The impact of social housing on public health in Hull, 1750-1900

hull (1)

Population and housing

As seen in the map above, the medieval town of Hull was divided up into small plots of land situated around the High Street and the Lowgate district of the town. By the end of the 1700’s, industrial migrants from surrounding villages descending upon the town from, placing urgency on builders to construct new dwellings.

To supply the increase, a series of new dwellings were built. These new builds would often be erected either side of an existing house with a walkway or alley running down the middle – known as ‘back to back housing’. This system of building was the most cost-effective and economical way of housing sufficient numbers of people, within the minimum amount of space.

Another method of building houses in the town was to adjoin a new row of housing directly on the same land as the ‘back to back housing’ this created a system of court housing. This method was used throughout the old town and to some extent into the suburbs.’ The photograph bellow depicts a typical example of court housing. The Lunham’s building’s, Osborne Street in Hull build in the early 1800’s


As industrialisation began to reshape the landscape of the town, Hull’s population increased at a staggering rate thought out the 19th century. The inhabitants of the old town increased from just over 22,000 in 1801 to 90,000 in 1901. The graph bellow illustrates the emergence of the Hull dock system throughout the same period. The development of the Hull docks coincides with the rapid growth in the town’s population.


The sharp increase placed further strain on sufficient adequate housing stocks. A report was subsequently published 21 December 1849 in the Hull Advertiser on the conditions of working class dwellings. The report commissioner, Edward Collins who was also the editor of the Advertiser concluded that ‘the working classes were to blame for creating “slum” conditions’. Collins went on to suggest, despite the lack of, adequate fresh water, drainage and sufficient waste collection. The working classes spent the majority of their income on alcohol, drugs and gambling rather than spending the money on improving their own environment.

Nevertheless, Collins noted the conditions of the court slum housing were on part, a failure of ‘unrestrained capitalist growth’. The class system that ensured the profit from industry worked for the minority of the people instead of the majority. In most cases Collins pointed out, the ruling elite in Hull were content with hiding the working class “slums” in desecrate areas of the town away from the main streets and in most cases concealed behind shops.

This ideology was reiterated by the Reverend Joseph Malet Lambert in 1884. Lambert commented on some housing blocks situated five minutes from the town hall hidden behind a row of shops. Lambert suggested that a row of fifty houses ‘under the shadow of the town hall’ was a ‘disgrace to civilisation.’ Lambert also went on to comment on the lack of water facilities and adequate drainage.


The photograph above is block housing in Thornton’s Square, Posterngate, Hull named after the wealthy merchant and Member of Parliament, Samuel Thornton. The picture was taken in the early 1900’s before the slum clearance.

The water supply in the court slums was distributed at the center of the court for the inhabitants’ to share. The source of this water was often polluted with sewerage from the river, especially during the high spring tides. The privies were described as one of the ‘worst evils of the courts.’  The infrequent removal of night soil meant that human waste often overflowing and in some cases seeping in to the houses. The picture bellow shows just one stand pipe to serving several dwellings on Pease Street. The picture was taken in 1920, shortly before the court was demolished.


Disease and death

In the 1830’s a Cholera epidemic broke out throughout Britain. This disease was said to be carried predominantly thorough the water supply and drainage systems. Hull would be particularly susceptible to this disease due to the low-lying state of the town along the river. Cholera outbreak in summer 1832 was devastating to say the least. In Bernard Foster’s study on public health in Hull , he concluded that at the end of June they were 1,119 cases with 383 reported deaths. In July the numbers increased during mid-summer to 2,729 cases and 684 deaths. By August the numbers feel quite sharply with 733 cases confirmed and 257 reported deaths.

The middle of the nineteenth century the death rate through diseases mostly related to the living conditions in Hull reached to a significant amount. For example the population in the old town in 1847 totaled to around 18,700. During this particular year, the death rate was 604. That would amount to one death per 30.7 inhabitants’ living in the old town.

Population Population Per Acre Deaths in 1847 One death In…
Old Town




















Total      77,500      150 (ave)       2,335     32 (ave)

Diarrhea was another illness on a mass scale caused by poor drainage, dreadful living conditions and the increased problems with night soil removal. Night soil and manure-heaps was seen as breeding grounds for maggots. And in the summer months especially this would encourage the spread of flies. In one decade alone, from 1871 to 1880; infantile diarrhea in Hull reached 14 percent of the childhood population and in Sculcoates the figure was slightly higher at 16 percent.

Improvements and reform


The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was the first significant way of directing poor relief to the most needy away from rate payers in the community to a more centralised payment through the work-house structure. However, concerns were raised by Edwin Chadwick as he argued that they were no centralised regulation in place and it would be up to local authorities to regulate. Chadwick argued this system would be open to abuse. Nevertheless, this amendment to the poor-law relief was seen as beneficial to the neediest in society. Health reformist Edwin Chadwick assisted Dr Southwood Smith to commission a report on public health.

The outcome of this report in 1842 was said to be the most in-depth and scientific examination in to the health of the nation to date. The report included measures to secure new drainage and water supply systems. However, the government rejected these proposals as they were too costly to implement. The government pointed out that it was up to Local Authorities to deal with improvements to health and infrastructure. Nevertheless, as the situation in Britain deteriorated the first Public Health Act was passed through Parliament in 1848. To carry out the necessary changes needed, a central health department was set up which would be prelude to the department of health as we know today.

By 1866 the Sanitary Act was passed and implemented. The act was primarily to give local authorities the resources’ to provide adequate sanitation and clean water faculties’. Another significant act to come into the statute was the first Local Government Act of 1888. This set the foundation’s on the modern Public Health Authority. Local Government was for the first time widely responsible for the provisions of local services including health, infrastructure, hospitals, administration and business.  Improvements to housing stocks came at the beginning of the twentieth century when the Housing and Town Planning Act was introduced in 1909. In Hull, the act initially did not improve the situation of poor housing due to the reluctance to demolish and rebuild new stocks. However it was shortly after the ‘Addison Act’ of 1919, Hull began to demolish old housing stocks to make way for new council built properties.


Primary Sources

Collins, F.E, “Inquiry into the Social Conditions of the Working Classes in Hull” The Hull Advertiser (December.21, 1949. Publisher unknown)
Rollit, A. K, “Homes for the People” Report of the Conference held in the Town Hall, Hull (Eastern Morning News, 2 February 1884)
(Unknown) “Unsanitary Hull” The Eastern Morning News (1888, date, unknown) (Page No., not printed)


Allison, K.J, A History of the County of York East Riding, Volume I. (Oxford University Press, 1969)
Allison, K J A, A History of the County of York East Riding, Volume III. (Constable and Company Limited, 1913)
Foster,B, Living and Dying A picture of Hull in the Nineteenth Century (Abbotsgate Printers 1920)
Williams, J.H, A Century of Public Health in Britain 1832-1929 (A and C. Black, Ltd 1932)
Wrigglesworth,E, Browns Illustrated guide to Hull (E.P Publishing Ltd,1972)

Websites [Date accessed: 5 May 2012, time 16:00] [date accessed 5 May 2012, time 18:30] [date accessed 5 May 2012, time 18:00]

One thought on “The impact of social housing on public health in Hull, 1750-1900”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s