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Luddite Spring: 33 - Stench And Flies

...“That’s right. They live so close together and make so much muck between them that when one family gets sick it goes through the whole place like wildfire. When the houses are chock full and they need more workers, they go and cram as many more families into the houses that they can. They’re small houses to begin with, but what room there is has to be shared by two families and sometimes by many more. I’m never surprised to find coffins from each of the families in one house being carted away at the same time.”...

Ronnie Bray continues his novel concerning a workers' rebellion against foul conditions.

“You can smell it from here,” complained Harold Starkey, holding a carriage whip in his hand. His friend was Job Gladstone.

“It’s ripe!” agreed Gladstone.

“Aye, and it smells ten times worse after it has rained and the wind comes across the tops. Some days I go inside me stable for a change of smell. It’s sweeter in there than it is when it blows down from Hell Square. And the flies. Enormous bluebottles carry disease from one house to another.”

“You’re right. Still, it’s not the only place that stinks and buzzes with giant flies, and its buildings must be two hundred years old or more.”

“At least two hundred. Some are more.” Starkey pointed at rows of crumbling chimney stacks with his whip. “See how the chimneys lean!”

Gladstone leaned towards his friend, placed his hand on his shoulder, and confided, “It’s nothing to do with how old they are, Harold. It’s the way they were built, and the way folks have to live in them. They have no chance to be clean, what with no water, no drains, and no place to put their waste but out into the street with everyone else’s muck.”

“You’d think them as built new houses would have thought about that,” broke in Starkey, “but they built the new just like they built the old, so the same plagues and pestilences overtake them in a short while. They die like flies. Everything dies like flies in them places except the flies!”

“They should have put more privy middens in. Those that they did put in they should have put far enough away from cellars so they don’t fill up with foul-smelling excrement when they overflow or it rains. Some of the new places have cellars that no one can live in because they have as many as three feet of reeking watery sewage run into them that has seeped through the underground walls from the runoff from too few middens that don’t get emptied often enough. Those houses aren’t fit to put pigs in, let alone people.”

Starkey agreed. “I wouldn’t eat pig meat from a porker that lived in those conditions. They built houses close to the mills so the folks don’t have far to go to work and but they did it as cheap as they could. They skimped on everything.”

“Talk about overcrowding. They build them leaning against each other side by side, back to back, and in some places on top of each other.”

“They’re what folks call monkey houses,” chipped in Starkey, happy to add essential information.

“That’s right. They live so close together and make so much muck between them that when one family gets sick it goes through the whole place like wildfire. When the houses are chock full and they need more workers, they go and cram as many more families into the houses that they can. They’re small houses to begin with, but what room there is has to be shared by two families and sometimes by many more. I’m never surprised to find coffins from each of the families in one house being carted away at the same time.”

“I never thought Westgate would be so bad. Just smell it. I would never come near it if I didn’t have to. But I have to come to Market Place to find work.” Starkey considered his plight. Fate seemed to him to be working against his interests.

“That’s right, lad. Like it or not we have to suffer it,” commiserated Gladstone.

“Aye. It’s suffer or starve.”

“Do you think it will ever change, Harold?”


“The stench, and all the sickness as well. Medical men say they can cure everything, but I don’t see them doing it.”

“Perhaps it costs too much. That could be it. If it’s expensive, and it must be, then only the well-to-do can afford it. As you know yourself, there’s thousands of houses from here to the Moors that have never had a doctor’s foot cross their thresholds.

“That’s right. They die in their dozens every week in slums like Windsor Court and Castlegate.”

“That’s because they’re squeezed in between those rat infested buildings on Northgate, and the reeking dampness of the canal and the river at the low end of town. There’s nowhere for all the rottenness to go except into houses.”

“Yes, and it’s not just diseases and muck. They’re hotbeds of drunkenness and crime.”

“Aye, lad. Being poor is a death sentence in more ways than one.”

“Then there’s the pigs!”

“Aye. Pigs, hens, and ducks in some places, living right between the houses. No wonder there’s a stink.”

“You’re right. Add some animal smells to people whiffs and you have the worst of both worlds. Slums aren’t always old or derelict, but they’re always slums. Workers houses are always built on bad land with no drainage because its cheap, and sewage is thrown out of windows and doors to pool and putrefy right there in the street where folks have to walk. It can’t be avoided. It gets on their boots, into their houses, into their food, and poisons them.”

“Kitchen waste is done the same way,” said Gladstone.

“Yes. Then the place gets overrun with rats, some as big as dogs. There’s no water, no baths, and no toilets besides overflowing privies used by up to a hundred people.”

“Aye, that’s right. It’s a shame.” Gladstone reached into the back pocket of his frock coat and pulled out a newspaper. “Listen to this. It says,
“‘A visitor to Huddersfield surveyed workers’ homes and reported: The streets are generally unpaved, rough, dirty, filled with vegetable and animal refuse, without sewers or gutters, but supplied with foul, stagnant pools instead. Moreover, ventilation is impeded by the bad, confused method of building of the whole quarter, and since many human beings here live crowded into a small space, the atmosphere that prevails in these working-men’s quarters may readily be imagined.
Further, the streets serve as drying grounds in fine weather; lines are stretched across from house to house, and hung with wet clothing.’”

Having read the report, to which his friend had nodded his agreement at each gloomy observation, he pursed his lips and gazed into the leaden sky, where high winds were chasing horses-tail clouds across the sky as it blew the smoke from hundreds of house chimneys chugging soot and sulphurous fumes down into the streets.

“Does it say who it was?” asked Starkey with no hint of interest.

“I didn’t see a name. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. He got it right.”

“He did. But it didn’t have to be Huddersfield. It could be any textile area. Look at Holmeside. It’s not twenty years since it was built when Staithes put up his big mill, and yet by all the sights of the place it could be hundreds of years old.”

“And the smells. You forgot the smells,” offered Gladstone, mopping his brown with his kerchief.

“That’s right. I forgot the smells. Can’t say how I did that! They’re everywhere. No wonder rich folks live outside town in clean air with plenty of land around them.”

Starkey looked ready to leave, but went on, “I had an uncle lived at Holmeside before the mill came, and it was a different place then. The mill has poisoned it. The only good thing there is the gold that goes into Staithes’ pocket. Everything else is rotten. It was a gentle plodding place where peace and enough to live on were available for hundreds of years. When, the big changes came, those that could afford it built homes higher up on the side of the steep valley well away from the river to escape the flooding from the rains in that area. When the river swells, most of it goes back up what few drains there are and floods the cellars. Staithes’ put his mill by the fast flowing river so its wheel could turn fast enough to power the mill, but he didn’t have to put his worker’s houses there too. He could have set them up the hillside so they’d not get flooded. You’ll notice he built his own house up on the hillside well away from danger.”

Gladstone laughed at his companion’s observation. “Aye, he got well away. Mill housing was built close for convenience. Even so, houses built for workers are always inconvenient. I knew a man that said if he owned a big house in Holmeside and had a cottage in Hell, he’d get out of Holmeside and go and live in Hell!”

“There used to be good water from the Shore at Aspley,” said Starkey, as if to himself.

“Aye. The water in the goit under the old corn mill was fit to drink when the mill wasn’t grinding. Do you remember that fellow from Hell Square, the water carrier, what’s his name?”

“You mean Tom Webster.”

“Aye, that’s him. He had a cart with an big oak barrel set on it and he would drive it to Shore and fill it with water and then cart it round to people's houses selling it at a penny to fill a two-gallon bucket. He made his living by it.”

“That’s right. It was beautiful water. I used to fish there on the steps where the water runs out from the goit. I spent many an hour there catching fish for me supper. I had to move over when folk came down the steps to fill their buckets.”

“Aye, but nowadays that stretch is poisoned by mill and dyehouse waste. People have to fetch their water in old tin buckets from pumps in the streets nowadays. When the pumps freeze there’s no water for cooking, washing, cleaning, or anything else until the weather warms up again. I don’t call that convenient.”

“Neither do I. Besides, Staithes’ mill houses are overfull, unsanitary, airless, damp, disease-ridden, cold, and unpleasant. Perfect places for diseases to grow and get into the air because there is no clean water and no drains. It’s no place to raise a family. Look how many fall to cholera, typhoid, and diphtheria.”

“And lung disease. Don’t forget lung disease. One family I know buried eight of their ten children to the same disease, black lung, in the space of ten days.”

“My sister buried six of hers to typhus or typhoid, or some of each, in the same time. It’s all down to mucky water.”

“Then there’s the urine.”

“I’d forgotten that. They let it go stale to turn it into weeting, and use it for finishing woollens. They’ve been saving it since the days of hand loom weaving to use for scouring and bleaching. Folks sell their urine to fulling mills for a penny a bucket. A family can add about a shilling a week to their wage if they save their pee.”

“That’s right. But it reeks something rotten.”

“Aye. It does. It’s bad. Very bad. But there’s nothing we can do about it except keep our noses away from it.”

“The trouble is that we have to go among it. We have no choice. That’s the carting and carrying business for you. We have to go where the work is no matter how stinky it is.”

“Aye, you’re right, lad. That you are.”

Together they turned and walked down Kirkgate towards their stables. The loathsome smell from Hell Square followed them until they were well past the Pack Horse Inn and in the lowest reach of Kirkgate, where it was augmented by the foul reek coming uphill from Castlegate. The new canal at the bottom of town was beginning to reek also, because people used it as a waste tip. People didn’t like the smells, but they got used to them. Industrial towns were dirty and deadly. Carters and pack horse drivers whose occupations took them from one textile town to another, enjoyed clean air when they left an industrial area for the stretches of open country between industrial conurbations until they came upon another. These could tell the difference between the clean country air and the poisoned town air laden with industrial smells, smoke and noxious fumes.


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