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Saturday, 23 August 2014

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Where filth anddisease were rife

IN 1865, an enterprising journalist on The Whitehaven Herald undertook to survey the slums of Whitehaven. The town had by then achieved national fame – or rather infamy – for the number of deaths due to disease. The government sent inspectors to try and find out why – in the enlightened age of mid-19th Century Britain – people will still dying of preventable diseases.

For those who visited the town the reason was all-too obvious: little sanitation, insufficient fresh water, overcrowded and dirty slums, five or more people sleeping in one room – it was perhaps only surprising that more people didn’t die in these conditions.

This was the time of ‘Bad Lord Lowther’ who lived in splendour while those on his land were prevented from making improvements to make life tolerable – or at least possible. Specifically, Lowther would not allow the town to expand so industrious Whitehaven almost literally choked on its own detritus.

One of the many government reports at that time said: “The town should be spread upon twice the space it at present occupies... On every available piece of ground in courts and alleys, new cottages have been and still continue to be built – to the serious inconvenience of other properties in their neighbourhood, producing effects injurious alike to the comfort and health of inhabitants.”

As with many towns at that time, even the private landlords were little motivated to improve conditions. Why should they, when they were getting rent from the hovels they currently ‘maintained’? And the local authorities were unlikely to help – those sitting on the council were the same landlords running the slums!

As space became rarer in the town centre, backyards had been built on – and then built on again. The result were warrens of dark and dirty close-packed houses.

For instance, our anonymous journalist visited the courts off Upper Church Street. He wrote:

“The general character of this street is not bad but towards the foot of it we come upon one of the closest and narrowest courts to be found in Whitehaven or perhaps in the whole kingdom. This is Reay’s Court.

“Approached by a strait-covered passage, it contains four houses of three stories in height, immediately faced by a high and dismal wall – the rear of other houses in an adjoining court.

“The space between, by actual measurement, is precisely three feet and seven inches! – and it would be impossible to imagine more dark and gloomy abodes. There is a privy at the far end – and the smell from which was very much complained of, with good reason.

“There was a sense of suffocation and depression in the place, and one could not but cherish a sort of instinctive impulse, had pick-axes and crowbars been at hand, to batter down the opposite houses (built not so long ago by the way) and admit the free air of heaven once more into the imprisoned court.”

While some streets had privies, most people emptied their overnight toilet onto public middens – rubbish dumps supposed to be cleared up each day by a soil cart. Some of the liquid from the middens ran down the street into others’ homes.

The journalist wandered mainly around Duke Street, George Street and Catherine Street but stated that the condition of those streets were as bad as the rest of the town. He saved his greatest venom for the recently demolished Solomon’s Temple. The government report into this part of town (between Catherine Street and Castle Park). was so bad it even shamed into Lord Lowther into action: he demolished the lot, but with no thought as to where the tenants would go to live. They, of course, just added to the overcrowding in the rest of the town.

The journalist wrote in his series of articles in The Whitehaven Herald that Solomon’s Temple was “inhabited by vagrants of every description such as have reached the lowest step of the social ladder – tramps, peripatetic vendors, professional beggars, professional thieves, Cyprians without a trace of modesty left upon their hardened fronts”.

He went on: “The wretchedly ruinous buildings which formed this Temple of vice and misery was a perennial fever bed, where disease ran riot, and every epidemic abroad was sure to step in and claim its victims.”

Opposite the former Temple were buildings known as “The Barracks” though never used for that purpose. He told how rent on the first storey was 1s 10d, the second 1s 5½d, the third 1s 4d and on the top storey, 1s 2d. The top storey was cheapest even though it offered grand views of the Castle grounds and plenty of fresh air.

“There is a reason for this graduated scale which may possibly not be obvious on the surface,” he explained. “There is no sink stone or drain pipe to any of the tenements, and consequently all slops have to be brought downstairs, and all coals and water to be carried up again.

“Water is obtained from two taps in the neighbourhood; and when this blessing was introduced, the landlord added 3d per week to the rent of each tenement.”

There was no ‘convenience’ for the 100 residents, neither privy nor middenstead – people having to make do with the facilities at Solomon’s Temple.

“Thus,” he wrote, “in every tenement the night soil must be kept all day till the night cart comes round after dusk, or the dustman’s cart next morning – a state of things, we need not point out, as prejudicial to health as it is revolting to decency.”

With the privy at Solomon’s Temple about to be demolished, the landlord was proposing to use one of the cellars as a midden!

The series of articles is resplendent with the names of the many courts in the town at that time: Bacon, Bowes, Cornthwaite, Crichton, Gibson’s, Kelly’s, Kirkpatrick’s and so on. There are also colourful and detailed descriptions of places such as Peggy O’Neale’s lodging house. “Whitehaven is the road to no place,” said the writer, “but there is not a sore-footed tramp who ever came this way who has not sojourned at Peggy’s and there is consequently no establishment of the kind better known over the whole kingdom.”

Peggy was undoubtedly the poorest landlady in the town but she appears to have gone out of her way to look after those with nowhere else to go. And the police turned a blind eye, knowing she was keeping trouble off the streets.

This series of exposés in The Whitehaven Herald were, of course, simply ignored by the great and the good. And if not ignored, there is a feeling that those in authority simply felt it was impossible to do anything – Lowther owned the land.

One reader did write in defence of the recently demolished Solomon’s Temple. Elderly Jonadab Hardcastle was born there and described in great detail the buildings and the people who lived in them. It’s a wonderful snapshot of Whitehaven’s social history – even if it’s taken through very rose-tinted spectacles.

He wrote: “Solomon’s Temple did not always deserve the bad name your correspondent has given it. I know there was scarcely a dirty house in it. I am sure there were some houses in it that could not be surpassed for cleanliness in any town in England. I know it was not the habitation of vagrants and thieves. I remember kind old neighbours and friends, ready to run in a moment, night or day, to each other’s help when afflictions fell. I remember the old man who came round every Saturday with his two asses, to sell clean sand for the clean floors; I remember the many rides I had as a child on those asses, and how when the old man died I was only pacified by being taken day after day to seek my ‘cuddies’ on Harris Moor.”

There was one glimmer of hope for those living in the appalling conditions that Whitehaven offered in the 19th century. An Inspector of Nuisances was on hand. This post – should it be revived by Copeland Council with immediate effect? – seems to have been a man with power to get things done quickly. He was a ‘fire-fighter’ who either spotted problems or to whom people could turn.

But for most people, they were destined to live out their lives in miserable conditions. The slums would not be truly cleared until many government reports and many deaths by disease later. The 1920s and 1930s would eventually see these old courts cleared and new homes built at Woodhouse, Greenbank and similar.

All that remains today are a few names of the courts above closed doorways or back alleys. Where they once led to the maze of courts and slums, they now lead to only to people’s backyards. It’s almost a pity that at least one area of slum was not kept as either a window on the past or a most curious tourist attraction.

The series of articles appeared in The Whitehaven Herald from October 1865. However, they have been republished in a book, The Streets of Whitehaven, which is available at Whitehaven Local Studies Library in the archive office on Scotch Street.

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