A Discordant View
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Death in the City
Victorian worthies constructed elaborate public buildings. The building of opulent Town Halls was not really necessary, being more a matter of civic pride and rich men’s egos. The ‘ordinary people’ lived in overcrowded conditions, crammed into cellars and hovels. The more fortunate lived in 'cottages', built for the workers, without piped water, with a communal well and with only earth closets, shared by half a dozen families. The back alleys were like open sewers and middens, cleared only once a year.

This was a time of unbelievable squalor, pollution and disease. New epidemics were stalking the cities. Apart from industrial diseases and injuries, cholera and typhoid were carried by polluted water, typhus was spread by lice; “summer diarrhoea” was caused by swarms of flies feeding on horse manure and human waste. Smallpox was a common visitor.

The rise in population was tremendous, in 1801 the county had 650,000 inhabitants, with only 10 per cent living in towns, but by 1901 the figures were over four million and 90 per cent living in towns. Liverpool had 40,000 living in cellars in 1846. Between 1846 and 1851 more than a million Irish people, the famine emigrants sailed to America. At the same time, the Irish potato famine claimed a million lives. In 1848 there were 80,000 Irish refugees in need of housing in Liverpool.

Large towns were desperately unhealthy with levels of mortality not seen since The Black Death in the early 14th century. The towns offered a better chance of work and higher wages than the countryside, where many families were trapped in dire poverty and seasonal employment. The countryside was, however, healthier. A baby born in a large town with a population of more than 100,000 in the 1820’s might expect to live to 35; in the 1830’s, life expectancy was down to 29 years. Life expectancy for the better off, in well-ventilated premises and in cleaner air in the suburbs or small market towns was 47 years. For the poorer classes in the large towns it was only 18 years.

Preston was a particularly dangerous place to live. It is believed that mortality rates in Preston exceeded those in any other town in the country. One calculation suggests that that almost half the town’s children died before they reached five years of age.

The rivers were polluted by industrial and sewage effluence. It was recognized that many killer diseases were waterborne, and so early efforts were made to provide clean water by means of reservoirs. Adequate sewage disposal and slum clearance took a long time in coming.

Early Victorian Preston was by no means the idyllic place that some contemporaries implied. The stylish developments of high quality housing in and around Winckley Square were worthy of appreciative comment. Many parts of the town, however, were particularly unwholesome, providing disgusting living conditions and posing severe threats to public health. Was it better to be filthy and work, or to be clean and poor?

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