The next post in our Bird’s Eye View of Glasgow blog series looks at life in the growing city of Glasgow up to 1864. (Click on the images to show more detail).
In 1755, Glasgow was a modest city of 23,546 citizens (Kyd, 1952). By the publication of Sulman’s bird’s eye view in 1864, the city’s population had soared to nearly 400,000 (Census Office, 1862). This was in spite of an excess of deaths over births (Watt, 1844). The Highland clearances and famine conditions brought Highlanders and the Irish to the city, seeking somewhere new to call home. Glasgow, in the midst of an industrial boom, appeared to offer the ideal opportunity of work and a better life.
Before long, the once gentrified areas of Glasgow surrounding the Tontine Buildings, Saltmarket, and the High Street became overcrowded. Those that were able, including the University College on the High Street, moved west to open green space and fresh air.
For those remaining in the city centre, the overcrowding led to social issues such as poverty, crime, and health problems. The working classes moved into the once grand houses and tenements recently vacated by the rich. The buildings were repeatedly subdivided to fit as many families as possible and increase landlord profits.
“I have been credibly informed, that for years a population of many thousands has been annually added to Glasgow by immigration without a single house being built to receive them. … A great proportion of these poor people are young men and women in the prime of life. They come from fresh country air, and a diet just sufficient to support health in it, to inhabit for a time those wretched dens of misery, disease, and death, the low-lodging houses. It is only, however, for a time; for a diet still further reduced, and a pestilential atmosphere, do the rest. The young and healthy soon become prey of the epidemic disease … ” (General Board of Health, 1850, p. 74)
Living conditions were poor in these tall, dark, narrow streets, as Thomas Annan’s remarkable photos illustrate. With little to no natural daylight, no internal bathroom facilities or running water, and no means to regularly remove household waste, it was only a matter of time before epidemics of infectious disease such as cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and typhus struck the city.
Typhoid and cholera are both caused by fecal bacteria and are generally transmitted through contaminated water. Under the city’s living conditions, it would have been almost impossible to maintain even a basic hygiene regime of hand washing and food preparation. As a result, infections spread quickly and fatally. Epidemics were worsened by a lack of knowledge; it was believed for a long period that cholera was an airborne virus.
While some infectious diseases could be avoided by not coming into contact with sufferers, others, such as cholera, typhoid and typhus could not. The wealthier classes found to their horror that their social standing did not render them immune, with epidemic fatalities striking citizens across the city. As Carrick remarks, the apathy of the middle and upper classes to the overcrowded conditions soon changed with the rise of infectious disease; “self-preservation at length compelled attention to the subject.” (Pagan, 1884, p. xviii)
Realising a potential connection between housing conditions, sanitation, and the spread of disease, a number of acts of Parliament like the one above were passed. The Removal of Nuisances and Prevention of Contagious and Epidemic Diseases Act 1846 (p. 934) stated that occupants who allowed “the filthy and unwholesome Condition of any Dwelling House, or other Building, or of the Accumulation of any offensive or noxious Matters, Refuse, Dung, or Offal, or of the Existence of any offensive Drain, Privy, or Cesspool” were to be subject to the costs of the immediate cleansing and whitewashing of their properties.
The government, the newly formed General Board of Health (1848), academics and doctors combined their efforts to find the cause of the epidemics and how to prevent them.
The 1848 cholera epidemic in Glasgow was reported on by Dr. Sutherland for the General Board of Health (1850). A correlation can be seen in the map he produced below, between areas of epidemic severity and areas of overcrowding shown on the maps at the top of this blog post.
Finding that fatalities were being caused by a delay in seeking medical assistance, regular city-wide house-to-house visitations and a factory inspection scheme were put into practice. In an attempt to prevent the development of full cholera, Medical officers and student visitors took note of and treated any initial symptoms of cholera in people’s homes and places of work. Any houses containing cholera patients were cleaned thoroughly. These actions, combined with the opening of dispensaries, hospitals and houses of refuge, did much to halt the 1848 epidemic.
Data collected in reports such as the 1848 Epidemic Cholera Report (1850, General Board of Health) and Perry’s Facts and Observations on the Sanitory State of Glasgow (1844) contributed towards a greater understanding of infectious disease and laid the foundations of preventative measures.
It was clear that appropriate handling of the city’s human waste was of primary importance. As Senex notes in 1849, the existing system of street drains and sewers leading directly to the Clyde was wholly unsatisfactory;
“we laid down just as many drains and sewers as would carry our night soil to the nearest stream – and thus, instead of poisoning the air we breathed, we poisoned the water we drank.
The effect of some thousands of water-closets pouring their contents into the Clyde cannot but be odious in the extreme ; and every one may have felt that in summer days, after a long drought, the river from this cause literally sweats abomination, and we have more than once seen people sickened from it on board the steamers” (Pagan, 1884, p. 130-1)
A Select Committee on Sewage in British cities was established in 1864, and looked to engineers, chemists and other experts for suggestions and guidance. It took until the beginning of the 20th century before an improved system of drainage and sewage works was in place, and until 1998 before sludge boats stopped dumping sewage into the open sea at Bute and Arran (Directive 91/271/EC).
The provision of clean water was also essential in the prevention of epidemics. In 1859, Loch Katrine water works was opened, serving the people of Glasgow with 20 to 50 millions of gallons of water per day. At a higher altitude and 37 miles away, water was supplied to the city through the power of gravity. 1
An act of Parliament was passed in 1866 to resolve the overcrowding of the city, with Glasgow Corporation buying and demolishing the worst areas. Homes were rebuilt, this time maintaining strict laws on occupancy and cleanliness. The bird’s eye view extract at the top of this post shows the city just before the housing is demolished.Collectively, the policies towards sewage, clean water, and overcrowding transformed life in Glasgow. Greater public awareness of the causes of epidemic disease led to a decrease in their frequency and severity. Citizens were able to enjoy increased life expectancy, better living standards, and new and improved public spaces.
Other posts in the series can be found here. You are welcome to come up and see the Bird’s Eye View for yourself, and even order your own copy from the Maps, Official Publications and Statistics Unit on level 7 of the University Library. Just get in touch by email, 0141 330 3176 or pop up to see us Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm.
1. Detailed evidence from John Frederic Bateman, civil engineer and designer of Loch Katrine water works can be found in a Select Committee Report on Sewage (1864). In the report Bateman details the gravitational system, the materials and techniques used at Loch Katrine to bring clean water to the cities as evidence for the Committee, who are looking into building a similar system to remove sewage from cities. ↩
Ordnance Survey (1860) Glasgow 1st Edition. Town Plan, Sheet VI.11.17, 1:500, Southampton: Ordnance Survey.
Sulman, T. (1864) Bird’s eye view of Glasgow in 1864, Illustrated London News, London.
Monographs and Official Publications
Census Office (1862) Census of Scotland 1861. Population tables and report. ([Command paper] 3013, 1862). H.M.S.O., Edinburgh.
Council of the European Communities Directive (EC) No. 91/271 of 21 May 1991 concerning urban waste-water treatment. Also available online.
General Board of Health (1850) Report of the General Board of Health on the Epidemic Cholera of 1848 & 1849 ([Command Paper] 1273-1275) Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.
The Glasgow Story (2004) Shieldhall Sewage Works, Online (Accessed 13 Jan 2017)
Kyd, J. G. [ed.] (1952) Scottish Population Statistics including Webster’s Analysis of Population 1755, (Also available online) T. and A. Constable Ltd., Edinburgh.
Nelson, D. M. (1889) Proposed scheme for the collection, treatment, and disposal of the sewage of Glasgow, [n.p.], Glasgow. The original is also available from the Library Research Annexe.
Pagan, J. [ed.] (1884) Glasgow past and present : illustrated in Dean of Guild coutt reports and in the reminiscences and communications of Senex, Aliquis, J.B., etc. D. Robertson, Glasgow.
Perry, R. (1844) Facts and Observations on the sanitory state of Glasgow during the last year : with statistical tables of the late epidemic, shewing the connection existing between poverty, disease and crime, Glasgow Royal Asylum for Lunatics, Glasgow. The original is also available in Special Collections.
Removal of Nuisances and Prevention of Contagious and Epidemic Diseases Act 1846. (c.96) in (1846) A Collection of the Public General Statutes, passed in the ninth and tenth year of the reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.
Select Committee on Sewage (Metropolis) (1864) Report from the Select Committee on Sewage (Metropolis) together with the proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix and index, (HC 487, 1864). Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.
Watt, A. (1844) The Glasgow Bills of Mortality for 1841 & 1842, drawn up by appointment and under the authority of the Lord Provost, Magistrates and Town Council. University Press, Glasgow.