Monthly Archives: August 2011

When the poor were contagious

Unsanitary living conditions 19th centuryThe Western world first industrialized in Great Britain, prompting vast numbers of inhabitants to move from the agricultural countryside to urban centers. Living and working conditions were deplorable. Andrew Mearn wrote in 1883 of the “pestilential human rookeries … where tens of thousands are crowded.” He continues:

To get to them you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions and often flowing beneath your feet; courts, many of them which the sun never penetrates, which are never visited by a breath of fresh air, and which rarely know the virtues of a drop of cleansing water…. You have to grope your way along dark and filthy passages swarming with vermin. Then, if you are not driven back by the intolerable stench, you may gain admittance to the dens in which these thousands of beings who belong, as much as you, to the race for whom Christ died, herd together.

Pretty graphic. Roy Porter’s comment on this passage: “Historians still dispute whether industrialization raised or depressed wages and living standards – something, perhaps, impossible to measure.” Read more