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Living Conditions in 19th Century Whitehaven

That fever and disease generally should be rife in Whitehaven is only a natural consequence of its present condition - dark and damp cellars, confined courts and passages, crowded room tenements, and a general want of sewers and drains, with an almost total absence of water and privy accommodation, so prepares and weakens the unfortunate inhabitants, that in “years of sickness” as they were termed, such as 1848, the deaths are more than doubled. It must however, be remarked, that these “years of sickness” are most fatal in the crowded and untrained portions of the town.

Mr. John MAWSON, relieving officer to the Board of Guardians states: - “My duties consist of visiting and relieving the poor; consequently I am well acquainted with the cellars and single-room tenements in the town. Very many of these cellar tenements are not fit for places of habitation. The greatest amount of destitution prevails in them. Typhus fever generally prevails. The worst forms of disease are invariably in the worst and dampest places. The town at present is rather better than it has been, as far as regards fever; small-pox has been very prevalent, and measles have been very fatal. This month (January 30, 1849), since the 1st, I have registered 71 deaths, and now know of several more; many of these have been from measles, and inflammation after measles.”

Mr. I’ANSON, M. D., resident surgeon, states that, “Whitehaven, from the close packing of the poorer portion of its inhabitants, the greater want of water, drains, and other conveniences, has been visited with a most severe form of the disease. To show that this is the case, it may be stated that in the most wretched and crowded parts of the town, disease has been most rife and most fatal. Of 26 cases received from Mount Pleasant last year, six or nearly one-fourth, were rapidly fatal. Nearly all the cases from Ribton-lane were brought from one or two lodging houses, which are always crowded with innumerable Irish. From Harmless-hill 12 cases were received within three months in the year 1847, entirely from one lodging house. The districts from which we have the most fever cases are the worst in sanitary conditions.”

To an ordinary and careless observer, Whitehaven may appear a clean town; in fact, in the Parliamentary Gazette of 1845-6 it is described as follows, “The town itself is one of the most handsome in all the Northern Counties; the streets being regular and spacious and crossing each other at right angles, many of the buildings are very neat, and the shops exhibit a degree of elegance seldom, till recently, seen in the North.”

This may apply to the main streets, such as Lowther-street, Duke-street, King-street, Scotch-street and some others which are wide and open, with convenient foot walks flagged, and the road way either paved or macadamized. These streets are tolerably “clean, and may be called convenient for purposes of business,” but even the houses here, and the street themselves have no useful sewers or drains; they are generally confined at the back, and crowded with a poorer class of property; few have privies or ash pits, and the inhabitants are compelled either to keep their refuse on the premises until removed by the scavenger’s cart, or it is thrown out into the street.

But a casual examination of this portion of the town alone will give no indication of its true state and condition; the back streets must be noticed, the courts and passages in confined places examined, the room and cellar tenements visited, the public lodging houses inspected, and then such an amount of human wretchedness and misery will be revealed, as few persons in better circumstances would believe existed. Words written or spoken cannot convey to the mind the whole state of things, there must be sight and smell to aid and inform the imagination. The pen of novelist never yet depicted such depth of utter wretchedness.

There is a grim facetiousness about the names of the town and places “Whitehaven,” Mount Pleasant,” “Solomon’s temple,” “Harmless Hill,” and “Rosemary Lane.”


Mount Pleasant is a congregation of most wretched dwellings, situated on the side of a hill, and they are principally approached by steps much worn, broken, and in a ruinous condition; dangerous in daylight and summer, and necessarily much more dangerous in winter during the long, dark nights and frost.

Many of the tenements cannot be called rooms, they are so dreary, black and loathsome; some of them were formerly used as nail maker’s shops, and without any alteration or cleansing from that time. They have been let off as tenements at a low rental of 6d or 9d a week; in one instance to an old couple recipients of out-door parish relief. There are about 1,825 inhabitants in Mount Pleasant, without any form of privy accommodation, or any regular supply of water. There are no public or private lamps throughout the year.


Solomon’s Temple is a ruinous pile of building left off into room tenements; there is a confined yard behind covered with human refuse; pigs are kept in such cellars as are not occupied as tenements, and for years the attics were made a receptacle for all the ashes of the place and the refuse from the children. Latterly a public privy and ashpits has been erected in front; but, like most other public privies, it is the filthiest spot about the place, inasmuch as it is totally unfit for use, and serves merely to concentrate the former nuisance.


Harmless Hill is an open yard on a sloping ground, as it’s name “hill” denotes; it is bounded by cottage tenements, the windows from which look over it; the yard accommodates a congregation of pigs, in sties ranged round or near the cottages, and over its surface are the open middens, the liquid refuge from which drains down against the walls of the houses, and into them.


Rosemary-lane is a narrow lane which are many tenements without privy or water supply; the confined yards at the back are covered with human dirt, and the odour of the whole place is abominable.

Amidst these scene of utter destitution, misery, and extreme degradation in Whitehaven, there are, however, instances of desire for cleanliness, even in some of the worst places; and it is most painful to contemplate the hopeless position of such persons, who are generally English, and have known better times and happier days, confined in narrow courts or crowded rooms, and surrounded with dirt and neglect, striving to keep their own particular place clean and neat.

It is far otherwise, however, with many of the Irish residents, their only care appears to be, as much as possible, to block up all means of ventilation and light. The odour of their rooms is most peculiar and offensive. When I have spoken about the dirt and confined rooms to one of these families, I have had a string of complaints from the mother as to the rent being demanded for “Stich a dog-hole, your honour?”

I have asked, “What rent do you pay?”

“tin pence a week, your honour, for this.”

“Why don’t you keep it clean?” would be answered by a peculiar smile and shrug and the question, “How would I do that your honour?” and this I felt, under the circumstances I could not fully explain.


These cottages stand on the outskirts of town, on sloping ground, and at an elevation considerably above the low part of town; they were erected by a former Lord Lonsdale, for the use of his miners and laborers. They are built on the side of a hill, and form three rows or streets, the roofs at the back being, in many instances level with the road way in the front of the houses behind, and the roofs of the highest run full against the hillside. There are no sewers or drains, and consequently the roads and houses are damp.

On the front row there are 77 tenements and 5 ash pits; in the middle row 111 tenements and 9 ash pits; and on the back row there are 78 tenements and 7 ash pits; total number of houses 266; total number of ash pits, 21. There is not a single privy belonging to the whole property. The ashes are taken away every week by the Earl of Lonsdale’s carts for agricultural purposes.

The water supply is very inadequate. It is not uncommon to see twenty women waiting at the standpipe for water. In the summer months this frequently fails, and the inhabitants are then obliged to fetch their water for domestic use more than a mile; or they resort to any other nearer place if it can be obtained, even when of inferior quality..

Many of the tenants on the front row complain of the ash pits belonging to the middle row, as these being on level with their roof of their houses behind, the refuge sinks down into their back kitchens, and causes a very bad smell through the whole house; the wind also blows the dust and dirt about. Pigsties and stagnant water in contact with the houses are common. These houses are very seldom clear of fever. The whole surfaces around the houses and roads is covered with human dirt; and on Sundays 10 or 12 men can be seen exposing themselves at one time; with the children, this is the case throughout the week.

This property might be perfectly drained, and provided with water closets at a cost not exceeding 3/- per house, or 798/-., which might be made into an annual rent charge of less than 1d a week rental. This would be the extreme cost if the refuse produced no income, but standing as the houses do at an elevation, and all the land in the neighbourhood being the property of Lord Lonsdale, a proper system of water closets and drains with covered tanks to receive the refuse would yield a considerable clear income above the rent charge, or interest of capital, whichever it might be considered or termed. In these 266 houses, there is a population of about 6 persons to one house, or in the whole, 1,596 inhabitants, men, women, and children.


There are about 281 cellar tenements, 89 of which were unoccupied at the time of my visit, 192 being tenanted; 12 of these have their ceilings below the level of the street, in one instance as much as two feet, and there are many level with the street, or only a few inches above it. Few of these places have the means of ventilation other than by one fireplace; that which was a window originally, rarely contains any remains of its glass, but is either stuffed fill of rags or straw, or blocked up with a shutter or boards; if there is a second cellar, there is seldom any opening out of it, either in the form of a fireplace or a window, but it is as true a dungeon as ever has been formed.

715 persons were residing in these places, few having either beds or furniture which can be said to leave a money value; a few broken chairs and stools, a crippled table and bedstead, was all that I found in the best furnished; but very many have no form of furniture, and rotten straw and dirty rags form their only bed.

I visited many of these places at night, and the confined atmosphere was most offensive. Some of the inhabitants complain of the state of things, which they say they cannot help; they have no water supply, privies, or convenience for ashes, but they get rid of their refuse as best they can, most frequently immediately in front of their door. Some of these places are most difficult to get into to, they are so confined, steep and low. 152 pigs are kept, some actually in the cellars, but the principal portion in the immediate vicinity so that the refuse runs close past them.


There are 937 houses in courts and passages, more or less confined; most of them are entered from the street by a covered passage, seldom more than three feet wide, and 7 feet in height, frequently not more than 2 feet, nine inches wide. Then there is a second passage round a block of houses erected in what was originally a court, and this I have measured and found did not exceed, in some instances, 2 feet, 9 inches in width.

It was quite impossible for the sun to shine into many of these places, and as the upper ends are generally blocked up with an ash midden, there can be no proper ventilation; if a strong wind should blow over the place it spread the fined dust from the refuse heap through the houses; during wet, the ashes and dirt are washed down over the surface.

In some of these places I found privies, curiously contrived under stairs and bedrooms, and close adjoining the living rooms; but, in a vast majority of instances, such a place does not exist. There is no water supply but from fountains at a distance and the pumps in a few instances, most of which were broken or otherwise out of order. About 6,000 persons inhabit these courts and passages.


There are 24 houses of this class which have in the whole 68 rooms and 120 beds. There are 7 beds in one room, and 3 and 4 in the others; 117 are very dirty, and there are three which can be described as clean.

These lodging houses are in most towns the worst form of residence to be found in the district; but in Whitehaven it is not so, here they can only take rank with the better conditioned room tenements. They are, however, crowded, dirty, and ill ventilated; 12 cases of fever were taken to the fever house in three months from one lodging house in Harmless-hill. Fever is common in all of them.

These house are not under local inspection or control; vagrants and improper characters resort to them; the beds are let off at 3d per night to each person, or 6 d per bed; but I have seen 7 persons in one bed, and 9 beds in one room; men, women and children, frequently strangers to each other, are crowded into the same room, and there is not the slightest attempt at privacy or division betwixt the beds; the persons in one may lay their hands upon those in the bed adjoining, with ease.


The Trustees have power to scavenge, pave, sewer and cleanse the streets, and to levy rates to defray the expense of such works. They employ a surveyor of roads and streets, four scavengers, and four horses and carts, besides masons and laborers employed on the harbour and in paving and repairing streets.

In addition to the scavengers carts there two night soil carts belonging to the Trustees, and one belonging to a private individual. The expenditure in 1848 on the town department, as distinguished from the harbour department, for lighting, police, paving, and cleansing amounted to 2261/ 10s 11d; but 670/- of this had been refunded from the harbour funds.


In every district throughout the town, it is the painful duty of your Committee to state that there is a very inadequate supply of water, and as this is so essential for the comfort, cleanliness, and even the health of the inhabitants, they cannot too strongly urge upon the Board that no efforts be left untried to obtain such a supply, as may be adequate, in the fullest extent of its application, to the wants of the people. In those districts in which these wants has been alluded to the detail, we find that in Charles-street alone, which is part of the No. 2 district, there is a population of about 418 people without a single pump in the street. In No. 6, the Strand-street district, for instance, there is no less than 216 families, comprising a population of 700 people, without water on their premises, and only 2 fountains at all conveniently situated for their supply, which it must be borne in mind are also visited by an equally unprovided number of people from adjoining districts.

In District No. 8, comprising Albion-street, Swing Pump-lane, &c., in which is contained 170 families, comprising a population of the poorer classes, amounting to upwards of 800 people, we find that there are only 15 pumps, which belong to private individuals; consequently there is a very great want for water in this neighbourhood, sometimes felt to a serious extent by the numbers that may be seen waiting at the fountain near the Fish Market, at untimely hours, which fountain is the only one in the district.

The Ginns District, No. 12, comprising a population of 865 people, or thereabouts, is equally unprovided with water, only four pumps were met with, and these were private property. There is no fountain in the neighbourhood, and the poor have a long way to fetch their water.

In Mount Pleasant District, No. 13, containing 108 houses, with a population upwards of 500 people, there are no pumps, and the water has to be brought from a considerable distance, and at great inconvenience to the to the poor people, up a long range of steps from the fountain in Quay-street.

In looking over the entire town, comprising a population, along with that part in Preston Quarter, of about 16,000 people, we find that there are only 11 public fountains; and during the dry seasons, all classes of the inhabitants have frequently to be waiting at them for a scanty supply of water to very untimely hours; indeed, in times of great scarcity, which do not infrequently occur, parties may be seen at the fountains for their turn to obtain a supply all night long.


This town, since the establishment of these works has had the purest and most bountiful supply of water of any in the kingdom; but we are sorry to find that this very purity of supply has produced an unforeseen action on the pipes, which has occasioned great anxiety to the Committee. About two years ago the Rev. Henry LOWTHER’s attention was directed to the want of pressure at some of the hydrants; and this, when investigated, was found to have arisen from the diminution of the calibre of the pipe. At this gentleman’s suggestion, Mr. HAWKSLEY was communicated with, and was requested by the committee to furnish them with a report on the state of the works.

This, though often promised, has never been received; and we understand that the committee, at a meeting on Tuesday last, resolve on sending a strong remonstrance to Mr. HAWKSLEY for his dilatory conduct.

Twelve months ago Professor TAYLOR, when in Whitehaven, was shown some sections of the pipes, and a short time afterwards furnished the Trustees with a report, which we published at the time. On the 13th instant, Mr. J. B. WILSON and Mr. J. J. PEILE, two of the committee made the annual inspection of the works, and found that within the last two years there has been a diminution of the supply from Wath to Hensingham of 120,000 gallons daily, owing to the main pipes being filled up in the way referred to; and, from the same cause, the Hensingham engine, which at the same period worked 28 strokes in a minute, now only gives 14.

The works were calculated to supply the inhabitants with 1,000,000 gallons daily; but within the last fortnight measurements show that the actual supply is only 500,000 gallons - a figure which will better enable the reader to compare this proportion of loss, and estimate the rapid growth of the obstruction in the pipes. These facts have been considered by the committee, and they are endeavoring to get the best scientific advice in the kingdom on the subject, so that everything may be done to avert any future inconvenience to the inhabitants of the district.

It is remarkable that in a district where the richest ore for iron making is found, the action of the water upon the iron should be the most destructive of any known. The fact has become patent to scientific quarters, and is regarded with that interest which problems fraught with consequences so serious never fail to awaken.

The water in Loch Katrine, from which the supply for Glasgow is intended to be taken - and for which such colossal works are in progress - is of analogous purity; and hence, the promoters of that scheme, knowing what was taking place at Whitehaven, are not without apprehension as to the result in their own case. Professor PENNY has been engaged by them, we believe, to make some investigation into the matter.


The streets of Whitehaven were first lighted with gas in 1831; until that year they were dependant for what illumination they had to the primitive oil lamp. In 1831 gas works were erected at a cost of £8,000, raised in £20 shares. In 1853 a new company was originated, called the Whitehaven Gas Light Consumer’s Co. The works of this company are situated on Low Road, Preston Quarter, and comprise two holders, capable of containing 75,000 cubic feet of gas. For some years the two companies carried on a close competition, and the price of gas was reduced to a sum at which the manufacture was unremunerative. In 1869, however and arrangement was made between them for a term of 14 years, by which gas is supplied at a fixed rate by both companies.

The water supply of the town is both abundant and pure. The works situated at Hensingham, about a mile from the town , were completed in 1850 at a cost of £25,000, and belong to the town and harbour trustees. The water is drawn from Ennerdale Lake, from which the trustees are empowered, by Act of Parliament, to take 1,000,000 gallons per day. It is conveyed from the lake by force of gravitation, the fall being about 30 feet per mile. There are three reservoirs, all of which receive their water from the same source. The one supplying the town has a capacity of 1,000,000 gallons. The Hensingham reservoir supplies the village of Hensingham and adjacent district, and has a capacity of 43,000 gallons. The third one, recently erected on Harras Moor, has a capacity of 150,000 gallons, and cost about £1,000. The water in the other two is pumped from Whitehaven service reservoir by Ramsbottoms’s Water motor engine, worked by pressure from Ennerdale Lake.