The sanitary state of Sheffield

In 1861, The Builder, a journal of architecture, paid a visit to Sheffield to discover the appeal of the town, with its swiftly growing population, and one commended worldwide for industry and enterprise.

High-ranking officers at the Town Hall welcomed the magazine, expecting a fair and favourable travelogue, but when the article appeared on 5 October, it was titled ‘The Sanitary State of Sheffield’.

The observations were undoubtedly honest, the consequences lasting for the next hundred years, and indication that living in those long-ago simple days was bleak.

Brace yourselves, the “best bits” make awkward reading.

“Street scavenging appears to be but imperfectly applied at Sheffield. The streets are partially swept before the shops are open in the morning; consequently, when these are to be cleaned out, the sweepings which are thrown upon the streets remain all day long, to be trodden into a thick greasy crust.

“Proceeding down Victoria Station Road, past the cattle market, we arrive at an area of nearly two acres in extent, completely covered by huge hillocks of filth.

“A special heap in one corner belongs to the Duke of Norfolk, as the sweepings of his Grace’s markets and properties are brought here, and upon which children, not pigs, are grovelling, whilst one infant sits, playing with offal, and gnawing a decayed leek.

“Leaving the neighbourhood, we skirt the canal basin, picking our way between mounds of sifted coal ash, mill and engine coal, iron bars, and steel bars – a rusty, dusty, gritty place to remember, passing the Corn Exchange and presently come into High Street.

“This is the centre of retail commerce, and like all Sheffield streets is inconveniently narrow, its shops poor and dingy, improving but little in this respect when it takes the name of Fargate.

“The same blotchy encrustations on the roads, and the same channels running across the footpaths, with liquid manure from houses and stables, are too frequent.

“The water provided for general use being of a colour we do not esteem nor envy, we are bent on visiting the sources of supply.

“Through a suburban district of small villas and large houses, climbing up a further ascent, we make our observations upon the first great dam (now Crookes Valley Park). Dead leaves are floating upon the surface, and in one bend, the corner nearest the Dam House, a thick slime was upon the waters. Moreover, ducks were swimming in it.

“The next dam, communicated by an open channel, had horses and cattle drinking from it in the corner of a field.

“Higher up, from dam to dam, and up to the great Hadfield reservoir, the same imperfections present themselves: banks that should be lined with sloping stones, and not an atom of decayed vegetation allowed to mix with the water, are planted to the water’s brink with overhanging trees and rank grass and weeds growing apace upon the shallow muddy shores, the water highly-discoloured and slimy.

“Considering the pulmonary diseases to which Sheffield workmen are especially liable, it is a miracle that they do not insist upon the removal of every other exciting cause of ill-health.

“The workman breathes an atmosphere impregnated with excremental and putrefactive smells and charged with dust. This immense concourse of people live, eat, drink, and sleep in a space crammed with cesspits full of their own ordure, and where the contents of their heaped-up ash and offal middens are retained within sight and scent of their dwellings.”

If bilious readers of The Builder were still unsure about visiting, then the last line was probably meant for them. “There is much to interest in Sheffield, much to praise.” And that was it.