Friday, 13 January 2017

“that plague has entered almost every house in the village which contains children.”


The April and May of 1886 were anxious times for any in the township with children for we were in the grip of a measles epidemic.

This according to one resident “has been ranging for many weeks now” with the result that “between two hundred and three hundred of our children have been attacked and five or six have died.”*

And the issue was bound up with bigger concerns of the general lack of sanitation and the tardiness of the public health authorities to act in the face of the epidemic

There had been growing disquiet about the high level of pollution in Chorlton Brook since at least 1875 with the local board a decade later commenting that it “is being constantly polluted with the sewage and other liquid refuse of several large manufacturing towns” and “emits most noxious odours and offensive gases which pollute the air.”**

And in 1881 a government inquiry called for the closing of the parish churchyard because the place was not only full but in an effort to accommodate more bodies, the authorities had resorted to removing some and burying others within 22 inches of the surface.  Added to this there was the assertion that there “were a great number of houses here which are jerry built... and one or two spots where hollow places have been filled up with stuff which is nothing more than night soil.”

Here then was a real threat to public health made worse by the unwillingness of the authorities to close the schools during the epidemic with the result “that the plague has entered almost every house in the village which contains children.”

Of course the authorities and medical opinion sought to argue an alternative picture.  It was said by Dr Rains that the epidemic was “now passing away” and “the death rate has been very small.”

And at the heart of the rebuttal was the plain fact that “The death rate varies, as we all know, in the different townships, but the rate per 1,000 in different townships of children under five years of age in 1885 was as follows, Withington 3.3, Didsbury, 4.3, Chorlton-cum-Hardy 3.2 Burnage 5.5 showing very much in favour of Chorlton.”

But then there are statistics and dammed statistics, and when the figures are viewed over a longer period there may well have been less room for complacency.  Taking the years from 1881-4 together and comparing the death rate across the townships Chorlton recorded the highest deaths of under fives per thousand of the population.

But measles is not caused by poor sanitation.  And in the absence of hard evidence about the state of housing conditons it is difficult to draw a conclusion about the general threat to public health.

By the 1880s there were only six houses left which were wattle and daub which one Parliamentary Committee had argued were often no better than hovels.  True there were plenty of brick built cottages which were just one up one down and many that predated 1840 and there was still overcrowding in some of them.  But Dr Rains maintained that “the main drainage of the place being very good, that all dwellings are connected therewith, under the superintendence if the surveyor to the Local Board.”

Nor if he can be believed was there any evidence of Typhoid during the period which along with Cholera is a bed fellow of unsanitary conditions.

So despite the concerns over the smelly brook and the odd set of bones on the highway perhaps he was right when he asserted that people wanting to settle here could be confident that Chorlton was “more healthy than most others round Manchester whatever their elevation may be.”  And he had come “here for the good of my health in June 1868.”

Of course I might yet be proved wrong.  But then that is the fun of history. You do the research, draw the conclusions, write what you think and then something new pops up.  Well we shall see.

Location; Chorlton, Manchester

Pictures; extracts from the Manchester Guardian, 1885

*Samuel Norbury Williams, letter to the Manchester Guardian May 17th 1886.

**Pollution of streams in the Withington District, Manchester Guardian September 12 1885


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