Ipswich Icons: The areas of Ipswich most affected by Tuberculosis...

Civic College site 1970. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Civic College site 1970. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

In the nineteenth century TB was an omnipresent enemy. Tuberculosis was killing more people (mainly men) than any other cause of death, writes John Norman.

Fore Street, Long Street, Back Hamlet, public toilets Ship Inn. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Fore Street, Long Street, Back Hamlet, public toilets Ship Inn. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

Mortality was however, only the tip of the iceberg, many, many more people were incapacitated by the disease, bed ridden, unable to work or even contribute to life in the home.

Until Local Authorities appointed Medical Officers of Health, (about 1850) it is difficult to be sure just how bad the disease was. It is only after the turn of the century, and into the first decade of the 20th century that we get reliable national statistics, and they are horrendous. One in three deaths in men aged 18 - 44 (their productive years) was from TB. In women aged 18 - 24 TB was the cause of every other death.

Don’t assume that outside of these age ranges things were much different. Children were dying young, 24% of boys’ and 20% of girls’ deaths were from tuberculosis and in older adults (over 65) 80% of deaths were attributed to tuberculosis. Pulmonary tuberculosis is a contagious air borne disease that

destroys body tissue, primarily the lungs, spread by coughs, sneezes, and spitting (a frequent habit of men working in dusty dirty environments).

In Ipswich by far the worst affected areas were the St Clement’s and St Helen’s parishes. The town’s Medical Officer of Health adding a damming epithet to its popular name ‘The Rope Walk Insanitary Area’.

To make matters worse there were some severe winters, for example in 1814 the daytime temperature never rose above freezing throughout January or early February.

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Overcrowding was the root cause. Between the 1801 and 1821 the number of residents in each house in St Clement’s Parish increased by 40%. People were living in ever more crowded conditions, closer and closer together, sharing the basics of life like clothes, beds and a seat at the table.

It is difficult to understand just how the number of people in each household grew and easy to assume an increase in the number of children but the Parish Register of Births doesn’t correspond thus I suggest the increase is ‘lodgers’, men of working age who have moved into Ipswich from the rural community to work in the newly developing dockside industries (engineering, malting, brewing and ship repair and supply).

It is also interesting to note, from the Land Tax returns and from parish Rate Books (and from comments in Newspapers) that poverty was a rapidly increasing problem. At the beginning of the nineteenth century between half and two thirds of households in St Clement’s Parish were designated poor.

A further notable feature of the figures is the difference in growth rates between population and households; the former growing much faster indicating that sub-division of existing homes was taking place. We also know that gardens were being built on to create ‘courts’, half a dozen single room residences squeezed into a small back yard. It is no wonder they were referred to as ‘hovels’.

One of the first streets in Ipswich to be purpose built for the influx of working men was Albion Street, between Fore Hamlet (opposite Cavendish Street) and Duke Street, today Tye Road follows almost exactly the same line. Initially there were 50 houses on the north side of the street between the Co-op shop (later to become Jack White Organs) and Happy Return public house.

The street was built about 1825 as a single terrace, each simply two up, two down. Every single house was however tight up against the back of the pavement. Each property had a toilet which was in the back yard (there was no garden) but no bathroom. Occupiers could take their weekly bath at Fore Street public baths or in a tin bath in the living room.

There was no public transport, no cars, no bicycles, it is no wonder they were built as close as possible to the dock, the ship yards and to the new industry that was developing east of the River. It is also possible that these houses had a GasSupply, the new gasworks having opened on the quayside in 1821. The important feature is that they were high density, people living very close together, sharing their colds and worse. One sneeze and the tubercle bacteria spread killing so many otherwise healthy people.

I am indebted to the late Frank Grace who died in November 2017. Frank’s book ‘Rags and Bones’ provided some of the information in this article.

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