The Industrial Revolution witnessed a huge growth in the size of British cities. In 1695, the population of Britain was estimated to be 5.5 million. By 1801, the year of the first census, it was 9.3 million and by 1841, 15.9 million. This represents a 60% growth rate in just 40 years.

Manchester, as an example, experienced a six-times increase in its population between 1771 and 1831. Bradford grew by 50% every ten years between 1811 and 1851 and by 1851 only 50% of the population of Bradford was actually born there.

As enclosure and technical developments in farming had reduced the need for people to work on farmland, many people moved to the cities to get accommodation and a job. These cities were not prepared for such an influx in such a short period of time and cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester etc. (all vital to the Industrial Revolution) suffered problems not witnessed anywhere else in the world at this time.

These cities needed cheap homes as the Industrial Revolution continued to grow. There were few building regulations then and those that did exist were frequently ignored. Builders had a freehand to build as they wished. Profit became the main motivator for builders. They knew that those coming to the cities needed a job and somewhere to live. Therefore, a house was put up quickly and cheaply – and as many were built as was possible. The Industrial Revolution saw the start of what were known as back-to-back terrace housing. These had no garden and the only part of the building not connected to another house would be the front (and only) entrance (unless you were lucky enough to live in the end of the terrace). In Nottingham, out of a total of 11,000 homes in the 1840’s, 7,000 were back-to-back.

The building material used was the cheapest a builder could find. Cheap slate from Wales was commonly used. The finished homes were damp as none were built with damp courses and those who could only afford cellar dwellings lived in the worst possible conditions as damp and moisture would seep to the lowest part of the house.

None of these homes was built with a bathroom, toilet or running water. You either washed in a tin bath in the home with the water being collected from a local pump or you simply did not wash. Many didn’t wash as it was simply easier.

There would be a courtyard between each row of terraces. Waste of all sorts from the homes was thrown into the courtyard and so-called night-men would collect this at night and dispose of it. Sanitation and hygiene barely existed and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the great fear was a cholera, typhus or typhoid epidemic.

Toilets would have been nothing more than cesspits. When these were filled they had to be emptied and what was collected was loaded onto a cart before being dumped in a local river. This work was also done by the night-men. Local laws stated that their work had to be done at night as the stench created by emptying the cesspits was too great to be tolerated during the day.

When the great social reformer Lord Shaftesbury visited one house, he went into the cellar – where a family was living – and found that the sewage from a nearby cesspit had leaked right under their floor boards.

A block of 40 houses would have possibly 6 toilets for all persons. It is estimated that on average 9 people lived in one house, which would mean that 6 toilets served 360 people! Another problem was that it was the responsibility of the landlord of the house to pay to have cesspits emptied and they were never too enthusiastic to do this. One cesspit cost £1 to empty. As the average rent was 2 shillings a week, this equalled 5 weeks rent. No-one in local authority enforced the law and as a result, courtyards could literally flood with sewage.

Drainage systems would have changed all of this but they cost money. Drainage pipes had to be made out of brick as no pipes existed then. One foot of brick drainage pipe cost 11 shillings. The poor could not pay this type of money and the wealthier members of a city were not willing to pay for such an expensive item if it did not benefit them. Liverpool had a drainage system built but only in the areas where the rich merchants and businessmen lived. None existed in the areas where the poor lived. By 1830, 50% of Manchester had no drainage system.

The streets where the poor lived were poorly kept. A doctor in Manchester wrote about the city:

Whole streets, unpaved and without drains or main sewers, are worn into deep ruts and holes in which water constantly stagnates, and are so covered with refuse and excrement as to be impassable from depth of mud and intolerable stench.”

Fresh water supplies were also very difficult to get in the poor areas. With no running water supplies, the best people could hope for was to leave a bucket out and collect rainwater. Some areas were lucky enough to have access to a well with a pump but there was always the chance that the well water could have been contaminated with sewage from a leaking cesspit.

Those who lived near a river could use river water. However, this is where night-men emptied their carts full of sewage and where general rubbish was dumped. Any water collected would have been diluted sewage.

A contaminated River Thames complete with dead animals

Why was so little done to improve towns and cities in Britain’s industrial zones? The mills, factories, mines etc. were all owned by wealthy men who were also highly influential in a city. Magistrates, who could ensure laws were carried out, rarely did if only the poor were affected. Those with money lived well away from the areas the poor lived in. Any money spent on improving the workers living areas would have been seen as lost profit.

Not all cities were blighted like this. There were some benevolent bosses who tried to ensure that their workers lived decent lives – Richard Arkwright was one. Arkwright built decent homes for his workers that still stand to this day. He believed that a healthy work force could only benefit him as they would work better. In Nottingham, the Trent Water Company supplied 36,000 people with fresh water. Parts of Glasgow were also well supplied with fresh water. However, the norm was that the power base within a city or large town rested with those who ran whatever industry was making that city wealthy. If they resisted change, then little could be done about it.