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Health and Sanitation in Chichester

by Amy Roberts

Sanitation poem

Written by Amy Roberts, Collections Officer at The Novium Museum


The health of Chichester lagged somewhat behind the rest of the country in the 19th century, with various waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera making regular attacks on residents of the city. There was huge debate between two opposing groups of local residents dubbed the 'drainers' and the 'non or anti drainers', as is attested by this wonderful poem from our collections.

The first recorded Cholera outbreak in Chichester was in 1831-2, and there were several more over the next decades.

Edwin Chadwick was an English social reformer who set out to educate both public and politicians on the urgent need to improve sanitation including providing pure water and adequate sewage disposal. A report by Chadwick led to the Public Health Act being passed in 1848, making it the responsibility of the local council to provide drainage, clean water, cleansing, sewerage and environmental health regulation. It required all towns with a death rate of over 23 per 1,000 to set up boards of health, however these boards were often allowed to lapse after the worst cholera outbreaks were over. The main limitation of the Act was that although it provided a framework that could be utilised by local authorities it did not compel action. In Chichester, for a considerable time the Corporation did nothing in response to improving the situation, instead putting the onus on the landowners to do as they saw fit.

In 1855 the Sanitary Nuisances Act was passed and in response the City Council of Chichester distributed notices to all citizens. This notice stated that the council now had more powers to help make the city a healthier place to live, reducing the possibility of recurrence of 'fevers and virulent diseases'. With this appeal however the City council once again expected residents to take steps to make improvements and most significantly to bear the costs of doing so. This again was a major contributing factor to the lack of action and the subsequent ongoing debate and polarisation of the city.

The river Lavant was thought to be a major contributing factor, as it was a key receptacle of the 'privy soil' from surrounding houses. In 1831 Richard Dally commented in his 'Chichester Guide', 'though shallow and small it is not without its uses in carrying off the filth and ordur of some parts of the suburbs'. To try to rectify the problem all but two dwellings were connected to cesspools rather than being directly fed into the Lavant. In 1865 however it was still being reported as the main sewer.

The unsanitariness experienced within Chichester was in no way helped by the livestock market, which at this time was held in the city's streets. An article in the Daily Telegraph reported on its astonished that Chichester retained such an outdated custom describing how 'cattle rush into shops and one animal got wedged behind a shop counter and could not be released until the counter was taken to pieces'.

In 1866 Charles Swainson, Canon of Chichester wrote of the market:

"two streets that lead to the Cross are absolutely impassable...The cattle and sheep and pigs stand in their own filth for so many hours that...they leave their marks behind on the pavement...And thus it is a fact that the better-dressed people avoid Chichester..."

That same year the notice in the accompanying image was issued to citizens of Chichester by W Norman former owner of the Tannery. A few years later the market was finally moved to a site outside the Eastgate.

A letter from Secretary Waypole to the Town Clerk in 1866 highlighted the level of sickness in the local area. Complaints from 30 prominent citizens highlighted that only two public pumps were available to the 8,000 inhabitants of the city and that that the wells within the city were drawing supplies from gravel bed. This same gravel bed was being contaminated by the city's numerous cesspools.

Debates about sanitation continued however in 1874 the city was finally provided with a water supply. It was another couple of decades before a mains sewerage system was finally installed.

At a meeting at the Unicorn Inn in 1889 the anti-drainers claimed that a 'bucket of urine thrown on the ground would spread itself over the ground, be dried up by the sun and in a short time there would be nothing to see or smell'. Today it seems curious that anyone would be opposed to proper drainage and sanitation, however at the time it caused much fraction within the city, with many non-drainers simply stating the cost was prohibitive and the funds were not available at that time.

The city's 'drainers' produced startling statistics comparing incidences of typhoid in Chichester with other areas of the District. Over a period of 8 years all of the 20 districts compared had a lower rate of typhoid than that that experienced in Chichester. Chichester was found to be amongst the very worst towns for cases of typhoid and consumption across the entire country in the period 1871 to 1880.

By 1896 half of the city's houses had finally been connected to mains drainage.

This article was written using information gathered from 'Chichester: A Documentary History" by Roy Morgan (pub. 1992)