Wearside Echoes: A pox on you

Looking upstream beyond Hetton Staiths
Looking upstream beyond Hetton Staiths
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THIS year marks the 140th anniversary of the outbreak of a deadly disease which swept through Sunderland during the industrial boom of Victorian times – making national headlines.

The first case in the Wearside smallpox epidemic was recorded in February 1871.

Old, young, rich and poor fell victim to the virus, and a lurking danger beneath the earth ensured almost no-one was safe.

Strangely, only those living in “abominable” houses, too poor to find shelter in houses offering even a basic sewage system, appeared to escaped relatively unscathed.

“The disease gradually spread in every direction, covering almost the whole town. Only isolated parts appear to have entirely escaped,” reported The Builder magazine in September 1871.

“The epidemic made havoc of overcrowded courts and alleys, from five to ten cases in a single house being no uncommon thing. The mortality of some weeks ran as high as 125 people per 1,000.”

A team of journalists from The Builder was dispatched to Sunderland to investigate possible causes of the epidemic, and examine the conditions in which sick people were forced to live.

They were obviously not impressed with the sanitary standards of Wearside at the time.

“The authorities have spent considerable sums in improvements; but still much remains to be done towards remedying the present insanitary state of the whole place,” the article revealed.

“Many streets, and not the older ones alone, are simply disgraceful; the channels resembling open sewers. Indeed, it seemed to us there was occasionally as much sewage above as below ground.”

Warren Street was highlighted as one of the more “disgusting” streets, with the gutters “strewed with animal and vegetable garbage, and flooded with soapsuds and slops including the entrails of herrings.”

The rather more well-to-do Robinson Street, consisting of houses rented out for £30 a year – the equivalent of £17,000 today – was criticised for its boggy roadway and lack of sewers.

And the little beck at ‘New Hendon,’ known as Noble’s Bank, was described as “foul,” with its bank “composed essentially of furnace slag, sweepings of roads and the contents of middens!”

The report in The Builder added: “Sunderland is essentially a midden town; the proportion of water closets being less than one-fourth. From personal observation, we should say much less.

“It is, perhaps, remarkable that out of several hundred houses examined, not one of the ‘netties’ was drained. All emitted the smell of decomposing human ordure and rotting garbage.

“Owing to this condition, a foul smell pervades the whole town in every direction, the intensity being dependent upon local circumstances. On murky, moist nights, the stench is quite unbearable.

“We can only say the nose confirms what the eye detects – the filth and abominations everywhere are felt and seen, and the odours are in keeping with the conditions from which they arise.” Rather frighteningly, it was also revealed that Irish labourers engaged to build new houses in boom-town Sunderland were using water polluted with sewage to mix their mortar and plaster.

“No doubt this novel application of waste products will, in due season, bear fruit in the shape of crops of sickness in the unfortunate families who may chance to live here,” the magazine added.

It was the ventilation – or rather lack of ventilation – of Sunderland’s sewers which really upset The Builder reporters, however, after they were horrified to discover an “almost entire absence of it.”

The few ventilation arrangements documented – half a dozen chimney stacks converted for use as ventilation shafts – merely served to make the journalists shudder at the absurdness of the cover.

“The pernicious effects of non-ventilation to sewers cannot be too well known nor too strongly denounced, and wherever sewers open into tidal waters, the evils are aggravated,” they wrote.

“Gases foul and dangerous will generate within the sewers and, if it exits, it will find a way into houses, outhouses or yards – and of this there is no doubt whatsoever.”

Indeed, it appears that the reporters’ contempt for Sunderland’s sewage scheme prompted them to examine the houses of a “great many” smallpox victims – with some alarming findings.

“In by far the greater number of dwellings examined, the slops were conveyed to a drain in the yard, so that contact with the sewer is broken, from the outside,” revealed The Builder.

“Nevertheless, a sewage smell was perceptible, and in some instances in a marked degree, with few exceptions in all the houses looked into – particularly after rain.”