Tuesday 5 March 2024

Greenock's dunghill problem - 1842

In 1842 the Poor Law Commissioners set up an enquiry into "Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Scotland".  Epidemics of cholera had swept through the country in the 1830s and highlighted the insanitary state of many towns throughout the country.  Local doctor, William Laurie was responsible for reporting on conditions in Greenock.  It does not make for easy reading:-

"The great proportion of the dwellings of the poor are situated in very narrow and confined closes or alleys leading from the main streets; these closes end generally in a cul de sac, and have little ventilation, the space between the houses being so narrow s to exclude the action of the sun on the ground.

I might almost say that there are no drains in any of these closes, for where I have noticed sewers, they are in such a filthy and obstructed state, that they create more nuisance than if they never existed.  In these closes where there is no dunghill the excrement and other offensive matter is thrown into the gutter before the door, or carried out and put in the street".

"There are no back courts to the houses, but in nearly every close there is a dunghill, seldom or never covered in; few of these are cleaned out above once or twice a year; most of them are only emptied when they can hold no more; to some of these privies are attached, and one privy serves a whole neighbourhood".

Dr William H Laurie had his office at 15 Hamilton Street in Greenock, but despite that, conditions there would seem to be no better: -  "Behind my consulting rooms, where I am now sitting, there is a large dunghill with a privy attached.  To my knowledge, that dunghill has not been emptied for six months."  In 1841 he lived at 79 Brougham Street, well away from the problem central area.

The report from 1842 continues:- “Market Street – a narrow back street almost overhung by a steep hill rising immediately behind it.  It contains the lowest description of houses built closely together, the access to the buildings being through filthy closes.  The front entrance is generally the only outlet.  In one part of the street there is a dunghill, yet it is too large to be called a dunghill.  I do not mistake its size when I say that it contains 100 cubic yards of impure filth, collected from all parts of the town.  It is never removed.  It is the stock in trade of a person who deals in dung; he retails it by cartfulls; to please his customers he always keeps a nucleus, as the older the filth is the higher the price."

Market Street is now called King Street and once also housed the town's slaughterhouse and flesh market - see map above.  Today you can see the remains of the Telephone Exchange and look south towards the railway line.

King Street, Greenock

It is difficult these days to even imagine the problems caused by lack of proper sanitation.  "The proprietor has an extensive privy attached to the concern.  This collection is fronting the public street.  Enclosed in front by a wall; the height of the wall is about 12 feet and the dung overtops it; the malarious moisture oozes through the wall and runs over the pavement.  The effluvium all round about this place in summer is horrible; there is a land of houses adjoining, four stories in height; and in the summer each house swarms with myriads of flies.  Every article of food and drink must be covered, otherwise if left exposed for a minute, the flies immediately attack it and it is rendered unfit for use from the strong taste of the dunghill left by the flies".

The slaughterhouse caused many problems too: -"But there is an even more extensive dunghill in the street which is attached to the slaughterhouse and belongs to the town authorities.  It is not only the receptacle for the dung and offal from the slaughterhouse, but the sweepings of the streets are also conveyed and deposited there.  It has likewise a public privy attached. In the slaughterhouse itself the blood and offal are allowed to lie a long time and the smell in summer is highly offensive".

It took until the 1870s before many of Greenock's overcrowded closes were eventually cleared.  You can read about Dr  James Wallace and his part in this effort here.  Read more about Greenock's closes here.

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