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Urban Conditions

As the new towns and cities rapidly developed during the Industrial Revolution the need for cheap housing, near the factories, increased. Whilst there were some men, such as Robert Owen, who were willing to create good housing for their workers, many employers were not. These employers ruthlessly exploited their workers by erecting poor, and often unsanitary, shoddily built houses. Workers often paid high rents for, at best, sub-standard housing.

Workers housing

In the rush to build houses, many were constructed too quickly in terraced rows. Some of these houses had just a small yard at the rear where an outside toilet was placed. Others were ‘back to back’ with communal toilets. Almost as soon as they were occupied, many of these houses became slums. Most of the poorest people lived in overcrowded and inadequate housing, and some of these people lived in cellars. It has been recorded that, in one instance, 17 people from different families lived in an area of 5 metres by 4 metres.

Sanitary arrangements were often non-existent, and many toilets were of the ‘earth closet’ variety. These were found outside the houses, as far away as possible because of the smell. Usually they were emptied by the ‘soil men’ at night. These men took the solid human waste away. However, in poorer districts, the solid waste was just heaped in a large pile close to the houses. The liquid from the toilets and the waste heaps seeped down into the earth and contaminated the water supplies. These liquids carried disease-causing germs into the water. The most frightening disease of all was cholera.


Cholera originated in India. It quickly spread into Asia and Russia, and eventually reached Europe. The first case of cholera in Britain was recorded in the northern port of Sunderland in October 1831. Although immediate quarantine precautions were taken, cholera had spread to London by February 1832.

The disease was greatly feared by everyone because it spread very quickly and was not confined to any one social class. It could strike anyone, from the poorest to the wealthiest and the noble.

A cholera victim was first stricken with violent sickness and diarrhoea. This caused intense dehydration (loss of body fluids). Over 50% of the people who contracted the disease died, often within 24 hours of showing signs of the first symptoms. In the early part of the 19th century the method of transmission of cholera was not known. Many people thought that it was caused by ‘miasmata’ or poisonous, foul-smelling air. It was only in 1849, when an epidemic killed over 70000 people, that Dr. John Snow discovered that the cholera bacteria were contracted from polluted water.

A Punch magazine cartoon from 1858

A Punch magazine cartoon from 1858 shows Father Thames with 'his offspring', diphtheria, scrofula and cholera.

In an attempt to contain the disease, Health Boards were set up to establish better standards of sanitation. Local government officials were told to clean up the towns and cities. They were instructed to provide for the removal of solid waste heaps and other household wastes, to clean the streets (particularly of the large amounts of horse manure) and to whitewash houses wherever possible. Despite these measures the epidemic continued to spread and very few people took notice of Dr. Snow's discovery.

In 1854 Dr. Snow was able to demonstrate the link between cholera and the water supply. During an outbreak of cholera in the Soho area of London, he noticed that many of the victims obtained their water from the same public water pump. When Dr. Snow removed the handle from the pump to prevent people from using it, the cholera fatalities in Soho fell dramatically.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of this demonstration, not everyone was convinced and more time went by before effective action was taken against cholera. In fact, the disease struck again in 1866, but by this time new sewers and cleaner public water supplies had been installed in parts of London. It was noticeable that the epidemic was confined to those areas of the city which were still relying on old water supplies.

Finally the connection between cholera and polluted water was accepted. As a result improved sanitation and the provision of clean drinking water became an even greater priority. This, together with gradual improvements in housing, enabled cholera, along with other diseases associated with poor living conditions, to be eradicated.

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2016

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.