Cesspits and Salubrity in Southampton

Philip Brannon’s Picture of Southampton, a guidebook published in 1850, presents Southampton as an attractive place to visit, its fine streets and amenities on display in the book’s many engravings.

The High Street from Philip Brannon The Picture of Southampton (1850) Rare Books Cope SOU 03.5 1850

Although the arrival of the railway and development of the docks meant that the town’s commercial life was increasingly important, the guide emphasises Southampton’s longstanding claim to be a health resort. According to Brannon, as a result of the beneficial climate, there were cases where ‘incipient consumption has been arrested … and asthma of longstanding cured’. Going on to classify different areas of the town according to their ‘climatal characteristics’, he described Bedford Place as elevated and airy, whilst Cranbury Place was bracing.

Subtitle from Philip Brannon The Picture of Southampton (1850) Rare Books Cope SOU 03.5 1850

Brannon also wrote that when cholera appeared it was mild and ‘seldom attended with loss of life’ a surprising claim given that 239 people had died from the disease during the summer and early autumn of 1849. Those most badly affected were the poor who lived in the squalid courts and alleys behind the main streets, where the water supply was inadequate and sewers rare. Such insanitary conditions were alluded to by Brannon though they could ‘only remotely affect the visitor, as these portions are seldom, if ever, dwelt in by those who resort hither for health or pleasure’. He did however feel obliged to suggest that some areas of the shore were best avoided by invalids, particularly in warm weather at low tide.

River Itchen and Floating Bridge from Philip Brannon The Picture of Southampton (1850) Rare Books Cope SOU 03.5 1850

The reason for this becomes apparent in the very different picture of Southampton presented in  the Report of the General Board of Health on the Sanitary Condition of Southampton, also published in 1850. The author, William Ranger, was the inspector assigned to the town as part of the process of establishing a Local Board of Health, which it was hoped would improve the situation. Ranger visited in January 1850, taking the testimony of witnesses, many of them local doctors and clergy, and touring the areas where most deaths had occurred.

Courts and alleys behind the High Street from a copy of the 1846 map of Southampton Rare Books Cope cf SOU 90.5 1846

The Report provides a detailed account of the living conditions of those who rarely feature in publications on Southampton. The doctor, Francis Cooper, wrote ‘I have seen and visited paupers in their illness, who have lain in hovels not fit for pigs, and where pigs would infallibly have died for want of air’. In the courts and alleys, some as narrow as two or three feet, ‘light and air are in a great measure excluded and where drainage and sewerage are wanting and where ventilation is impossible, fumes of a malarious kind are perpetually given off by cesspools, dung-heaps and filthy privies’.

Ranger also included tables providing further evidence of the insanitary and overcrowded conditions:

Table showing access to a water supply from William Ranger’s Report to the General Board of Health … on Southampton (1850) Rare Books Cope SOU 61

Among the many problems were twenty slaughter houses within the town, privies unemptied for 10 years, only one public lavatory and no public baths. Out of 5,482 houses only 1,750 had a water supply, sewers where they existed were inadequate and outfalls on the shores insufficient, a problem particularly noted at the Floating Bridge and West Quay. Overcrowding was common, especially in the lodging houses found mainly in Blue Anchor Lane, Simnel Street, West Street and St Michael’s Square, where people were accommodated at the cost of three pence a night for part of a bed. The burial grounds within the town walls were also overcrowded.

Table showing access to toilets from William Ranger’s Report to the General Board of Health … on Southampton (1850) Rare Books Cope SOU 61

Ranger’s proposals to improve public health included providing a pure water supply to every house, extending and improving the sewers and prohibiting their discharge on the foreshore. Dead end alleys were to be opened up, the backstreets paved and cleaned and where possible ventilation increased in back to back houses. Burials within the town were to be prohibited as were slaughterhouses. Ranger suggested that the costs of such works would in part be offset by the savings achieved by improved public health.

Steps were taken to improve conditions but as time passed the impetus to carry out the proposals receded and in the mid-1860s cholera returned to the same areas killing 100 people, including Francis Cooper. Conditions described in the Detailed Report of Delapidated and Unhealthy Houses in the Borough of Southampton of 1893 showed that little had changed by the end of the nineteenth century.

Brannon’s engravings of Southampton show the town at its best, but Ranger’s report is a reminder of conditions just out of sight beyond the main streets, and raise the question of whether the walks along the shore would have been quite as pleasant as they might appear.

Blechynden from Philip Brannon The Picture of Southampton (1850) Rare Books Cope SOU 03.5 1850

Conditions in mid-19th century Southampton were by no means exceptional, the cholera epidemic of 1848/49 was nationwide. General Board of Health  inspectors visited 414 towns and villages between 1848 and 1857 and their reports are available on microfiche in the Hartley Library.

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