Sanitation in the c19th - North Laine History

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Sanitation in the c19th

The slipper baths opened in 1870 on the site of the former barracks in Church St
In the early years of the c19th, human waste in North Laine was simply tipped into cess pits or into the road. There did exist a waste water drain in the Steine which went from Preston Circus to the seafront but did not connect up North Laine. As North Laine developed drains were constructed in the middle of some streets to carry away waste water and the surface drains were often used to dump human waste which ought to have been collected by scavengers working for the Town.

The condition of the town’s sanitary condition was clearly a problem for in 1839 Dr Jenks produced a report, Report on the Sanitary condition of Brighton in which he highlighted the insufficient drainage and the condition of the cess pits. In the area north of Church St between Bread St and Gardner St (Pimlico) half of the population were fishermen. The area contained some of the worst housing in Brighton and was highlighted in Jenk’s Report. Writing in 1840, Jenks manitained that Pyms Gardens was the worst ‘a very narrow, badly ventilated court lined by very poor, cramped buildings. The surface gutter down the middle was always filled with sludge or filth and the single roomed tenements were often flooded as rainwater could not run away easily.
The worst housing in North Laine was between Gardner St and Bread St.
Pimlico was a street of tiny two roomed dwellings that were let at between 1s 6p a week and 2s. 75 properties in 1861 were occupied by 385 people, over 5 per house. At No 71, 12 people lived. Most of these residents were fisherman, hawkers, shrimpers and labourers whilst the women were washerwomen, dressmakers, charwomen, laundresses or ironers. Thomas St, now replaced by Tichborne St, was a street full of lodging houses many the home for local prostitutes. These lodging houses were not regulated at all so that a house might have 12 beds for 40 people paying 3d a night.

A local doctor William Kebbell, physician to the Brighton Dispensary and the author of a book on Brighton’s climate was himself concerned about the condition of the poor in Brighton and gave a series of lectures in the town. These lectures were published in 1848 and he claimed that ‘our first rate streets are not surpassed, if equalled, in cleanliness and general appearance by any in the world. The streets and districts of the poor, both in filth and general untidiness and the squalor of the inhabitants are a disgrace to any civilized people.’
Cresy's 1849 map of Pimlico showed how cess pits and wells were often next to each other.
Kebbell drew attention to the number of epidemics that had occurred in Brighton: 59 deaths from whooping cough in 1839, 86 deaths from smallpox in 1841, 130 deaths from scarlet fever in 1842. He said that an average of 217 deaths a year were from consumption and that was large in proportion to Liverpool. Kebbell drew attention to the poor using the streets to dispose of their refuse, and how cess pools in the poorer parts of the town were constantly overflowing. He mentioned in his lectures the slaughter houses which were often situated in poor areas. In fact in Vine Street alone there were seven slaughter houses and the stench from them was overpowering, especially in hot weather.

In 1849 Brighton’s sanitation and living conditions were inspected by a commissioner from the Board of Health, Edward Cresy. Cresy found that only 32 of Brighton’s 186 streets had sewers and regarded North Laine as one of the worst areas in the town. He complained of how houses were constructed and how the inhabitants of the poorest housing, including the Pimlico area of North Laine, were constantly on sick lists. He cited a lack of drainage, the cess pools and their smells, and the dampness of housing as the main reasons for sickness. In his report on Brighton’s conditions Cresy included a map of the Pimlico area showing he close proximity of cess pools and water supplies. In 1849, in his report, Cresy paid particular attention to this part of Brighton. Of the nearby streets in North Laine, he wrote that Orange Row, Pimlico, Foundry Street, Spring Gardens and Thomas Street were areas where diseases prevailed, often the result of sulphurated hydrogen "which arises from the excrement retained in cesspools. It pervades all the breathing places found at the back of buildings. Many of the houses are wretchedly damp, constructed with inferior bricks and mortar made of sand. No methods are available for getting rid of the rain water. The walls are covered with lichen, and with the decomposition of vegetable matter the inmates seek the imagined restorative powers of the public house."

An 1860 Commission of Inquiry into the government of Brighton revealed that in parts of the town wells sunk in to the chalk were distributed among wells. Following the Commission’s work, Brighton adopted the Local Government Act which enabled the new Corporation to provide cheap forms of sewerage, make new streets and regulate slaughter houses. At this time three quarters of Brighton’s houses emptied their waste water into cess pools, I imagine that very few if any of North Laine’s streets connected to a sewer system at this time.

Things progressed slowly for in the 1860s Dr Blaker, consulting surgeon at Sussex County Hospital, gave a full account of the situation in the Pimlico area of North Laine. He wrote how on Sunday mornings he would see girls of ten or twelve years of age walking in front of the house absolutely naked and along paths and footways which were covered with the intestines and skins of fish.

By the 1860s though there were eight separate  water drains that emptied into the sea but by 1874 a new intercepting sewer had been built which ran along the seafront with an outfall near Rottingdean. However as late as 1882 there was severe criticism of the town’s sanitary arrangements in ‘The Lancet’ bringing a response from Joseph Bazalgette, commissioned by the Corporation, that everything was satisfactory.
The council also acquired the site of the former barracks in Church St and built a slipper baths which opened in 1870 providing either hot or cold water baths. Together with the swimming pool which opened on the same site in 1895, it was much easier for North Laine residents to have a weekly bath and keep clean despite the lack of baths in their homes.
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