The Real Victorian Leeds by Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson opens our eyes to the real Leeds of the Victorian era, and the shockingly unsanitary conditions that Loiners suffered throughout the Industrial Revolution.

Imagine a place where the average life expectancy of the wealthy is 44 years. For the middle class, 27 years. And for those at the bottom of the social scale, just 19 years.

Not a place you’d like to be? Then you’d better think again. If you live in Leeds, you’re already in it. Because that was what it was like here in 1840.

So much for one of the great cities of Empire, one of the powerhouses of the Industrial Revolution. The great buildings that Leeds put up in the 19th century might have glorified the money pouring in to some pockets, but they hid the bitter, stark truth. Unless you had money, life was short and brutal.

The population had grown wildly. In 1831, 123,000 were crammed into a town that had held only 53,000 just 30 years earlier. Most lived in desperate conditions, crammed into rooms not fit for human habitation, with few sewers and no running water. Most streets had no drains or paving – they were just mud. Only 2,000 houses had piped water. It wasn’t safe to drink water from the River Aire. Even by 1841, according to the Leeds Intelligencer, the river was “…charged with the contents of about 200 water closets and similar places, a great number of common drains, the drainings from dunghills, the Infirmary (dead leeches, poultices for patients, etc), slaughter houses, chemical soap, gas, dung, dyehouses and manufacturies, spent blue and black dye, pig manure, old urine wash, with all sorts of decomposed animal and vegetable substances from an extent of drainage between Armley Mills to the Kings Mill amounting to about 30,000,000 gallons per annum of the mass of filth with which the river is loaded.”

cholera 1832_3No surprise that when cholera – the Ebola of its day – arrived in 1832, it took over 700 lives, most of them among the poor. The first victim was a five-year-old boy who lived in Blue Bell Fold, just off Marsh Lane. A year later, Dr. Robert Baker prepared a report for the Leeds Board of Health. In it he wrote:

“Of the 586 streets in Leeds, 68 only are paved by the town, i.e. by the local authorities […] Of those 68, 19 are not sewered at all, and 10 only partly so […] It is only within the last three of four years past that a sewer has been completed through the main street for two of the most populous wards […] Here and there stagnant water, and channels so offensive that they have been declared to be unbearable, lie under the doorways of the uncomplaining poor…”

He even produced a map to illustrate that those worst affected by cholera lived in the poorest areas.

Baker’s report was used in Edwin Chadwick’s 1842 report, Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. It made grim, dire reading. Families with seven children in a room five metres by five metres, working 13 hours a day.

Leeds did do something about sewage – eventually. Their first act was to change the name of Blue Bell Fold to Tindall’s Yard. Boot and Shoe Yard, the home of many cholera victims (and from which 75 barrows of waste, most of it human waste, were removed) was whitewashed at public expense.

There were real changes. The 1842 Leeds Improvement Act prohibited the occupation of yards narrower than 30. But it would take seven years, and another cholera epidemic which killed 2000, to really prod the council into action, and making public sanitation into a reality. But progress remained very slow. In 1874 a writer described a midden in Wellington Yard, off Kirkgate that was 21 feet long and almost six feet wide, going six feet into the ground.

1874. Consider the date. That’s just 140 years ago. If you didn’t have money back then, that was how you lived. But not for too long.

It’s food for thought.

Chris Nickson is a Leeds novelist and music journalist. His Richard Nottingham series of mystery novels is set in Leeds in the 1730s.

Gods of Gold, a mystery set against the backdrop of the 1890 gas strike and the first in his new Victorian series, will be published in August 2014. The launch event for Gods of Gold is taking place on Thursday, September 11, from 6.45 pm, at the Leeds Library, the oldest subscription library in Britain, and in its present location since 1808. Everyone is welcome but you will need to reserve a place. Call the Library on (0113) 245 3071 or email


Gods of Gold by Chris Nickson

Gods of Gold by Chris Nickson


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