Preston’s mid-Victorian health crisis

Posted on - 7th May, 2023 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston News
Overcrowded Victorian housing Pic: BBC History Extra
Overcrowded Victorian housing Pic: BBC History Extra

Preston had one of the worst mortality rates in Victorian Britain. In 1844 a sanitary report was published by the Reverend John Clay. The findings revealed the parlous state of Preston’s streets and houses.


“…Defective ventilation, cleansing and draining of streets, the same evils with regards to dwellings, the overcrowding of rooms and beds, the filthiness of apartments, persons, clothing and bedding…”

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Unsurprisingly the squalid conditions made Preston one of the worst towns in the country for infant mortality and a high death rate.

The Clay report of 1844

Preston market in 1844 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Preston market in 1844 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Clay goes on: “…Prevalence of damp, yet want of water, absence of proper and decent accommodation as to privies, keeping of pigs in, or too near dwellings… Pervading all sickening smells..”

The sanitation was usually poor or non-existent, and poor ventilation led to many illnesses. Families would be attacked by, diphtheria, croup, typhoid, blood poisoning, consumption and various other deadly diseases. Regulation was slow and it was common for houses to be built on rubbish dumps and sewage heaps. Eventually bylaws were passed that outlawed such practices.



Diphtheria is caused by a bacteria. The bacteria produces a toxin that can prove fatal. Children were particularly susceptible and epidemics often broke out. Cramped and damp living conditions caused entire families to fall sick. The diphtheria bacteria was not studied until the 1870s. Interestingly, a Diphtheria vaccine was one of the first to be nationally administered, for free. This was given to children in 1940. Antibiotics did not exist prior to the 1940s and blood poisoning could kill.

Back Queen Street, a festering sewage pit

Victorian slums Pic: BBC History Extra
Victorian slums Pic: BBC History Extra

Back Queen Street was located close to the Horrocks factory, and was densely populated with textile workers. Clay describes the sanitary provision:

“…Space between one privy and another is filled up with all imaginable and unimaginable filth…”

On one side were houses, with more than 100 privies. On the other side were pigsties and middens or rubbish dumps. In between was a foul river of sewage. Back Queen Street was not the only area with a problem. Saul Street was buried in street sweepings that weighed a remarkable 2,000 tons.

Clarke reports on Preston’s stinking burial grounds

St Peter's Church Pic: Preston Digital Archive
St Peter’s Church Pic: Preston Digital Archive

There was no regulation when it came to burying the dead. Preston had 17 burial grounds and they were notorious for the obnoxious smells they generated. St Peters was the subject of much opprobrium. The main problem was that paupers were buried in open pits. These were not covered until a row of coffins had been completed.

Child mortality and life expectancy

Feeding a poor child Pic: The Welcome Foundation
Feeding a poor child Pic: The Welcome Foundation

Life expectancy in Preston was one of the worst in the country. The rate was 3 per cent, or double that for anywhere else in the country. In Preston, in the 1840s, 2,800 excess deaths occurred from preventable reasons. Infant mortality was even worse, with almost half dying before they reached five years of age. It was typical for the better class districts to be a stone’s throw away from extreme poverty.

Follow Geoffrey on Twitter for more Preston history including a list of references used for this article.

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