Monday, 26 March 2012

Housing conditions for the poor in the 19th century

When researching a family tree I never fail to be dismayed at the appalling living conditions some of our working class ancestors had to endure. I have numerous early ancestors of my own who lived in conditions which can only be described as *one step up from the workhouse*
…Little or no education, very little employment and large families all attributed to the state of poverty which most working class people found themselves in prior to the 20th century.

By the middle of the 19th century, people who had previously lived in rural districts were moving closer to where small industries were starting up hoping to find employment, and in doing so started to create urban areas which would grow to become cities.
As there were virtually no building regulations until toward the end of the 19th century, many houses crowded together were quickly erected to accommodate this urban growth…The majority of these houses were known as *back to back* houses – this meant rows of terraced houses where the back of one house joined onto the back of another and were usually erected around a courtyard where everyone hung out their washing, and  where there would be perhaps just two inadequate unhygienic earth lavatories to accommodate the numerous families.
Each house usually consisted of just two or sometimes, if they were lucky, three small rooms which would be occupied to overflowing by a family with many children. Water would have to be carried daily from a communal pump in the courtyard, as no house had it’s own water supply, and all the dirty water from these houses would be thrown out onto the dirt street where it would lie in stagnant smelly puddles, as there was no drainage for these houses.

                                            back to back houses
…But this was considered luxury accommodation compared to the *cellar dwellings*.
These were awful places where the very poorest people lived. They were cold, damp and airless. Being below ground level there was no window to shed any light into the room and often the walls would be wet and black with mould.....As they couldn’t afford a mattress on which to lie, families would be forced to put straw down on the floor for their bedding.  Many families had to share what was no more than a cesspit for a lavatory, and because these were seldom emptied they would overflow, and sometimes the filth  from these cesspits would seep into the wells which the people had to draw their water from...It’s little wonder disease was rife on numerous occasions during the 1800’s amongst  poor communities living in these awful housing conditions.

Just a minority of men were fortunate to gain a work skill and were therefore able to rent what was termed a *through* house. This meant they could raise their families in houses which had both a back door as well as a front door, and where a lavatory would perhaps only have to be shared between just two families…luxury indeed!

These housing conditions continued until 1848 when a Public Health Act was passed which stated that each  newly built house would each have to have a lavatory and drainage. No more *back to back* houses were to be built under this Act, but it was many years – until into the 20th century before the last of these existing *back to back* houses were demolished.


  1. Great Blog, It must have been horrendous Ann, I do think we take living in a home with several rooms for granted compared to how our ancestors lived, Just finished reading the 3 Jennifer Worth books, phew that opens your eyes too, even though it was the 20th Century.