Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: February 15, 2018
Webpage updated: February 15, 2018




The following information is taken from the Eighth Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council by Doctor Hunter and was published in the Western Daily Mercury in 1866.  It has been broken in to small paragraphs to make it easier to digest.


Plymouth has always been reputed to be a Town of uncomfortable residences for poor people although it has  been notable for having among its inhabitants a number of gentlemen who have taken a warm interest in ascertaining and relieving the peculiar destitution of house accommodation in the Town.

Plymouth continues to be one of the few Towns in which house-to-house visitation is conducted by the Inspector of Nuisances.   The Town Council is a Local Board but have no special powers.  They have a clerk, a surveyor and an  inspector of nuisances, the last of whom receives a payment of 100 a year.  He does his job well and is mainly concerned with choked drains.   The man employed in this role has been given two warrants on parchment, constituting him "sanitary inspector" and "inspector of nuisances".

There were only 30 cesspools left in Plymouth.

On November 18th 1856 three people were fined five shillings each, plus costs, 'for an overcrowded room, consisting of more than one family'.  The Inspector thought that more than five in a bedroom was overcrowding.

December 7th 1860: W. D. was sent to prison for a month in default of payment of a fine 'for not cleansing and keeping free from filth the interior of the apartment which he occupies at No. 1 John Street.'

In April 1862, upon notice to quite being issued to an occupier, the owners came forward to offer to improve the accommodation and in December 1862 people were removed from some storing sheds where they had obtained shelter.

On April 11th 1865 a man was sent to prison for the filthy state of his room at Number 6 Quarry Street, Plymouth.  (The room was cleaned for him while he was in prison, it would appear, but there was some discussion as to whether it was legally the responsibility of the occupier of the room or the tenant or the house).

At Jay's Court, in King Street, some people were ordered to leave some 'underground apartments'.

Houses that were recently erected around the Octagon and at Arundel Crescent for the 'families of competent means' were now being let by the room 'to immense numbers of people'.

The number of small houses in Plymouth are few and are unlikely to increase in numbers.  The poor people live in chambers of large houses.

Nothing has been done under the provisions of the Labourers' Dwellings Acts.  A visit to a place shown on the map as "Working Men's Cottages" revealed fifty-one in number, set back to back in one row, with two or three exceptions.  They consisted of a kitchen and one bedroom.   The internal measurement was 12 feet 8 inches by 10 feet and the rent was 1s 6d a week, including a good supply of running water and the use of a privy and the cesspool.

The 51 houses contained 54 kitchens and 54 bedrooms, occupied by 105 adults and 110 children.  The crowded instances were: four adults with three children; three adults with three children; three adults with two children; three adults with three children; four adults with three children; 2 adults with six children; two adults with seven children; and four separate cases of two adults with five children.  The owner was said to be a quarrier who built the properties for his men.  {This suggests they were around West Hoe, where Thomas Gill was busy quarrying the land away).

At Shaftesbury Cottages, built as a public-spirited measure, each Cottage had a room and a little back kitchen, small yard and a privy.  There were three small bedrooms on the first floor.  The walls were thin and the roofing had not been well maintained.  The rent was four shillings a week and in all they were said to be 'excellent working men's house'.

Ambrose Cottages were let at 6 10s and 7 10s (presumably per year) but had only one bedroom and no back entrance.  One was occupied by a family of three adults and two children and the other by four adults and one child.

Cecil Cottages and Octagon Cottages were also single-bedroom properties, at which the weekly rents were 1s 9d and 2s 3d respectively.  In one of these lived seven people, who told Doctor Hunter that 'the owners of small houses refused large families except in the most dilapidated accommodation'.

One issue was prevalent everywhere and no authority had been to the Inspector to deal with it: this was the insufficient pavement of the courts and yards.  They were paved with large round pebbles from which the waste water had washed the matrix so that it was now impossible to get the ground either clean or dry.  Between the stone slay bits of refuse but going at it with a broom only deepened the gaps and made the problem worse.  'Flagging is sadly wanted everywhere'.

There were some old tumble-down houses of a large size in Higher and Lower Streets.  Number 20 Lower Street was three storeys high and had a common passage and yard as well as two common staircases.  The property contained 24 rooms and 20 of them housed a family each.  Only four families had more than one room and there were none empty.  There were 52 adults and 46 children in the house.  There were two sizes of rooms: one was about 15 feet 9 inches by 13 feet; the other was about 11 feet by 10 feet.  Most of the rooms were rented from the landlord at either ten pence or one shilling per week but six of the rooms were taken as a speculative venture by one person, who was letting them as furnished lodgings.   As each family occupied only one room as both bedroom and kitchen, it was assumed it also acted as the water-closet as well.  'In no case did I even suspect that the people were not all of one family' said Doctor Hunter, leaving the reader wondering if such was actually the case.

Doctor Hunter then wondered what problems would occur in at such a house in Plymouth during an outbreak of cholera, where if the house was ordered to be shut up the authorities would have to find alternative accommodation for 98 people compared, in Yorkshire or Lancashire, with only four people.

A Mrs Marshall, who was a general or marine store dealer and rag sorter in Higher Street, Plymouth, paid 17 shillings a week, inclusive of rates, for her house.  She let 18 rooms to 10 families at 1s 9d a tenant.  Three of the families had eight members each but they did have two rooms each.

Just along the road from Mrs Marshall was another house in which 19 rooms were being let to 13 families for a rent of 1s 6d per week.  Many of the heads of these families were at sea.

Yet another house of 13 rooms held 9 families of 31 people also at a rent of 1s 6d per week.  At another house there were 15 adults and 26 children in twelve rooms.

At number 16 Moon Street, Plymouth, there were eight families comprising 14 adults and 4 children.  However, in one of the rooms a single woman held a day school.

On and around The Parade and in the High Street the tenements usually comprised two rooms.  However, in one there were five adults and five children in a tenement of one bedroom and a kitchen.

Each of the four houses making up Skardon's Court held four tenants, with each family in one room, for which they paid one shilling rent.

Jay's Court, which was let in single rooms, held Irish families of 8 or 7 in a room.

It was commented that a Londoner would expect to find the modern houses in Arundel Crescent occupied by a family earning 400 to 500 per year.  However, in Plymouth each room in one of the houses was let for 4 or 5 a year to a family.  There were families of 7 or 8 in a drawing-room, a kitchen or a garret, depending on their means.

The work of inspecting the "common lodgings", defined as 'where lodgers were received for a day', was delegated by the Local Board to the Superintendent of Police, who had deputed two officers named Wreford and Julian to carry out the inspections.  The owners of such premises were required to complete a weekly return of the people who had slept there and the police officers made unannounced visits to check all was in order.  However, the Local Board had given them no guidance as to how many cubic feet each occupier should be allowed in each building and thus there were many instances where a room was licensed for more beds than it could reasonably hold.  Such accommodation was universally 3d per night.

One lodging establishment, named or owned by Rossi, of 21 beds, complained of the difficulty of removing the sick.  Another, named Hamilton, with 10 beds, had insufficient accommodation.  So did one named Rowley, who sold marine stores as well.

At Painter's one of the rooms had a roof that had not been underdrawn and was unfit for occupation on the day it was visited.

A room of 1,250 cubic feet at Kelly's was allocated to 8 people.

Plymouth in 1861 apparently had 6,084 inhabited houses and a population of 62,599.  This meant there were 16.2 people per house.

In all three cases, of Plymouth, East Stonehouse and Devonport, the rents were taken either by a collector in the case of non-resident owners or by the owner themselves; or it is taken by one of the occupiers of one of the rooms, who farms the whole house.  'The rent seemed a precarious income, and ownership seemed often under dispute' Doctor Hunter concluded.