filth and the industrial revolution -- 4/19/21

Today's selection -- from This Mortal Coil by Andrew Doig. The Industrial Revolution, which transformed the world more than any phenomenon before or since, led to a population explosion, most of which happened first in Britain’s cities:
"Crowded cities have been hubs of disease from the start of civilisation. Access to clean water for drinking, cooking and washing, and disposal of human waste are particular problems for city dwellers reliant on rivers and rain. While water acquisition and disposal might be manageable for cities with populations of no more than a few tens of thousands, relying on natural watercourses could become hopelessly inadequate when city population densities and absolute numbers began to rise rapidly. Typhoid and typhus, in particular, became widespread when poor, undernourished people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were packed in slum housing in the first industrial cities.

"Britain was the first country to undergo the Industrial Revolution, transforming the country with steam power, machine tools in factories, and new methods to produce iron and chemicals. Britain thus stands as an excellent historical example of how premature death soared as a result of industrialisation, and how infectious diseases like typhus and typhoid were slowly brought under control. The problems that first arose in Britain often show up in other countries undergoing the same switch from an economy based on agriculture to one based on industry. The cities of Liverpool and Manchester in Lancashire are particularly informative as they became the most advanced manufacturing and port cities in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century.

"The first precise census in the UK was undertaken in 1801, recording data on the numbers of people, occupations, baptisms, marriages, burials and houses. The total population was 10,942,646, with 30 per cent living in towns and cities. Most people worked on the land, as they had always done, though dramatic changes in the ways they lived had already started to take place.

Map of Liverpool from 1880

"The textiles industry was a main driver in Lancashire. New inventions to increase the production of cotton and wool products enabled a switch from the work being done by hand in people's homes (literally a cottage industry) to mechanised mills. Iron production using coal instead of wood was developed in Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, culminating in the construction of the first cast-iron bridge across the Severn in 1779. Water power in the first factories was replaced by coal-powered steam engines.

"Prior to the Industrial Revolution, families often spun yarn and wove cloth to make their own clothing or to sell. These traditional practices could not compete with the new manufacturing methods being set up in cities like Manchester. With work in the countryside collapsing, people poured into the cities. Manchester expanded from 75,000 people in 1801 to 645,000 in 1901. West of Manchester, the city and port of Liverpool grew at an even greater rate. Facing the Atlantic, Liverpool was ideally located to trade with North America and the West Indies and to export the products of Manchester and other industrial cities. The world's first wet dock, capable of handling a hundred ships, was built in Liverpool in 1715. Liverpool became a major centre for the slave trade, starting with one slave ship in 1699, then increasing to 40 per cent of the world's slave trade a hundred years later. The population increased from 4,240 in 1700 to 80,000 in 1800, making it the second largest city in Britain after London, a position it held for sixty years until overtaken by Glasgow. A canal was built to link Liverpool to Manchester in 1721, followed by the world's first railway between cities in 18 30. By the mid-nineteenth century Britain dominated world trade, with Liverpool taking a leading role. While this boom generated great wealth and power, it also created enormous health and social problems.

"From 1801 to 1901 the population of Liverpool leapt again from 82,000 to 704,000. The largest increase was in the late 1840s, when vast numbers of people travelled across the Irish Sea to escape the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine. Nearly 300,000 Irish people arrived in the year 1847 alone, making the city 25 per cent Irish-born by 1851 and creating the distinct Scouse accent. The British government at the time thought it had no obligation to provide for the health, education and general well-being of its citizens; government's two principal functions were to defend the realm and to administer justice. Housing the enormous numbers of desperate people moving to the new cities for work was not in its remit. Local government also had little concern for public health measures, such as providing sewerage and drinking water. In 1848 The Economist criticised attempts to improve public sanitation: 'Suffering and evil are nature's admonitions; they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation ... have always been more productive of evil than good.'

"The need for housing was filled by exploitative slum landlords, who housed families in appalling conditions. In Liverpool in 1800, 7,000 people were living in cellars, never meant for habitation, and 9,000 in enclosed 'courts' (small houses built off dark, narrow courtyards) with little or no sanitation. Sewers, if they existed, were designed only to drain rainwater from the surface, rather than remove human waste from households. This instead went into buckets or cesspools in basements to be emptied by night-soil men (usually women) who carried carts slopping with human waste to the countryside to sell as fertiliser. The night-soil men required payment, something that the slum inhabitants often did not have. Privies were often simply emptied into the courts or streets, where children played. Cellars, where families might be living, were often deep in raw sewage.

"In 1847 William Duncan was appointed as Liverpool's (and Britain's) first medical officer of health. A single part-time post to deal with the health needs of the entire city was deemed all that was necessary. Duncan believed that disease was spread by foul air. While mistaken, this belief did correctly point him in the right direction of improving sanitation and cleanliness to improve public health. After surveying the slum housing, Duncan reported that Liverpool was the unhealthiest town in England. As many as 55,000 people lived in court housing, at an average of more than five people per dwelling. Fifty or sixty people could sometimes be found sharing a single four-room house. Another 20,168 people were living in 6,294 cellars with no water, sanitation or fresh air."



Andrew Doig


This Mortal Coil: A History of Death


Bloomsbury Publishing


Copyright Andrew Doig 2022


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