Life in Leeds during the 1840s

Blog by Jonnie, Visitor Services Assistant

Working on the front of house at Thackray Medical Museum has made me ask myself a question. What would it have been like to live in Leeds during the 1840s?  Well, in 1844 J G Kohl, a German traveller, remarked that “Leeds is, perhaps, the ugliest and least attractive town in all England.” Harsh words, but in the 1840s Leeds was a very different place to what it is now. Measuring a little more than a mile wide from east to west it was densely populated, containing over 82,000 people mainly living in squalid conditions, in filthy back to back houses or cramped lodging houses. At one point it was even reported that in 500 lodging house rooms counted, there were over 2,500 inhabitants! Few real roads connected these areas as narrow tunnels and back alleys avoided ‘wasted space’, while street lighting was almost non-existent. All this was then surrounded by mills, factories, foundries, gasworks and brickyards spewing out soot and pollution. Ralph W Emerson, an American poet who visited Leeds in 1848, observed that “all the sheep were black, and I fancied they were black sheep; no, they were begrimed by the smoke”!

On top of that less than 10% of houses were supplied with water from the mains.  Those that were received highly polluted river water, the only attempt to purify it was to let it stand for a time in a reservoir to allow obvious solids to sink to the bottom. Everyone else had to rely on shared wells that were a breeding ground for disease. Toilets at best consisted of shared privies at the end of streets that were often little more than a wooden screen around a bucket or pit. One street that housed 340 people only had 3 privies between them! The alternative was to use the street, or a newspaper, which was then folded and thrown into the yard. Many houses in the worst areas had no sewerage or drainage at all, creating open cesspools that were known to flood cellars that were often rented out as living spaces.

A lack of proper regulation also meant that food quality was exceedingly low. Bread was often found to contain sawdust while a cheap cut of meat that was popular among the poor, known as measles meat, that had black spots on was found to be anthrax. Sweets were also known to be coloured with lead and arsenic while alcohol was often mixed with strychnine, a hallucinogenic (and poison!) to allow beer keepers to dilute the beer with water and yet retain its ‘strength’.

All this meant that life expectancy was very low, with the life expectancy of labourers being only 19 years old while tradesmen and farmers could expect to live up to the ripe old age of 27 in 1840!

One thing is for sure, I’m glad it is 2018! 

Information taken from Edwin Chadwick’s 1842 report on sanitary conditions.