Filthy Plymouth: An Environmental History of the Three Towns in the Nineteenth Century

Cholera Humbug, or No Cholera Morbus
printed by Bates of Plymouth, circa 1849. Courtesy of The Box

Dr James Gregory, University of Plymouth, April 2020

Plymouth University | Drake Circus | Plymouth PL4 8AA Email

James is associate professor in modern British History at the University of Plymouth, where he leads the MA programme. The following is the introduction to “Filthy Plymouth”, with a link to the full essay for download.

I am embarking on research and teaching in environmental history at the University of Plymouth through an evolving interest in nineteenth-century cultural and social histories of pollution, contamination, dirt and the responses they triggered, including campaigns for public hygiene. This started before the COVID-19 epidemic, but has taken on new resonance as I read the Victorian press reports of response to epidemics. 

What does this interest in ‘filth’ look like when the angle is local? Taking the lens of the Three Towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse in the Victorian era – and away from the resources of local record offices such as ‘The Box’ which we had hoped to be opened for researchers shortly – what relevant local cases, controversies and discourses can be found through the local press or through the evidence generated by local and central government activity, accessible through the internet and digitised collections? 

The answer to the question of what a history focused on rooting out the ‘filthy’ aspects to life in nineteenth-century Plymouth in this period might be about, is that there are many relevant local dimensions, which may not be something to be proud about! These include the local history of cholera outbreaks in 1849, the ongoing efforts in the Three Towns to effect environmental improvements that included street cleansing, and to create an efficient sewerage system or water supply. 

Some of this response to urban dirt was long standing. The local historian Richard North noted in his History of Plymouth (1871) of the streets, that ‘in 1634 they were so filthy that a royal writ was sent to require them to be put in decent order’. But Plymouth experienced massive population growth in the nineteenth century, and a new scale of environmental challenges consequently emerged. North, again, is worth quoting on the subject of sewerage, which at an estimated cost of £35,000, transformed Plymouth from ‘one of the unhealthiest towns in England into one of the healthiest’.

This short essay, a contribution to Plymouth History Month in May 2020, draws on readily available published sources: ranging from contemporary nineteenth-century guides to Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse; local histories published in the Victorian era; pamphlets by sanitary reformers; local newspaper reports of environmental nuisances and schemes of sanitation; reports in the engineering and building periodicals and medical journals of incidents in the Three Towns. The Medical Officer of Health reports from Plymouth (1895, 1897, 1900) and Devonport (1894, 1896, 1897, 1899, digitized and freely available via the Wellcome medical history library) are also informative. 

A more extended essay would draw on the archives of local government as they dealt with environmental issues such as water supply, public health and ‘nuisances’. The environmental history would also consider how personally clean the inhabitants could be in this period when access to clean and cheap water was difficult. The Reverend Richard Warner, in A Tour Through Cornwall, in the Autumn of 1808, had described Plymouth as a ‘dirty town’. Did this improve notably during the century?

This tour round the ‘grot spots’ of the Three Towns begins with an overview of the physical environment: some of which, of course remains with us (including the general tendency of the weather that followed from this). I then outline the most obvious moment when filth menaced the inhabitants, in the form of epidemics such as cholera and typhus. COVID-19 has made us acutely aware of zoonotic disease, and I next turn, very briefly, to the association made in official report and press coverage, between proximity to animals in the urban space, and disease-engendering filth. How a locality responded to these threats to public health in the Victorian era needs to be seen in the context of evolving national legislation on public health as well as local responses to public nuisances. So the issue of local politics and vested interests is next outlined. When we think of Victorian disease and its scientific responses, we might well think about the ‘Great Stink’ of the Thames in 1858, and the response through Joseph Bazalgette’s engineering solution. So I next consider the pressure of human concentration (a serious factor in infection), and convey briefly a sense (olfactory and otherwise) of the state of the Three Towns’ sewage system through the nineteenth century. Water supply, pollution from industry, air quality, and, perhaps a surprising category, ‘moral pollution’ are then considered in their turn. I end the survey on the environment by very briefly noting one clean technology for energy, which had long been used in Plymouth. 

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