Robert Southey (1774-1843), the poet and historian, had not much praise for Manchester either when he visited the town in 1808. He wrote 'a place more destitute of all interesting objects than Manchester is not easy to conceive.' He estimated the population to be around 80,000 and went on ' imagine this multitude crowded together in narrow streets, the houses all built of brick and blackened with smoke; frequent buildings among them as large as convents, without their antiquity, without their beauty, without their holiness; where you hear from within...the everlasting din of machinery; and where, when the bell rings, it is to call the wretches to their work instead of their prayers.'
During the early years of the factory system, worker's housing was built quickly, cheaply and badly. The little terraced houses were squalid, cramped and damp. Robert Southey highlighted the problems. 'The dwellings of the labouring manufacturers are in narrow streets and lanes, blocked up from light and air...crowded together because every inch of land is of such value, that room for light and air cannot be afforded them.' Cellar rooms were often flooded by effluent. In Liverpool 10% of the population lived in cellars.
The infamous 'courts' of Manchester and Liverpool consisted of inadequate dwellings built around a courtyard with no 'through ventilation' and a central common ash pit for use as a privy by all the inhabitants. 25% of the population of Liverpool lived in such courts; in Manchester the percentage was less. The poorest families were often forced to live in a single room, which in Newcastle was up to 50% of the population. In 1834 Edwin Chadwick produced 'Report of the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain' in which he detailed the overcrowding, the insanitation and the effect of both on mortality rates and the spread of infectious diseases. He wrote; 'the wants as the most immediate and pressing for the relief of the labouring population are those of drainage and cleansing.'
In 1831-2, Manchester was hit by a severe cholera epidemic, which claimed many hundreds of lives. The poverty and appalling conditions which all workers, particularly the navvies who built the railway and the canal networks of Manchester, had to endure reduced people like Frederick Engels and Elizabeth Gaskell to despair. Engels walked the streets of Ancoats and Chorlton-on-Medlock in Manchester, where some of the worst conditions existed, and wrote 'Conditions of the Working Class in England' based on his eyewitness experiences. Elizabeth Gaskell highlighted the plight of the mill workers in her novels 'North and South' and 'Mary Barton', for which she was roundly condemned by local mill owners.
Many workers lived in cellars which 'consisted of two rooms each nine to ten feet square some inhabited by ten persons or more.' Cholera was rife and there was an 'unwholesome, filthy and disease-engendering condition of the more confined and pauperised districts of the town.' A report in 1832 by Dr Kay stated that 'privvies are in a most disgraceful state, inaccessible from filth and too few for accommodation of the number of people' and in Parliament Street there was '...one privvie in a narrow passage to serve 380 inhabitants...' 'The Manufacturing Population of England: its Moral, Social and Physical Condition' (P.Gaskell, 1840) gives a clear and often heartbreaking idea of the appalling living conditions which many mill workers were forced to endure.
The merchants, managers, mill owners, bankers, solicitors, and anyone else who could afford it, lived in larger comfortably appointed houses out in leafy suburbs (like Didsbury and Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester) surrounding the manufacturing districts. Though shunning the conditions of places like Ancoats, Chorlton-on-Medlock and the courts of Liverpool for themselves and their own families they saw nothing wrong with them for what they deemed the 'working classes'.
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"Norcliffe Hall", c.1903, Greg, Robert Alexander|
Chorlton on Medlock|