To what extent were the changes in sanitation mainly responsible for Bristol’s improved healthiness between 1849 and 1870?


In 1869 the Times reported that Bristol was one of the healthiest towns in the country. Yet just less than quarter of a century earlier that same newspaper made a very different claim. Bristol was seen as the third most unhealthy town in Britain. If we are to believe these reports it seems that a transformation had come about in a relatively short period of time. This study seeks to identify what improvements did take place in Bristol during the 1850s and 1860s and the extent to which an improved sanitary system led to increased life expectancy and a healthier environment.


There are many different characteristics of an unhealthy city. These include a poor water supply, inadequate sewage systems that couldn’t cope with the population explosion of the 1820s in Bristol, a lack of street lighting in the poorer districts of the city and unsanitary refuse disposal. The quotations from the Times suggest that some of these factors were drastically changed during the period 1849 and 1870 in particular water supply, sewage disposal and refuse disposal.


In 1850 George Clarke investigated the condition of Bristol in his report to the General Board of Health in London. His findings were shocking portraying Bristol as having many problems connected with the sanitation of the city. He reported that the mortality of the city was twenty-six deaths per thousand. This mortality and the sickness that it represents caused the city to lose money, as there was a loss of productive labour, medicines and relief. Mr Clarke believed that the excessive mortality and sickness was to be attributed to the bad condition of the houses that the labouring classes (which form 54.8% of the population) of Bristol lived in, the want of drainage and water; and to the “filthy” state of most of the suburban streets and lanes; also the want of scavenging arrangements in parts of the old city and Clifton.


He found that parts of the old city and Clifton, parts of the districts of St. Philip and Jacob were imperfectly lit and Bedminster had no apparent lighting. He found that the gas rates in Bristol in comparison with other places were exorbitantly high for a city with such a fortunate geographical site.


He found that the powers of the local government were quite insufficient for the sanitary wants of the city. The sewerage of the city was confined almost entirely to the old parts of the city (in 1850) and Clifton. Bedminster was without any sewers at all but the general flow was towards the Frome or the Avon. The Dock Company laid the Broad Street sewer to convey from St Philips and Jacobs sewers into the new cut alongside Coronation road 1803-1809. They also laid another sewer in the Hotwell road, opening onto the river.


The city burial-grounds in 1850 were utterly insufficient being almost full and surrounded by houses. Burial grounds were raised above the surface of the adjacent land, and the walls were invariably in bad repair. The corpses already deposited will continue for several years to cause a discomfort to the living. Such grounds it was suggested, should be lowered, with all decency, the walls removed or rebuilt, a deep drain carried round the whole space and the surface either flagged or laid down in turf and planted. These burial grounds were gradually amended through citizens writing to the local board of health, who then sent a surveyor to the site who reported on the condition and what repairs needed to be done, then the repairs were done.


Bristol Water Company (1846) met strong and expensive opposition from parliament in 1846 during the execution of the works, but they must have succeeded as in 1847 part of the water supply was being bought into Bristol. There were three service reservoirs constructed for constant distribution over the district and stores for fire. These were at Bedminster Down for the supply of Bedminster and the south of the city, secondly, on Whiteladies road to supply the lower parts of the city and Durdham Down for the supply of the more elevated parts of Bristol such as Redland, Clifton and Kingsdown. There were also three compensating