Rowntree A-Z

Public Health in York

The fast population growth of the mid 19th century led to an expansion of the slum areas and the inadequate sewage system led to outbreaks of plague and disease. ‘Night soil’ (sewage) was dug into holes in back-yard ‘privies’ that were regularly used by more than one household, and in some slums, a handful of privies might have been shared by hundreds of people. The other method of gathering sewage was to pile it up and have it collected by the ‘night soil men’, who then created larger piles at Layerthorpe Bridge and near St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate. The stench and the health problems caused by the leaking effluence must have been appalling.

At the same time, the water supply was unreliable, although the wealthier classes, such as the Rowntree family, filtered the water supplied to them, or else had their own deep wells, which themselves were not free from contamination. The York Waterworks Company pumped water to houses or taps in the yard, but this water came straight from the river Ouse, that was prone to pollution. Disease around the unhygienic slum courtyards was therefore rife.  Cholera was greatly feared, and there were two major outbreaks in 1832 and 1848. A lasting memorial to those who died exists on a small plot of land between the railway station and the city walls, where twenty gravestones can still be seen.

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