many places at a very considerable distance from the river, flooding cellars and frequently interrupting the flow of sewage'. (fn. 40) Furthermore the sewers themselves seemed 'innocent of mortar and liable to any amount of leaking'. (fn. 41) Finally they discharged the whole of their contents into the Ouse without previous treatment; at Lendal Bridge there were two outlets, with others at Skeldergate, Ouse and Blue Bridges, and Darnborough Street. The river was an open sewer.

With so little being done the high death-rate of the fifties and sixties increased in the seventies. Moreover it was above the average for the country and above that for the larger towns (see Table 8). In 1888, of the 78 towns of which particulars were given in the Quarterly Report of the Registrar-General, there were only five in which the infant mortality was as high as York's. An infantile death-rate of over 283 per mille was, as the M.O.H. pointed out, 'a grave fact'; even graver was the situation in the Walmgate district where the rate was 337.6 per mille. (fn. 42)

An important step forward in the improvement of public health in York was made with the approval of a new sewage-disposal scheme in 1889. (fn. 43) Instead of being poured into the rivers, sewage was to be piped to works, filtered, and eventually pressed into manure cakes for sale to farmers. By 1895 £191,000 had been spent on the scheme, so far exceeding the authorized loans for the purpose that it was resolved that 'no further work be undertaken except that already sanctioned', (fn. 44) a decision influenced doubtless by the increasing volume of complaint about rising city rates. (fn. 45) Probably for the same reason, a further attempt to provide a public abattoir was defeated. (fn. 46) The new sewerage scheme, however, meant that the medical officer's recurrent pleas for the adoption of a water-closet system could more easily be put into effect. By 1900 the number of midden privies had fallen from the 8,000 of 1887 to 6,300 and the number of water-closets had risen to 10,000. (fn. 47) Thus, it was for the first time no longer true to describe York as 'essentially a midden town'. At least partly as a result of the improvements made in the provision of adequate sanitary amenities, the general death-rate in York fell in the 1880's to 18.7 and in the 1890's to 17. For the first time during the 19th century the average was lower than that for the whole country, and it was the first fall in the city's death-rate recorded since 1841. Infant mortality, however, continued to be high. The M.O.H. reported in 1892 that diarrhoea and typhoid fever largely prevailed. (fn. 48) Compared with an average national infant mortality rate of 142 per mille in the 1880's, and 153 in the 1890's, York returned averages of 154 and 167 and it was not until the first decade of the 20th century that, for the first time, infant mortality in the city fell below the national average. The high death-and infant-mortality rates were not caused only by bad housing and sanitation; poverty and ignorance made their substantial contribution. As was later pointed out, for each death there was 'a score of infants left permanently damaged'. (fn. 49) Poverty, as will be seen, was particularly prevalent in York. (fn. 50)

Table 8 Comparative Death-rates a
1874 1875 1876 Average 1871-80
York 24.9 25.8 21.7 25.2
50 large towns (average) 23.4 21.4 20.4
England 20.8 20.1 19.6 21.4
a M.H. 12/14411, 9 Sept. 1876; Morrell, How York Governs Itself, 109.

In so far as the high death-and infant-mortality rates were attributable to bad housing and sanitation, the blame for the slow rate of improvement in these matters cannot be laid wholly upon the local government authorities concerned. In the first place, the ratepayers set a limit to the money that was available; (fn. 51) in the second, difficulties arose between the urban and rural sanitary authorities between whom was perpetuated that lack of harmony apparent between the rural and the urban poor law guardians. (fn. 52) The suburbs had been extended into the area of jurisdiction of the rural authority which had a different set of by-laws; (fn. 53) and as the rural authority began to tackle the drainage and sewerage of the villages 'their filth now goes into the Ouse which is York's water supply'. (fn. 54) In 1886 the M.O.H., blaming the current outbreak of typhoid fever on the city's milk supply, pointed out that there had been 'typhoid on the premises of a milk seller at Osbaldwick selling milk into York', but he was powerless to act as the milk seller came under the jurisdiction of the rural authority. (fn. 55) The rural authority, noting in 1882 that in Clifton, St. Olave's, and Fulford, 40 or 50 streets had been built, housing some 5,000 people, which were merely 'continuations of streets within the urban area', applied for urban powers to deal with the situation 'until the city of York extends'. (fn. 56) Two years later, not having been granted these additional powers, they nevertheless opposed the York Extension Bill because those parts included in the new city area would suffer an increase in rates. The local government board was informed that York's borrowing powers had already been exhausted and that the extension of borrowing powers ought to be closely watched. (fn. 57) As soon as the Extension Act of 1884 was passed the rural authority reduced the salaries of its medical officer and architect and instructed them to claim the balance from York Corporation. (fn. 58) Thus, slowly, and in the face of difficulties, public health in York began to improve during the last two decades of the 19th century.


  • 1. See p. 464.
  • 2. Laycock, Rep. on State of York (1844), 221.
  • 3. Ibid. 219, 228.
  • 4. Vernon, Life of Joseph Rowntree, 19.
  • 5. Laycock, Rep. on State of York (1844), 222–3.
  • 6. For conditions in the Bedern, e.g., see p. 343.
  • 7. Laycock, Rep. on State of York (1844), 224.
  • 8. H.O. 107/1353/5; 2353/5.
  • 9. M.H. 12/14400, 29 May 1847.
  • 10. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 7 Aug. 1848 and 11 Aug. 1851.
  • 11. See p. 280.
  • 12. J. B. Morrell, How York Governs Itself, 109.
  • 13. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 8 Sept. 1851.
  • 14. Ibid. 10 June 1852.
  • 15. Ibid. 9 Feb. 1852.
  • 16. Ibid. 11 Oct. 1852.
  • 17. Laycock, Rep. on State of York (1844), 222.
  • 18. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 5 Nov. 1852.
  • 19. See pp. 475, 510.
  • 20. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 4 Mar. 1856.
  • 21. Ibid. 25 Aug. 1856.
  • 22. Ibid. 2 June 1873.
  • 23. Ibid. 5 Oct. 1868 and 4 Jan. 1869.
  • 24. Ibid. 6 May 1872.
  • 25. Ibid. 3 June 1872.
  • 26. Ibid. 5 Aug. 1872; Church Lane was probably a passage, now innominate and truncated, leading from Petergate to Holy Trinity, Goodramgate.
  • 27. Morrell, How York Governs Itself, 109.
  • 28. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 3 Feb. 1873.
  • 29. Ibid. 5 May 1873.
  • 30. Drainage expenditure in 1874–5 was £448: ibid. 2 Aug. 1875.
  • 31. Ibid. 7 Feb. 1876.
  • 32. Ibid. 6 Sept. 1875.
  • 33. Ibid. 5 Jan. 1876.
  • 34. Ibid. 3 July 1876.
  • 35. Ibid. 6 Dec. 1876.
  • 36. Morrell, How York Governs Itself, 91.
  • 37. York Corp. Rep. on Prevalence of Typhoid Fever in York (1884), 14.
  • 38. Ibid. M.O.H. Rep. 1886–7.
  • 39. Ibid. 1884, 17.
  • 40. Ibid. 18–19.
  • 41. Ibid. 1886–7.
  • 42. Ibid. 1887–8.
  • 43. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 3 June 1889.
  • 44. Ibid. 3 June 1889; 30 Nov. 1894; 7 Oct. 1895.
  • 45. See p. 277.
  • 46. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 2 Jan. 1899.
  • 47. York Corp. M.O.H. Rep. 1900–1.
  • 48. Ibid. 1891–2.
  • 49. Ibid. 1914.
  • 50. See p. 286.
  • 51. See p. 277.
  • 52. See pp. 280–1.
  • 53. M.H. 12/14411, 29 May 1876.
  • 54. Ibid. 7 Aug. 1874.
  • 55. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 6 Dec. 1886.
  • 56. M.H. 12/14412, 14 Aug. 1882.
  • 57. Ibid. 14416, 7 Mar. 1884.
  • 58. Ibid. 12 Feb. 1885.