Cumbrian lodging houses – dens of disease

If you imagine Cumbrian lodging houses in the 1800s were in any way better than those in the big industrial cities elsewhere in England, you’d be wrong. Conditions for those forced to live in the were vile – and ripe for the spread of disease.

Disease and contagion in Carlisle in 1849

The 1849 inquiry into sanitation in Carlisle proved a source of so much information, I split it into several posts.

The first covered the somewhat tangential discussion about the ‘link’ between temperance and drains.

The second looked at over-crowding – in churchyards

In the third, I’ll look at Victorian theories on the spread of disease – and at the state of Cumbrian lodging houses in the 19th century.

To recap: Robert Rawlinson had been appointed by the General Board of Health to conduct the inquiry. Which was lengthy and attended by local doctors and some of Carlisle’s prominent citizens.

The ‘theory’ of contagion   

 One of the key speakers in the inquiry was Carlisle physician Dr Thomas Barnes, who had 30 years’ experience of (what we now know to be contagious) diseases in the city.

He believed the want of drainage promoted fever and cholera. He also believed in contagion: giving an example of a man with some symptoms of cholera going to stay with friends in Scaleby. Cholera broke out in the house next door and several deaths ensued.

He then got into a discussion with the inspector about contagion as a theory. The discussion makes it clear there was a divide between ‘experts’ who believed disease was spread by contagion, and others who were ‘non-contagionists’. 

Dr Barnes thought the differences were ‘little more than verbal’. For disease to spread, he said, there had to be a) someone with it in the first place, and b) a ‘perculiar state of the atmosphere’.

The inspector felt that breathing the same atmosphere was like drinking from the same cup. But attention to cleanliness and ventilation might protect someone from disease even where it was prevalent.

Dr Barnes said some beds had been put in the river at Carlisle and taken out at Cargo, before a lot of people there died of cholera.

‘Malaria’ and ‘miasma’

It would seem the inspector subscribed to the miasma theory – that diseases were spread by poisonous particles in the air. ‘Malaria’ is roughly ‘bad air’.

As the Science Museum article says, the theory had its merits – the actions taken to tackle ‘miasma’ did reduce bacteria.

Dr Lonsdale was also interested in a new Bill that would put a stop to cellar dwellings (unless well-ventilated and with ceilings of a certain height). He referred to houses on the Bitts, where cellars were damp.

He also gave the example of Duke Street where, in 1847, one section of houses had suffered a great deal of fever, due to effluvium and lack of ventilation. While another section had escaped, due to the clean and ventilating precautions taken by the landlord.

The inspector suggested sewerage should flow into receiving tanks, to be used as (profitable) manure. But, it would have to be able to pass into the natural water course in time of flooding, to protect property.

This led to concern about pollution in the river; it was pointed out sewerage went into the Eden now.

Cumbrian lodging houses – dens of filth

Dr Lonsdale spoke about ‘the worst’ Cumbrian lodging houses, in Drovers’ Lane and East Tower Street: ‘dens of filth’ as bad even as any of the bigger towns of England and Scotland. He had inspected the worst lanes and lodging houses of Carlisle. Nos 21 and 29 in Jollie’s Buildings, and others in Drovers’ Lane and Caldcoats (sic) were in a more abominable condition than could be credited if you hadn’t visited them. 

Mr Rawlinson described some of the conditions he had seen. These included three grown men having to share one bed, with four or five beds in a single room. The atmosphere was foetid for want of ventilation. 

He’d explained previously that windows were kept shut to keep out the foul smells from middens etc outside.

People often slept naked to preserve themselves from vermin, and men, women and children lay together promiscuously. 

Liverpool had regulated lodging houses – and vagrants had fled to unregulated towns where they were cheaper.

W Richardson said there were lodging houses of the worse possible description in the villages of Upperby and Kingstown, resorted to by thieves and other bad characters.

After debating topics such as houses being too close together, and filthy habits being handed down through the generations, the session closed. 

Inspector Rawlinson said his next port of call would be Penrith.