Housing, Inhabitants, and the Impact of Public Health Reforms

Many books and commentaries have been written in praise of Leamington, of its architecture, spa waters, doctors, parks and gardens, and were published to promote the town as a healthy place to visit and live. Naturally, anything that may have contradicted this picture was excluded, suppressed and even denied, and as a result the slums of Leamington barely feature in literature and their history is obscure.

Back-to-Back Houses in the Satchwell, Park and Kenilworth Streets slums behind Upper Parade, Royal Leamington Spa 1852

Back-to-Back Houses in the Satchwell, Park and Kenilworth Streets slums behind Upper Parade, Royal Leamington Spa 1852

The slums of Leamington were unusual in that they were purpose built for the poor of the town, and were not hand-me-down and decaying buildings formerly occupied by wealthier residents of previous generations. The worst of the nineteenth century slums were constructed in the former farm lands of the ‘New Town’ north of the river, primarily situated in the Satchwell, Park and Kenilworth Street areas, and later extending to John Street and the area around King and Queens Street. The image above shows part of a large-scale survey of Leamington drawn in 1852[i] – in the Satchwell Street area now occupied by the Royal Priors shopping precinct are seen back-to-back houses, interspersed with ‘courts’ giving space for privies, ash-pits and cesspools rather than light and ventilation. These areas of poor housing were constructed between 1810 and 1840 by builders whose names are now mainly lost, but included John Toone and John Morris[ii], and William Pratt who built the ‘Golden Lion’, now the RBS Bank, in 1810-1812 at the junction of Satchwell Street and Regent Street.

Satchwell Street

Satchwell Street

An uncommon feature of the Leamington slums were their close proximity to the higher class housing, hotel and shops of the town – The image above left [iii]shows a photograph of Satchwell Street from about 1911, possibly of Whitehead’s or John’s Court, with the tall buildings of the Upper Parade seen in the close background. Below are two further images of the Leamington slums from about the same time, but whose exact location is not recorded.

Unidentified Leamington Slums

Unidentified Leamington Slums

The occupants of the slums were those whose primary role was to provide services for the rapidly growing middle-class residents of the town, whose population had grown from 350 in 1800 to 15,723 in 1851. Many of the poorer workers and families had immigrated from villages in south Warwickshire, from counties to the east, and many had come from as far as Ireland. The occupations of the men are shown in the censuses as labourers, carpenters, joiners and plasterers, shoe-makers and tailors, whilst the women are listed at dressmakers, milliners and most importantly laundresses.  There were also itinerant artisans and temporary workers, many of whom would have brought their families to the town, adding to the crowding in the common lodging houses of the period. Satchwell Street also hosted the prostitutes and criminal elements common to the times, a recurring feature of nineteenth century society throughout the country’s towns and cities. The court appearances of many of these less desirable persons featured frequently in the columns of the Leamington Courier during the 1800’s and early 1900’s[v].

The requirements of the nineteenth century national Public Health Acts resulted in the earliest objective surveys and reports on housing and sanitary standards in Leamington. The first of these reports, under the 1848 Act, was written by George T. Clark a Superintending Inspector from London[vi], and was published in 1850. He lavished praise on much of the town, but included 13 pages of detailed and severe comment on the poorer districts.  A few of the phrases Clark used were ‘liquid contents of privies oozing through floors’, ‘open cesspools’, ‘filthy piggeries’, ‘worst cases of fever in Williams’s and John’s Courts in Satchwell Street’, ‘most filthy courts in William’s and John’s, Satchwell Street’, ‘children in danger of falling into cesspools’, ‘broken pumps’, ‘slaughter houses’, ‘numerous open cesspools and heaps of offensive rubbish’, ‘ privy used by 30 persons’, ‘large heap of manure stored by the commissioners’ and much more. Clark also catalogued 34 slaughter-houses and 800 piggeries in Leamington. Neither apparently were schools were immune from ‘nuisances’ – in Bellevue Place an infant school for 140 children was reported as having 9 inches of contaminated water under the floorboards.

Inspector Clark repeated in his report the Warwick Poor Law Union[vii] Nuisance[viii] Officer’s own remark that ‘after considerable experience in the Warwick Union, I am convinced that the Nuisances Removal Act[ix] is but of little service in eradication of the existing nuisances in Leamington; fuller powers are indispensable’. Clark also commented – quite correctly – that Coventry, Rugby and Stratford-upon-Avon Warwick had similar slums to Leamington, but what made it worse for Leamington was that the town slums were of recent construction. From this, the reader can develop a picture of a divided society in the town, with a large and increasing social but not necessary physical gulf between the middle and lower classes, all during a time when over-building and under-occupancy of middle-class houses plagued Leamington for most of the nineteenth century.

With the 1850 Report to the General Board of Health came the first real opportunity for the town to recognise and confront the problems of poor housing. Initially, after a public meeting held in February 1848 the town commissioners decided not to adopt the permissive legislation[x]. There was much local opposition to the Act but eventually, in 1852, a Local Board of Health was constituted.  In June 1852 the Board issued an order that the permissive Public Health Act of 1848 should be applied, and a new governing board of 15 members were elected[xi]. However, they failed to appoint a Medical Officer of Health (MOH) to supervise and formulate improvements for the health of the town.

The 1872 Public Health Act required the appointment of an MOH for the town, and in January 1873[xii], Joseph Sugar Baly F.L.S. accepted the position, and became the first holder of the office for Leamington. In 1875 Baly duly published his report ‘The Sanitary Condition of Leamington’[xiii], a report patently somewhat economic with the truth. Baly claimed that under his jurisdiction, ‘cesspools and middens are entirely abolished’ and that the 4,500 ash-pits in the town had been repaired and covered. Later evidence shows neither of these statements to be remotely true.

Joseph Baly died in March 1890, and was replaced as MOH for Leamington by Samuel Browne MD, D.P.H. (Diploma in Public Health). In his 1892 report[xiv] the following quote must be remembered for its prosaic and municipal obscurantism:  ‘In 1890, the Sanitary Inspectors from all parts of England, during their visit to our town[xv], especially mentioned the fact that there were no slums in Leamington’. Browne then reported that he had made personal inspections of the ‘lowest parts of the town’, and there was little to complain of as to the sanitary conditions, but criticised the ‘deplorable filthy habits of the people’.

A new and progressive MOH, Dr Edward Burnet, was appointed in 1910. In 1911 he produced a report containing tables on the health and living standards of the town[xvi], and in particular, his ‘Table of Condition of Satchwell Street’ painted a by now predictably depressing picture. Burnet listed ’65 brick houses, condition of walls 2 good, 1 moderate, 12 bad, conditions of roofs 11 good, 50 moderate and 4 bad. No internal water supply for any, 19 had unsatisfactory water supply. 47 families totalling 230 persons, conditions of closets moderate to poor’. Comparing these comments with those of Baly in 1875 it may be safely concluded that after 36 intervening years and many Public Health Acts, little impact had been made upon the living standard of those living in Satchwell Street, and presumably upon the other slum dwellers in Leamington.

On 29 December 1909 the minutes of Royal Leamington Spa Town Council Health Committee recorded many properties without proper and sufficient ash-pits in a number of streets, and that powers had finally been given for officers to enter premises on matters relating to drains, water closets, privies and cesspools under the Public Health Act of 1875. On 26 November 1910, more nuisances were recorded, a recurrent theme of sequential committee reports. It is an indictment of the town’s inaction that similar reports of the Health Committee minutes continued with reports of nuisances until at least 1930 – on 9 December 1925 ‘Whiteheads Court without proper and sufficient ash-pits and other sanitary receptacles’, on 3 April 1929 ‘Whiteheads Court unfit for human habitation’, and other conditions in slum dwellings in Kenilworth Street and elsewhere were firmly condemned in 1930[xvii]. After the formation of The Leamington Slum Clearance Ltd in 1926[xviii] a strategy was finally adopted for slum clearances in Satchwell Street and elsewhere, and for the relocation of the inhabitants to the new Shrublands Estate[xix]. However, it was not until not until 1970 that the remainder of the slum buildings built 150 years previously were finally demolished.


Colin A Maynell        August 2013


[i] The Rise of Leamington Spa: A Century of Growth 1783-1886, Warwick Record Office, 1988, Leamington Library

[ii] Warwick Record Office, CR1563/95

[iii] Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health and School Medical Officer for the Year 1911, Leamington Spa, Courier Press, 1910, WRO CR3041/57

[iv] Gibbons, W.G., Royal Leamington Spa, Images of the Past, Jones-Sands Publishing, 1995

[v] For example Leamington Courier, 15 September 1838, 17 October 1868, 23 March 1929

[vi] Clark, Geo, T., Report of the General Board of Health of the Town of Leamington Spa, HMSO, 1850

[vii] There were four Warwick Poor Law Unions in the district, including one for Leamington.

[viii] A ‘nuisance’ was an occurrence with possible implications for public health.

[ix] Nuisance Removal Act 1848

[x] Leamington Courier, 12 February 1848

[xi] Drew, 1978, p 277

[xii] Leamington Courier, 4 January 1873

[xiii] Baly, Joseph, S., The Sanitary Condition of Leamington Spa, 1875, Leamington Library

[xiv] Browne, Samuel, Annual Report of the MOH, P 10, National Archives MH 12/13559

[xv] There had been a conference in Leamington in 1890 of Sanitary Inspectors from other towns.

[xvi] WRO, CR3041/57

[xvii] Royal Leamington Spa Town Council Proceedings, 3 April 1929, Leamington Library.

[xviii] Cave, Lyndon, F., Royal Leamington Spa, A History, Phillimore 2009,  pp164-165

[xix] Royal Leamington Spa Town Council Proceedings, 20 January 1930, Leamington Library