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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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London's 'Great Stink' and Victorian Urban Planning

By Professor Martin Daunton
Packing in the people

mage of back-to-back housing in Staithes, Yorkshire, late 19th century
Back-to-back housing in Staithes, Yorkshire, late 19th century ©
One of the greatest problems created by the rise of great cities, was that of housing the population. The early Victorians spent little and their children died young, while later Victorians spent more and enjoyed a longer life. This was not a triumph of medicine, but of political action and public investment in engineering and preventive medicine.

In the first half of the 19th century, the answer was all too often by subdividing existing property and cramming more accommodation into backyards. Cities became more densely packed, creating dead-ends and foul alleys, and damp cellars offered miserable accommodation. In Liverpool, about a quarter of the population lived in courts in the early 1840s, and perhaps ten per cent lived in cellars.

'The low life-expectancy of babies born into such conditions is easily explained.'

The borough engineer painted a lurid picture of the conditions in the early 1860s, explaining how courts had no through ventilation, and normally contained 'the privy or ashpit common to all the wretched dwellings, with its liquid filth oozing through their walls, and its pestiferous gases flowing into the windows'. Conditions within the houses were no better.

In 1854, the commissioners appointed to enquire into the cholera outbreak in Newcastle-upon-Tyne found that about 50 per cent of families had only a single room. Most houses did not have an independent water supply or privy, and what was shared was often the responsibility of no one. The low life-expectancy of babies born into such conditions is easily explained.

Published: 2004-11-04

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