Grotty, Smelly, Smoky: 18thC Living Conditions Part 1

During the 18th century, living conditions must have been, by present-day standards, squalid in the extreme. Without the benefit of modern plumbing, cleanliness and sanitation were almost non-existent. It was not only among the poor that this insanitary state existed. Dr. Samuel Johnson, for example, when talking about his friend, the poet, Kit Smart, remarked:

“Another charge was that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds where he looks quite grumpy

James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer, and a member of the Scottish landed gentry, washed so seldom, that his odour was infamous.


The growth of cities and towns during the 1700s placed enormous pressures on the availability of cheap housing. With many people coming to towns to find work, slum areas grew quickly. Living conditions in many towns consequently became unimaginable. Many families were forced to live in single rooms in ramshackle tenements or in damp cellars, with no sanitation or fresh air.

John Aikin, commenting in his book, “A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles Round Manchester” which was published in 1795, had this to say about the rapidly growing mill town:

In some parts of the town, cellars are so damp as to be unfit for habitations […] I have known several industrious families lost to the community, by a short residence in damp cellars […]The poor often suffer much from the shattered state of cellar windows. This is a trifling circumstance in appearance, but the consequences to the inhabitants are of the most serious kind. Fevers are among the most usual effects; and I have often known consumptions which could be traced to this cause. Inveterate rheumatic complaints, which disable the sufferer from every kind of employment, are often produced in the same manner […] I am persuaded, that mischief frequently arises, from a practice common in many narrow back streets, of leaving the vaults of the privies open. I have often observed, that fevers prevail most in houses exposed to the effluvia of dunghills in such situations.

Until the advent of the railways in the first half of the nineteenth century which allowed for the easy transportation of building materials throughout the country, buildings were usually constructed from locally available materials, such as, mud, wood, stone or brick, and roofed in likewise easily obtainable products, such as thatch.

Generally, the one thing these buildings had in common, was lack of deep drainage, running water, damp proof courses, stone floors and cavity walls. The deficiency of not having deep drainage will be discussed later, and the lack of running water meant that the majority of the population had to get their drinking water from local wells, rivers, or from the parish pump. This was a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs because the water supply could easily become contaminated, and this is, indeed, what caused the cholera outbreak in London during the following century.

Earthen instead of stone floors, the lack of damp proof courses and no cavity walls meant that the majority of houses suffered from penetrating and rising damp, which must have contributed in no small matter to the general debility of the population.

Grotty, Smelly, Smoky

A traveller approaching a large town would be aware of his imminent arrival by the all-pervading smell. Piles of rubbish and sewage would be dumped outside the town limits by night-soil men with no pretence of hygienic disposal. Once inside the town, the streets and ditches were awash with human excrement and urine, which was either thrown out of upstairs windows, much to the discomfort of passers-by, or deposited into the streets at night. Animals travelling to and fro between market, farm, and slaughterhouse, left their ordure to mingle with the human excrement and ever-present mud. Dead animals were left to putrefy where they lay, or thrown into nearby rivers and ditches, whilst slaughterhouses contributed their share of offal and other animal remains. A special problem for Londoners was the “poor holes’’ which were large, deep, open pits used for the burial of the poor, often situated close to houses or businesses. These were only covered over with earth when full. Water from overflowing burial vaults flowed into cellars, and cesspits leaked into wells and contaminated the water supply. The following article from The Morning Chronicle of 9th February 1778 sheds some light on the situation at the time.

London, however, was not alone in suffering the consequences of inadequate burial space for the dead. The cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris had been in constant use since at least the 12th century, and a source of worry and complaint from the mid-16th century. The overcrowding had become so bad by the beginning of the 14th century that charniers, long arched galleries, had been built around the cemetery in order to store bones that had been exhumed from earlier burials, thus making room for more bodies. See figure 1. Whilst this may have been a partially effective measure, it proved inadequate and conditions got so bad that large pits were dug about 25-30 pieds (8-10 metres) deep, which held up to 1500 bodies. One of the grave diggers said that he had buried 90,000 bodies in a period of less than 30 years. This equates to some 2,100,000 burials over the 700-year period that the cemetery was open. The insalubrity of the place was extremely bad, “le sol du cimetière exhait des odeurs méphistiques”, but nothing was done to remedy the situation. An investigation by the court of Louis XV in 1763 recorded local stories of meat that rotted before one’s eyes, a perfumery unable to sell its wares because of the overpowering stench of the cemetery, tapestry merchants whose wares changed colour if exposed for long periods of time in Les Halles, and wine merchants whose barrels yielded only vinegar if they stayed in the cellar too long. Owing to the obduracy of the clergy, still nothing was done until February 1780, when the weight of soil collapsed a cellar wall belonging to a house in the rue de Lingerie, spilling a noxious mass of soil and  putrefying bodies into the basement. The cemetery was at last closed by an edict on 4th September that year.

Some hundred years earlier, John Evelyn, in his pamphlet entitled “Fumifugium or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated Together with Some Remedies Humbly Proposed by J.E. Esq; to His Sacred Majestie and Parliament Now Assembled” had this to say about conditions in London

… I am perswaded, that the frequency of Church-yards, and Charnel-Houses contamminate the Aer, in many parts of this Town, as well as the Pumps and Waters, which are any thing near unto them, so that those Pipes and Conveyances which passe through them (obnoxious to many dangerous accidents) ought either to be directed some other way, or very carefully to be looked after.

Madrid was certainly no better. Joseph Baretti, writing about 1770, describes his reactions when entering the city having crossed the Manzanares river:

But it is impossible to tell how I was shock’d at the horrible stink that seized me the instant I trusted myself within that gate! So offensive a sensation is not to be described. I felt a heat all about me, which was caused by the fetid vapours exhaling from numberless heaps of filth lying all about

an engraving made at the time of the cemetery and arches
Figure 1: Charniers at the cemetery de l’église des Saints Innocents, Paris

He goes on to say:

“I cannot as yet tell you anything of Madrid, but it stinks like a Cloaca Maxima.”

Charles Burney, who was travelling in France and Italy in the late 1760s, was not overly impressed by the town of Cambrai:

At Cambray one of the most pleasantly situated of all I passed thro’, this is true to a supreme degree, the houses and people being so dirty as to strike the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns with wonder.

Buchan, whose “Domestic Medicine” was published in 1790, agreed with this sentiment:

The peasants of most countries seem to hold cleanliness in a sort of contempt. Were it not for the open situation of their houses, they would often feel the bad effects of this disposition. One seldom sees a farm-house without a dunghill before the door, and frequently the cattle and their masters lodge under the same roof. Peasants are likewise extremely careless with respect to change of apparel, keeping their houses etc. clean.

If we look at two other examples, we see that until the 1760s, the majority of houses in Edinburgh had no latrines, and as soon as St. Giles’ clock struck 10.00 p.m. everyone, with the cry of ‘Gardyloo’ from the French ‘Garde a I’eau,’ look out for the water, emptied the day’s excrements out of the close-stools and chamber pots into the street where they lay until cleared up early the following morning.

In Sheffield in the 1770s, channels which filled up with garbage and excrement, ran down the centre of every street, while pigs wandered around and acted as scavengers. Every three months the sluice gates of the Barker Pool above the town were opened, and the streets flooded with water for a proper cleansing.

The following report, by the Conseil d’hygiène publique et de salubrité. Séance du 9 mai 1859. Canton de Clary’, agreed with earlier assessments:

The cause of ill-health can be traced to the filth of the inhabitants who pile refuse around their houses or on the public roads, to the cesspools and ponds which are never cleaned out, and the proximity of the cemetery, located in the heart of the parish. The workers’ houses lie close together, the floor is below-ground, the windows small, the beds gathered in a single room often contain a number of persons of both sexes. This promiscuity, which is so very improper, impairs the children’s health and explains the incidence of scrofulous diseases and epidemics

Birch in his Medical History of Hastings has written:

While most people washed their faces every day many did not wash their bodies from year to year. Baths were rarely taken for water was a precious commodity. Lack of skin cleanliness and dental hygiene made body odour unpleasant. Ladies used to wear sachets of sweet-smelling herbs in their armpits to make less noticeable the smell of their bodies. Disease was regarded as being due to filth and smell. It was hard to keep houses clean. Floors remained unswept for it was advised that the filth be left to lie. ‘The more dirt is moved the worse it stinketh.’ […] Vermin thrived. Many people had to contend with lice and fleas in their clothing and hair.”

M. Déjean wrote in his Traité des odeurs that

“Everyone has their own rule for baths: some take one every eight days, others every fortnight, others once a month, and several every year for eight or ten days in succession, when the weather is most suitable.”

It is no wonder that in such conditions, outbreaks of bacterial stomach infections were the norm, and these could be so severe as to kill their victims within the space of a few days.

Apart from the bad smells and contamination of the water supply, dwellers in large towns and London in particular, had to put up with choking, sulphurous coal smoke which was given off by thousands of domestic fires, as well as from various industrial processes operated by such people as dyers, brewers, lime-burners and soap-boilers.

Evelyn, commenting about the bad air and its detrimental effects, said:

For is there under Heaven such Coughing and Snuffing to be heard, as in the London Churches and Assem(b)lies of People, where the Barking and Spitting is incessant and most importunate.

[…] the inhabitants of London, and such as frequent it, find it in all their Expectorations; the Spittle, and other excrements which proceed from them, being for the most part of a blackish fuliginous Colour.

The Consequences then of all this is, that (as was said) almost one half of them who perish in London, dye of Phthisical and Pulmonic distempers; That the Inhabitants are never free from Coughs and importunate Rheumatisms, spitting of Impostumated and corrupt matter: for remedy whereof, there is none so infallible, as that, in time, the Patient change his Aer and remove into the Country.

Just over 100 years later, Georg Lichtenberg, on a visit from Germany in 1775, wrote a letter to a friend in which he said that the street outside was

”enveloped in so thick a cloud of coal smoke” that he was ”writing by the light of a candle (at half past ten in the morning)”.

crowded tenement buildings packed close together in a state of poor repair
Bull’s Close, off the South Back of the Canongate, Edinburgh 1850 by John Drummond

In part 2: What did people eat in the 18th century?

Categories: Uncategorized

Tagged as: , , , , , ,

3 replies »

Leave a Reply