Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population


The following extract comes from An inquiry into the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain; with appendices, pp. 8-10, 1842 (006) [House of Lords] XXVI.1.


The state of the dwellings of many of the agricultural labourers in Dorset, where the deaths from the four classes of disease bear a similar proportion to those in Devon, is described in the return of Mr. John Fox, the medical officer of the Cerne union, who, in remarking upon some cases of disease among the poor whom he had attended, says:

”These cases (of diarrhea and common fever) occurred in a house (formerly a poor house) occupied by nearly 50 persons on the ground floor; the rooms are neither boarded nor paved, and generally damp; some of them are occupied by two families. The up-stairs rooms are small and low, and separated from each other by boards only. Eleven persons slept in one room. The house stands in a valley between two hills, very little above the level of the river, which occasionally overflows its banks, and within a few yards of it. Their is generally an accumulation of filth of every description in the gutter running about two feet from its front, the large cesspool within a few feet behind. The winter stock of potatoes was kept in some of the day-rooms, and generally put away in a wet state. The premises had not been white-limed during three years; in addition to this state of things, the poor were badly fed, badly clothed, and many of them habitually dirty, and consequently typhus, synochus, or diarrhea, constantly prevailed. No house rent was paid by the occupants. Many, under more favourable circumstances were clean and tidy, and if their wages were sufficient to enable them to rent a decent cottage, I have no doubt they would soon regain their lost spirit of cleanliness. In the same parish I have often seen the springs blasting through the mud floor of some of the cottages, and little channels cut from the centre under the doorways to carry off the water, whilst the door has been removed from its hinges for the children to put their feet on whilst employed in making buttons. Is it surprising that fever and scrofula in all its forms prevail under such circumstances?

It is somewhat singular that seven cases of typhus occurred in one village heretofore famed for the health and general cleanliness of its inhabitants and cottages. The first five cases occurred in one family, in a detached house on high and dry ground, and free from accumulations of vegetable or animal matter. The cottage was originally built for a school-room, and consists of one room only, about 18 feet by 10, and 9 high. About one third part was partitioned off by boards reaching to within three feet of the roof, and in this small space were three beds, in which six persons slept; had there been two bed-rooms attached to this one day-room, these cases of typhus would not have occurred. The fatal case of typhus occurred in a very small village, containing about sixty inhabitants, and from its locality it appears favourable to the production of typhus, synochus, and acute rheumatism. It stands between two hills, with a river running through it, and is occasionally flooded. It has extensive water meadows both above and below, and a farm-yard in the centre, where there is always a large quantity of vegetable matter undergoing decomposition. Most of the cases of synochus occurred under circumstances available to its production. Most of the cottages being of the worst description, some mere mud hovels, and situated in low and damp places with cesspools or accumulations of filth close to the doors. The mud floors of many are much below the level of the road, and in wet seasons are little better than so much clay. The following shocking case occurred in my practice. In a family consisting of six persons, two have fever; the mud floor of their cottage was at least one foot below the lane; it consisted of one small room area, in the centre of which stood a foot ladder reaching to the edge of a platform which extended over nearly one half of the room, and upon which were placed two beds, with space between them for one person only to stand, whilst the outside of each touched the thatch. The head of one of these beds stood within six inches of the edge of the platform, and in this bed one of my unfortunate patients, a boy about 11 years old, was sleeping with his mother, and in a fit of delirium jumped over the head of his bed and fell to the ground below, a height of about seven feet. The injury to the head and spine was so serious that he lived a few hours only after the accident. In a cottage fit for the residence of a human being this could not have occurred. In many cottages, also, where synochus prevailed, the beds stood on the ground floor, which was damp three parts of the year; Scarcely one had a fireplace in the bedroom, and one had a single small pane of glass stuck in the mud wall as its only window, with a large heap of wet and dirty potatoes in one corner. Persons living in such cottages are generally very poor, very dirty, only usually in rags, living almost wholly on bread and potatoes, scarcely ever tasting animal food, and consequently highly susceptible of disease and very unable to contend with it. I am quite sure if such persons placed in good, comfortable, clean cottages, the improvement in themselves and children would soon be visible, and the exceptions would only be found in a few of the poorest and most wretched, who perhaps had been born in a mud hovel, and had lived in one the first 30 years of their lives.

In my district I do not think there is one cottage to be found consisting of a day-room, three bed-rooms, scullery, pantry, and convenient receptacles for refuge and for fuel in the occupation of a labourer, but there are many consisting of a day-room and two bed-rooms, constructed with a due regard to ventilation and warmth, pantry, and fuel house, with a small garden and pig-sty adjoining, and the labourers occupying such cottages, generally speaking, are far superior to others less advantageously situated. The persons and cottages are always neater and cleaner, they are less disposed to frequent the beer-houses or to engage in poaching, whilst their children are generally sent daily to some school, in many instances chiefly supported by the clergyman of the parish. As to corroboration of my opinion, I need only state that I am frequently employed by the labourers in the good cottages to attend their wives during their confinement, and generally received my guinea before I leave the house, whilst the labourer less favourably situated invariably applies to his parish for medical relief under such circumstances. I think there cannot be a doubt if the whole of the wretched hovels were converted into good cottages, with a strict attention to warmth, ventilation, and drainage, and receptacle for filth of every kind placed at a proper distance, it would not only improve the health of the poor by removing a most prolific source of disease, and thereby most sensibly diminish the rates, I am convinced it would also tend most materially to raise the moral character of the poor man, and render him less susceptible to the limits of the idle and wicked.”