In what ways were the public health problems in Wigan similar to or different from, the public health problems of other towns during the early years of the century? Wigan was a fairly typical industrialised town in the early part of this century. Many of the northern towns, owed there success to the industrial revolution which started in the north west. It was their success at developing industry, that caused their public health problems. On the one hand, the industry was very polluting, and on the other, their rapid growth of population had not been matched by improvements in housing and sanitation.
Most industries still used coal as their main source of power, generally driving steam engines. Factories using coal power, were dirty and caused air pollution in the form of soot, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide. The ashes produced were used for land-filling, even though this polluted rivers and streams. The housing at this time was very cheaply built, and usually in terraces. Many houses were built without a drinking water supply, or drainage. This had come about because of the random way in which land was developed, and because there was no central authority to ensure that drains were installed. In the 19th century, local authorities were not responsible for building houses. They were usually built by mill or factory owners who had no incentive to provide decent housing. As a result, the problems just got worse.
Many other towns had poorly built houses as well. For example, in the Wishaw area of Glasgow, the majority of people lived in one roomed houses, built as “Back to Backs”. These were built in rows which were so close together that no air could circulate through them. Housing in Liverpool, was also no better than in Wigan (See Photo Below). In many places, people shared one water tap, between 60 houses. These houses had no inside toilet or bath – in fact in “A Man Remembers His Days In A Slum Area In A Northern Town” it is said that “some people had never seen a bath, much less used one”.
Not everywhere was as bad. Some new towns had been built for workers by philanthropic businessmen, for example Saltaire (by Thomas Salt), Port Sunlight (by the Lever Family), and Bourneville (by the Cadbury Family). These were known as Model Villages, and they contained much larger new, clean house with gardens. They had piped gas and water, and every house had its own WC connected to mains drainage.
These towns were well planned, compared to the haphazard development of older towns, but only housed a very small percentage of the population. Less industrialised towns, such as Birkenhead, tried to develop in the same way as Model Villages. Many sea side towns, like Blackpool, Southport, and Scarborough also implemented the ideas of Model Villages as they developed into tourism centres and wanted to attract visitors. Liverpool pioneered the introduction of public baths and wash houses in an effort to improve conditions in the city.
Working class housing in Liverpool in 1911 King George V was appalled by the standards that most people had to live in. He described them as being “unhealthy, ugly, overcrowded houses in the poor streets, which all of us know too well.” to make his point. He asked for a solution to the problem and in a speech, in 1919, to representatives of local Government he said “If a healthy nation is to be reared, it can be reared only in healthy houses.”
The problems the King referred to were common to industrialised towns, resulting in them having high death rates. The average death rate in Wigan at the turn of the century was 22 deaths per thousand. Other north western town like St. Helens, Stockport, Oldham, Bury, and Liverpool, also had death rates over 20 per thousand. Major cities like London and Manchester, had lower death rates, near the national average ( 16.9 per thousand ), because they had been forced into improving their sanitation during the nineteenth century, simply because of their size. Other towns like Folkestone had low death rates ( 13.9 per thousand ), but they had not been industrialised in the way Wigan had.
High death rates lead to short life expectancies. In 1893, industrial areas in the North West had an average life expectancy of only 28 years. This compared dramatically to the figures for rural areas, where there was an average life expectancy of 51 years. In the last century, these rates have increased rapidly, to around 80 years for everybody wherever they live. Wigan had problems due to coal mining, that not all other towns suffered from. Because the coal under Wigan was shallow, subsidence was a major problem. This caused the ground to sink, and caused structural damage to houses. Walls cracked, roofs leaked, doors and windows wouldn’t open or close properly.
In “The Road to Wigan Pier”, George Orwell describes a house as “Walls falling absolutely to pieces. Water comes into upstairs rooms in quantities. Floor lopsided. Down stairs windows will not open.” This was typical of many houses in Wigan at that time. In conclusion, Wigan’s problems were similar to many other industrialised towns. The effects of coal mining made the situation worse. The local authority did not have the power, the resources, or the money to bring about urgently needed improvements. So it was not until 1909 that Wigan Borough Council responded to Housing and Town Planning Act with plans to clear the slums.