Changing Britain, 1760-1900

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Changing Britain, 1760-1900

Part Four: Changing Britain, 1760-1900 A study of the reasons for and impact of industrialisation on life in Britain. It will focus on the social, economic and political developments which transformed life across Britain in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Mandatory content

Illustrative areas

Health and housing

Industry — textile factories and coal mines

Transport — canals and railways
Pressure for democratic reform up to 1867

Reasons for problems of overcrowding, poor quality housing and subsequent medical problems. Improvements in housing including slum clearances. Improvements in health including medical advances, piped water supply and public health.

The impact of technology and legislation on textile factories and coal mines. This will include the impact of the factory acts and mines act and improvements to working conditions.

Building of the canals and railways, the development the canal and railway networks. Reasons for the decline of canals. Impact of these transport networks on society and the economy.
The Radical unrest at Peterloo and Bonnymuir. The 1832 Reform Act. Chartists. Reasons for the 1867 Reform Act and the extent of democratic change it brought.

Reasons for problems of overcrowding
Highland Clearances:

  • People were forced to leave the Highlands by their landlords who realised that having sheep and deer on the land was more profitable than allowing the crofters to rent the land from them. Having sheep on the land meant that landowners could sell their wool and mutton.

  • As a result of the evictions, many people left to go to towns and cities.

Irish Immigration:

  • Many people in Ireland had relied on the potato crop, and when the disease called blight ruined their crops in 1845 over 1 million people died as a result of starvation and illness. Many people had moved into the country from Ireland by the mid-1800s to escape famine.

  • Irish people were attracted to Britain because it was a relatively short journey by sea, and settled mainly on the west coast of Scotland, but also in Dundee and in English cities such as Liverpool and London.

Growth of new industries:

  • New industries such as cotton mills, ship building and engineering attracted workers to cities.

Farmers looking for work:

  • Due to more machines being used on farms, many farm workers became unemployed because machines could do the work of many men.

  • When wealthy farmers stopped renting out small areas of land for poorer farmers to farm, many had to move to the towns and cities to find work.

Early marriage:

  • Young people could easily get jobs in cities and this meant they could afford to get married earlier and have more children.

Birth Rate Rising:

  • People were marrying younger and having more children.

Death Rate Falling:

  • Improvements in medicine meant that people lived longer and children survived into childhood. For example, Joseph Lister began to use antiseptics in surgery and a vaccination to prevent smallpox was created.

  • Improvements in farming and the growth of the railway network meant that better quality fresh food reached cities, which allowed people to fight disease.

  • During the second half of the 19th century, housing and water supplies had improved. For example, in 1859 clean water began to be pumped from Loch Katrine into Glasgow which meant that Glaswegians no longer had to rely on the public wells in the city.

Poor quality housing and subsequent medical problems

When houses are built today they must meet very high standards. This is enforced by the council and basic necessities like running water and electricity are standard. We take it for granted that windows and doors are fitted properly and that the house must be wind and watertight. This was not always the case. Cities needed cheap homes as the Industrial Revolution continued to grow. There were few building regulations then and those that did exist were frequently ignored. The council did not build houses and builders had a freehand to build as they wished. Profit became the main motivator for builders. They knew that those coming to the cities needed a job and somewhere to live. Therefore, a house was put up quickly and cheaply – and as many were built as was possible.

Homes for the Poor

During the 19th Century more people moved into the towns and cities to find work in factories. Cities filled to overflowing and most were not prepared for this great increase in people. People crowed into already crowded houses. Rooms were rented to whole families or perhaps several families.

Land-owners or factory owners often built houses for their workers. Unfortunately, this did not always make standards better. The houses were cheap, most had between 2-4 rooms - one or two rooms downstairs, and one or two rooms upstairs. But Victorian families were big with perhaps 4-5 children.
There was no water, and no toilet. A whole street (sometimes more) would have to share a couple of toilets and a pump. The water from the pump was frequently polluted. It was no surprise that few children made it to adulthood.
Some of the worst houses were ‘back to backs’ in England. The only windows were at the front. Housing conditions like this were perfect breeding grounds for diseases.
Homes for the Rich

On the other hand the homes for the middle classes and the upper classes were much better. They were better built, larger and had most of the new gadgets installed, such as flushing toilets, gas lighting, and inside bathrooms. These houses were also decorated in the latest styles. There would be heavy curtains, flowery wallpaper, carpets and rugs, ornaments, well made furniture, paintings and plants.

Most rich people had servants and they would live in the same house, frequently sleeping on the top floor or the attic. The rich had water pumps in their kitchens or sculleries and their waste was taken away down into underground sewers.
Most of the rich lived on the edge of the cities. This way they avoided the congestion of the inner city. They also avoided the smoke and smell associated with the city factories and sewers. Most of the upper classes would have large, well maintained gardens where children could play and parents could relax.

The water supply

Toilets would have been nothing more than cesspits. When these were filled they had to be emptied and what was collected was loaded onto a cart before being dumped in a local river. This work was also done by the night-men. Local laws stated that their work had to be done at night as the stench created by emptying the cesspits was too great to be tolerated during the day. When the great social reformer Lord Shaftesbury visited one house, he went into the cellar – where a family was living – and found that the sewage from a nearby cesspit had leaked right under their floor boards. People simply put up with the stench.


A block of 40 houses would have possibly 6 toilets for all persons. It is estimated that on average 9 people lived in one house, which would mean that 6 toilets served 360 people! Another problem was that it was the responsibility of the landlord of the house to pay to have cesspits emptied and they were never too enthusiastic to do this. One cesspit cost £1 to empty. As the average rent was 2 shillings a week, this equalled 5 weeks rent. No-one in local authority enforced the law and as a result, courtyards could literally flood with sewage.


Drainage systems would have changed all of this but they cost money. Drainage pipes had to be made out of brick as no pipes existed then. One foot of brick drainage pipe cost 11 shillings. The poor could not pay this type of money and the wealthier members of a city were not willing to pay for such an expensive item if it did not benefit them. Liverpool had a drainage system built but only in the areas where the rich merchants and businessmen lived. None existed in the areas where the poor lived.


Fresh water supplies were also very difficult to get in the poor areas. With no running water supplies, the best people could hope for was to leave a bucket out and collect rainwater. Some areas were lucky enough to have access to a well with a pump but there was always the chance that the well water could have been contaminated with sewage from a leaking cesspit. Those who lived near a river could use river water. However, this is where night-men emptied their carts full of sewage and where general rubbish was dumped. Any water collected would have been diluted sewage.

Types of houses
The rapid growth of deep-coal mining in the 19th century necessitated the building of thousands of mining villages to house the expanding working population. This housing was provided in most cases as one or two room dwellings in what became known as "Miners’ rows".

Left: 'Miners’ rows' in the Coatbridge area.

Living conditions in miners’ rows were primitive, with mainly room and kitchen type housing, stone floors, outside toilets and external water stand pipes. The houses were characterized by dampness, poor ventilation and lack of sunlight. Many mining communities lacked access to water and proper drainage or garden grounds. Accommodation was dependent on employment, so if you lost your job then you also lost your house. (After the Blantyre Mining Disaster, 1877, Scotland's worst mining incident which claimed approximately 206 lives, 34 of the widows were evicted within six months of the accident.)

Civic buildings such as schools, libraries and shops were created largely at the miners' expense.


These flats were either a “single-end” or a “room and kitchen”. You would enter the building through the front door into a “lobby” and then you would go up the staircase to your “landing” (except if you were on the ground floor!)

Overcrowding in Scotland was a massive problem. 88% of households in Scotland lived in 3 or fewer rooms. In the rest of Britain and Ireland, this figure was only 19%.

Children shared beds – no matter what age or sex they were. Recessed beds (or hole in the wa’) were the only way round this problem. Folding beds on castors which slid under the other beds were also used.

The big family wash was done in a shared washhouse. Damp clothes were hung on a pulley inside. Some mothers took their washing in an old pram to “the steamie”.

There was no running water inside the house, and families shared toilets which did not flush and therefore overflowed. This created cesspools of human waste which contaminated drinking water which caused Cholera. Dampness in the walls caused TB. There was a lack of rubbish collection and therefore the streets were full of human, animal and household waste.
Tenements were mostly found in Scotland.


Blackhouses were built in rural areas using local natural resources such as stone, timber and turf. Blackhouses were built with a thatched roof. The floor was simply trampled mud.

Double walls with turf in between the two walls for extra insulation were created.
A fire was lit at all times so the roof would not rot, and so the thatch would be smoked which was a good fertiliser for crops. There were no windows and there was no chimney, so smoke had to find its own way out. This smoky atmosphere and lack of ventilation created health problems such as bronchitis.
Animals and humans lived in the one house. Animals lived in the byre area, which had an earth floor and drainage for animal waste. This created health problems, and the houses were foul-smelling due to animal waste and lack of ventilation.
The dark and unsanitary conditions were a perfect breeding ground for the diseases called Typhoid, Cholera and Tuberculosis.


These are houses which are rows of terraces. Attached to the back of these houses are another row of houses. The rows of houses were literally built back to back one room deep. Some had one-room cellars below ground level. As a result, the small rooms were damp and poorly ventilated. One family would live in a cellar. Some terraces also had an attic which one family would inhabit.

These people had no means of escape if there was a fire.

These were known as “2 up and 2 down” houses with one family living in each room.

These houses were mostly found in England.






The whole body is covered in spots, boils and scabs. The victim could have a high temperature and would feel faint. 30% of victims die and some of those who survive could go blind and would also be permanently scarred.

People living in close proximity to each other. Overcrowded tenements. Passed by saliva droplets and sharing clothes. A very big killer in the 1800’s.


Symptoms include fever, headache, chills, and general pains that are followed by a rash. The rash spreads to the whole body except for the face, palms, and soles of the feet. This form of typhus fever is very similar to the typhus that is spread by lice.

You can get typhoid fever if you eat food or drink water that has been handled by a person with the disease. Also people that came into contact with water contaminated with sewage. Typhus is from rats and fleas. They bite the victim and this cases the disease to spread.



The greatest killer in the cities. The disease caused a wasting of the body with the lungs being attacked. The lungs attempt to defend themselves by producing what are called tubercles. These tubercles become yellow and spongy and coughing fits cause them to be spat out by the sufferer. People would become thin and pale and constantly tired. Victims would also cough up blood.

TB affected those who had been poorly fed and were under nourished. It also affected those who lived in dirty and damp homes. TB can be spread by a person breathing in the exhaled sputum of someone who already has the disease. In the overcrowded tenements of the industrial cities, one infected person could spread the disease very easily. TB killed one-third of those who died in Britain between 1800 and 1850.


Persons with typhoid fever usually have a sustained fever as high as 39° to 40° C. They may also feel weak, or have stomach pains, headache, or loss of appetite. In some cases, patients have a rash of flat, rose-colored spots.

You can get typhoid fever if you eat food or drink beverages that have been handled by a person who has the disease or if sewage contaminated with bacteria gets into the water you use for drinking or washing food. Therefore, typhoid fever is more common in areas of the world where hand washing is less frequent and water is likely to be contaminated with sewage.


People with Cholera suffer from watery diarrhoea and abdominal pains. Vomiting up blood. Muscular cramps and severe weakness. Massive weight loss. Spasms of the body. Sunken eyes and cheeks. The lips and skin turns blue finally black as blood vessels burst. In severe untreated cases death may occur within a few hours with possible case fatality rate exceeding 40%.

A person may get cholera by drinking water or eating food contaminated with cholera. In an epidemic, the source of the contamination is usually the faeces of an infected person. The disease can spread rapidly in areas with inadequate treatment of sewage and drinking water. In the 19th century sewage often mixed with drinking water, hence the reason it spread so often.



Sore throat. A temperature. Headache.

Feeling generally unwell. A rash that develops within 12 hours. Cheeks are flushed, and the child looks 'scarlet'. The rash fades after a few days, or sooner if treated. The skin then undergoes peeling. The tongue has a thick, white coating that peels after four or five days, producing a red strawberry appearance.

Can spread from person to person by breathing in airborne droplets from an infected person's coughing or sneezing. Can also be passed by touching the infected skin of someone with a skin infection, or by sharing contaminated clothes, towels or bed linen. People living in overcrowded houses contracted the disease.

King cholera

Disease accounted for many deaths in industrial cities during the Industrial Revolution. With a chronic lack of hygiene, little knowledge of sanitary care and no knowledge as to what caused diseases it was only a matter of time before the dreaded disease cholera struck. As the cities became more populated, so the problem got worse.

Cholera was a greatly feared disease. Caused by contaminated water, it could spread with speed and with devastating consequences. It was given the nick-name "King Cholera". Britain was hit by an outbreak of cholera in 1831-32, 1848-49, 1854 and 1867. The cause was simple – sewage was being allowed to come into contact with drinking water and contaminating it. As many people used river water as their source of drinking water, the disease spread with ease.
An attack of cholera is sudden and painful – though not necessarily fatal. In the 1831-32 outbreak the death rate of those who caught it was 50% In total 55,000 people died. 15,000 people died in London in the 1848-49 outbreaks. A second outbreak starting in London in 1848 was even more serious, with some 65, 000 deaths in England, Wales, and Scotland and another 30, 000 in Ireland. There were further outbreaks of the diseases in 1854 and 1866.

Lack of sunlight, space, privacy and space for the children

Yard was usually a rubbish tip

Washing of clothes was done in filthy yards or public washing houses

No hot water supplies inside tenements

Food and drink was often contaminated, no laws to stop deliberate contamination and people drank too much.

Very little medical knowledge known and Doctors unaware of dirt dangers there was no knowledge of causes of disease, for example, cholera and T.B

T.B caused 1/3 of all deaths

The streets were unlit and were filled with filth. Flies, stray dogs and rats roamed the streets in summer No street cleaners in poor areas of towns.

Overcrowding in towns. There were not enough houses and Families could only afford one room between them. One family of between 6-8 people would share a room and one bed.

Poor quality of building work. Builders were not subject to building regulations cheap bricks, slates and soft woods were often used. Houses deteriorated quickly

Lack of clean water and sewers. No indoor toilets No piped water Household waste dumped in street. Sewage was rarely collected, contaminated water supply by leaking into the wells.

Water wasn’t often in large supply Outside tap was shared by many families. Raw sewage ended up in rivers. Wells were contaminated usually by sewage seeping into them from the cesspit next to the well.

Lack of ventilation. Air could not circulate in houses because the houses were close together. Germs spread quickly in houses because windows were often closed. Air was polluted by cesspools, sewers, smoke and rubbish.

Improvements in housing

Governments were traditionally reluctant to help with housing problems in the country. Britain followed the doctrines of “Laissez faire” – this means to leave alone. The argument was that Britain was the most powerful nation on earth. This was because governments did not get involved in people’s lives. It was the view that people should look after themselves and not look to the state to solve their problems. With the onset of cholera outbreaks and the Great Stink of 1858, the government attitude towards its responsibility was to change forever.

Government Acts were passed that gave councils the ability to knock down slums and build proper houses that were well ventilated. Drier, healthier brick housing replaced damp and dirty tenements. Until 1851 there was a tax on windows so some people began to brick up their windows, this resulted in a lack of fresh air. This meant that diseases could spread easily. Diseases like T.B, Scarlet Fever, and Typhus were big killers. By the twentieth century the government was insisting on the construction of planned housing estates which improved the standard of living. These houses had living rooms, kitchens, two or three bedrooms and a bathroom. A variety of Public Health Acts were also passed that also meant that councils were forced to provide a proper refuse disposal system. Councils were also required to provide a clean water supply and sewage system. This helped to reduce deaths from the dreaded disease cholera.


mprovements in housing

The Artisans Dwelling Act 1875 - Councils were given the power to pull down slums and build new houses, but cost was a problem.

mprovements in health

Public Health Act 1848 - A central health board was established to set up local health boards and give advice to the local boards.
Public Health Act 1875 - Local Authorities had to appoint a medical officer. Authorities had to: cover and maintain sewers properly, provide clean water, and pave and clean the streets. Local officers were appointed to check up on slaughterhouses and take responsibility to make sure that contaminated food was properly destroyed.



In the Glasgow area, councillors and tax payers were persuaded in 1855 to fund a scheme to transport piped water from Loch Katrine in to the city. This was opened by Queen Victoria in 1859 and meant that Glaswegians no longer had to rely on the 30 public wells in the city or pay for water from some of the private suppliers.


A new sewage system of almost 50 miles was put in place in Glasgow between 1850 and 1875 to help each sanitation problems in the city.


The Agricultural Revolution had increased the quality and the quantity of food available. Having an improved diet meant that there was a healthier and stronger population. The coming of the railways also meant that fresher foods were more widely available. Foods like milk, meat, vegetables and fruit could be transported all over the country and these foods were also much cheaper, and this meant people could eat a more balanced diet and therefore have stronger immune systems to help them fight disease.

From 1815 onwards corn had been taxed and this made the cost of bread very expensive. With the ending of these Corn Laws in 1846 bread became cheaper and more income could be spent on other foods. These foods helped to build up resistance to diseases and allowed people to live longer.


More hospitals were built and both doctors and nurses received better training during the nineteenth century. Hospitals became cleaner and the link between dirt and disease better understood. Doctors began to sterilize equipment before operations. Joseph Lister developed Carbolic to sterilize equipment and dressings. Hospitals became safer and cleaner places to be treated. In fact in Lister’s hospitals survival rates went up from 55% to 85% between 1865 and 1869, a massive increase in just four years. Edward Jenner discovered how to prevent smallpox, using vaccination; this disease had killed 1 in 9 of the population. The government introduced compulsory vaccinations for this, like the T.B and MMR vaccinations that we have today. The development of penicillin an antibiotic used to fight infections had a big impact on survival rates. Today when we go for an operation we are given anaesthetics to kill the pain or we are even put to sleep so that we do not feel anything. This was only developed en-masse after the 1850’s. Before this, people had to put up with the pain of operations like amputations. Many people therefore died from shock. Diseases like plague died out, and as the nineteenth century went on, drugs were found to treat diseases like cholera, typhoid and diphtheria.


The continued progress in coal mining meant that more coal was being excavated and this resulted in more coal being available to keep houses warmer and drier. Chemical works began to produce good, cheap soap allowing people to be cleaner and healthier. Cheap, factory made cotton clothes were easier to wash than woollen ones and clean cotton bedding reduced germs which caused disease.



The shift from working at home to working in factories in the early 18th century brought with it a new system of working. Factory and mine owners sought to control and discipline their workforce through a system of long working hours, fines and low wages.

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