Looking back: life in Haworth during the Bronte era


In the mid-1800s, living conditions in Haworth were grim. Cesspits were sometimes under houses and overflowed into the streets and past the water pump. Drainage was usually an open channel or gutter, and effluents could seep into houses through walls and all over the floor.

In 1841 the population of Haworth was 2,434 and in 1851 it was 2,629. The total number of dwelling houses in 1850 was 517.

In Back Lane, there was a pile of manure against the wall of a house, just below the window of the property which had three rooms. One piece was 23 feet 9 inches long, 6 feet 4 inches wide, and 7 feet high. There were four beds in which slept eight carriers. A second, smaller room slept six men and boys who were wool combers. In the third room they worked with a constantly lit fire. At the time of the investigation, two of the quarrymen who had worked through the night were in bed with the windows closed.

The streets of Haworth remained largely unchanged

The Kings Arms yard was offensive with night soil, stable manure and offal from the slaughterhouse piling up. In the Fold, the toilets were used by eight families. In a guest house, 10 tenants slept in a large room, with a loom rattling all day. In the backyard of the ginnel belonging to the White Lion was a large heap, and the offal and rubbish flowed down the street. On the main street opposite the Black Bull, the druggist’s house had a toilet, a dump and a pigsty.

The night earth spilled in heaps under the pantry window, and the contents of the dump often rose to the window sill.

Twenty truckloads of waste had been evacuated three weeks before the start of the investigation. The pigsty was under the kitchen window. A woman living in this house said she was always sick and the stench was so bad that she was unable to eat her meals. At Newall Hill, heavy rain was carrying night soil to the back door. In this humid and offensive environment, two people were sick with fever. On the main street, between the Black Bull and the turnpike, there were 44 damp houses and garbage from the open channel flowing down the street. The putrid atmosphere in various parts of the city caused fevers and illnesses.

Water supplies came from 11 pumps, nine of which were in operation, and seven wells. There were complaints about the water quality. A resident had to fetch water from 800 meters away, and it was not always clear. In the summer the supply was low and on Monday, washing day, some of the poorest people had to queue from 2am to fill buckets. The water was sometimes green and putrid; even the cattle refused to drink it.

In his 1850 health check, Benjamin Babbage is shocked by what he sees. This small industrial town that looked out over the moors suffered from air pollution from smoking chimneys. The excrement flowed in the streets for lack of sewers. Human waste and offal from the slaughterhouse remained on the streets for months. The moors that play an important role in Bronte’s novels contained very few trees to act as windbreaks or slow the surface waters that flowed down the hills and down the streets.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Ill health at Haworth blamed on moor mistsIll health at Haworth has been blamed on moor mists

A surveyor was appointed each year to ensure the roads were repaired by local workers, but this was not done adequately. The unemployed broke the stones.

Patrick Bronte has been a driving force in making improvements. He often covered his mouth with a silencer to protect himself from noxious odors and disease. Cholera was carried by the water supply. There have been epidemics of smallpox, measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, typhus, dysentery and consumption. In November 1848, Emily Brontë’s health deteriorated. She had difficulty breathing and complained of chest pain. On December 19, 1848, she died and was buried in the family vault at Haworth Church. She died of tuberculosis, often called consumption. Later in the 1850s, some improvements to the water and sewage system reduced disease.

Many mill towns and villages in the Western Constituency have experienced similar public health conditions. Engles in 1844 described Bradford as bad as Leeds: the houses are ruined, dirty and miserable. William Ranger’s survey of Halifax (1850-1851) commented on the lack of toilets; Middle Street, Haley Hill, had just one toilet used by 221 people. At Burley-in-Wharfedale, Reverend. Robinson and mill owners WE Forster and William Fison were part of the movement to make improvements, despite strong opposition from landowners. William Ranger, appointed by the Board of Health, conducted an investigation in January 1854. He questioned various witnesses. Drug use was the cause of most deaths, most pronounced among young women. Bad sewage and drainage were blamed. Even the more recently built homes along West Terrace had issues. Carpenter George Holmes testified and said he had lived in West Terrace for three years. There was a gutter at the back of his house, he remembered it was a clear stream, but new houses were built, which all drained into the stream, which turned into a stinking gutter about 5 feet from his back door. His wife was ill, he thought bad drainage was the cause. The gutter had become stagnant except in wet weather.

Opposition to the reforms was often based on the financial cost, but some blamed poor health on the mists that descended from the moors. The reformers successfully fought an uphill battle against ignorance, and the local council set about improving sewers, drainage and reducing public nuisances; removing nighttime dirt, emptying cesspools and cleaning the streets. Philanthropists and factory owners such as John Crossley in Halifax and Titus Salt in Saltaire pioneered improved housing and environments for the working classes during the 1850s.

l Dave’s full article on Haworth will be in The Bradford Antiquary (No. 83) edited by Dave Pendleton, August/September.


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