The Downside of Victorian York

York backstreet c1900

Behind the genteel, historic character of York’s main streets lay a teeming mass of slum dwellings, home to the large part of the population still mired in poverty.

In Bedern, one of the worst areas, large houses had been converted into miserable tenements.  Hundreds of people were crammed in to this small space: most had only one room for the whole family.

Elsewhere, particularly in and around Walmgate, Irish immigrants swelled York’s poor population.  Laws were passed to enable local authorities to demolish slums, but they had neither the power nor the money to replace them.

After 1875 the Water Lanes were demolished, but the residents were forced to move to other overcrowded and insanitary parts of York.

For the destitute and truly desperate, the last resort was the workhouse.  The Marygate workhouse could take 90 paupers, but then a new building housing 607 inmates was built on Huntington Road.  It had separate areas for men, women, boys and girls, and the only comforts its inmates had were the rough uniform they wore and a bed in a dormitory.

In 1870 a new childrens' home and orphanage called St Stephen's opened at Precentors Court.  It moved location twice, settling on The Mount in 1919 before eventually closing in 1969.

Seebohm Rowntree’s report

Joseph Rowntree's son, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, undertook a comprehensive survey of the city’s poor in 1899. By that time, the Bedern tenements had gone, but Seebohm Rowntree still found evidence of appalling hardship.

Nearly 3,000 families lived in what Rowntree classed as sub-standard housing, many in slums.  These were cramped, cold and dirty without proper water supplies and with overflowing privies shared by many households.

Rowntree's report was published in 1901 and he used the meticulous evidence in it to influence the reforming politics of the pre-war Liberal party.

Health and disease

The poor areas of York were filthy and stalked by disease.  Human waste was left to accumulate in the alleys until there was enough to be collected and added to huge dung hills like those at Layerthorpe Bridge and behind St Margaret’s Church in Walmgate.   Animal manure was added to the stinking heap.

Water supplies came from contaminated wells, the polluted Ouse and the stagnant Foss.  Some work was done to improve drainage, but it didn’t come close to tackling the problems.  County Hospital surgeon Dr Thomas Laycock reported on the link between poverty and health in 1844.  He found a strong correlation between the lowest lying areas, poverty and reduced lifespan.  Almost 80 per cent of the people in All Saints, North Street, down by the Ouse, were from the labouring classes.  The mean age of death was under 20.  In Holy Trinity parish, higher up Micklegate, that age rose to 43.

The list of fatal diseases was a long one, and included tuberculosis, pneumonia, dysentery, typhoid and measles.  Many died in the two major outbreaks of cholera, in 1832 and 1849.  Hundreds lost their lives to a typhus epidemic in 1847.

After it was established in 1850, the York Board of Health began a slow improvement of the city’s environment.  Charities distributed food, coal and money and ran almshouses for the aged poor.  Both the York County Hospital, rebuilt in 1851, and the York Dispensary continued serving the sick and penniless.

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