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Cold Dunghills: slums and sanitation

I researched and wrote these notes for Suffolk Archives.  They were intended for people teaching the History of Medicine in Suffolk at GCSE level.

Unhealthy Ipswich

During the C19th, Ipswich was an unhealthy place to live.  Surprisingly, it was one of the least healthy places in England.  John Glyde, a Christian campaigner from Ipswich, was amongst the first people to draw this fact to public attention.  In his book, The Moral, Social, and Religious condition of Ipswich (1850), he wrote:

‘The average mortality in this town, although placed in a healthy agricultural district, is above that of every county in England, Lancashire excepted.’  

He saw that health was worst in the very poorest areas where living conditions were dreadful.  He was an active Christian and believed people could not be expected to live decent lives whilst they were surrounded by dirt and disease.  He wrote, quoting Lord Ebrington:

‘people cannot be lodged like pigs and live like Christians’  (The Moral, Social and Religious Condition of Ipswich, John Glyde,1850)

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John Glyde, (1823-1905) lived at 9 Eagle Street, Ipswich.  He was a writer, radical thinker and involved in many organisations working for the social and cultural improvement of Ipswich. During his working life he was a bookseller, an agent for domestic servants and a registrar of marriages. (Ipswich Historic Lettering website)

Which diseases?

Ipswich had its fair share of infectious diseases such as whooping cough, pneumonia and TB, but it was diseases caused by bacteria in contaminated water which were the ever-present problem.  Drinking this water, eating food washed in it, using a bacteria-contaminated toilet and then touching your mouth without washing your hands, all could cause fatal conditions. 

Fortunately, there were no major outbreaks of cholera in the town. It was diarrhoea which was the  major waterborne disease in Ipswich.  John Glyde reported that it was endemic in some streets.  It could, and did, lead to dehydration, malnutrition, and even death. 

Diarrhoea was very bad in the poorest areas, particularly in hot summers.  It was especially deadly amongst babies and children under five.

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Death rates for Ipswich compared with other towns and cities.  Figures for Ipswich were even worse than large, industrial towns such as London, Sunderland, Wolverhampton and Newcastle,
Saturday 18 November 1871, Ipswich Journal, (British Newspaper Archive)

From 1874 onwards, the Medical Officer of Health’s annual reports gave the yearly figures for fatal cases of diarrhoea.  The maximum number of cases was 143 in 1899, and the minimum was 11 in 1894.  No year in the C19th was recorded as free from fatal diarrhoea.  The pity of it was that it was largely preventable.

Why was health so bad?

Sanitary conditions and disease

Although he was not a medical man, John Glyde was convinced that there was a link between disease and poor sanitation.  He lived at a time when the population of Ipswich was expanding rapidly, and all around him new housing was being built.  He could see that it was substandard and that people’s health was suffering:

‘Disease is the inseparable associate of sanitary neglect.’

The Moral, Social and Religious Condition of Ipswich, John Glyde,1850

He put poor health down to three factors:

  • Substandard building
  • Inadequate ventilation
  • Poor sanitation


‘It is in our mode of building, in defective ventilation, and the absence of drainage and conveniences, that much of the mischief resides.’

The Moral, Social and Religious Condition of Ipswich, John Glyde,1850

He could see that health was poorest in the poorest areas, amongst which was a small area called Cold Dunghills which lay behind Upper Orwell Street and Eagle Street where Glyde lived.

Cold Dunghills


Before it was developed for housing in the early years of the C19th, Cold Dunghills had been a rubbish tip – which is probably where it got its unusual name from.  It lay just outside the town walls.  Even though it was only about half the size of a modern-day football pitch, it did not belong to just one parish – some was part of St Margaret’s and the other part belonged to no parish at all.  It was historically a neglected, run down place.


By the late 1860s, Cold Dunghills had such a poor reputation, as well as an unfortunate name, that it was decided to change it to ‘Upper Orwell Courts’.  But the rebranding did not work.  It continued to be a by-word for poverty and ill-health.


Slum clearance began in Ipswich in 1923 but the Upper Orwell Courts were not cleared until the 1930s.  Residents were mostly moved out to the Gainsborough estate.  Today, it is largely semi-derelict – a run-down area behind some shops – but it is also home to a thriving mosque..


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Upper Orwell Street around 1900, looking towards Major’s Corner.  The buildings on the left were due for demolition when the photo taken..  Photo taken by Harry Walters and I think David Kindred has his archive

Substandard building


Quickly and shoddily built

From the beginning of the C19th, Cold Dunghills and the area around was quickly developed for housing.  Lots of people were moving to Ipswich from Suffolk villages and elsewhere in England.  In 1850, Glyde reckoned that only half Ipswich’s inhabitants were born in the town.  In St Margaret’s parish alone, which included part of Cold Dunghills, the population rose from just under 2000 people in 1801 to just over 4500 in 1841.  It had more than doubled in thirty years. 

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Cold Dunghills in 1778.  Mr Notcutt owned the open north-easterly part of Cold Dunghills.  The southern part is already built up. (Pennington’s map of Ipswich, 1778)


Cold Dunghills in 1867.  The area (known by this time as Upper Orwell Courts) is crammed with back-to-back and other small houses, courts and yards.  (White’s map of Ipswich, 1867)

From the 1840s, jobs were available on the new railway line, at the recently completed Wet Dock, and at Ransomes’ Orwell Works.  Single women could find work weaving silk and making corsets. Houses, cottages, shops, and workshops were needed for these workers and new streets were thrown up quickly.  On the Cold Dunghills in 1841, men tended to be labourers and women (where their occupation was recorded) worked as chars.

Tightly packed streets

Small, poor quality houses were built for the workers.  It is hard to estimate the number of houses on Cold Dunghills because of the way official figures were compiled over the years.  There were probably about thirty in the two main lanes of Cold Dunghills itself (see map), plus many more in all the little courts and yards that interconnected with it via narrow passageways.  These included Osborn’s Court and Craig Court, and Whitehead Yard and Gooding’s Yard.  As well as all the houses, there was a pub, a registered common lodging-house, a smithy, and a slaughter house, all packed together.


Tiny houses with few rooms and overcrowded families

All the houses on Cold Dunghills were small.  Many consisted of just two rooms (that is rooms, not bedrooms) and a shed, with shared use of wash-house and yard.  Households were often large.  In 1891, David Brunning, quay porter, lived at 27 Upper Orwell Courts in one of the larger houses -it had four rooms - but with his sizeable household (wife and their nine children).  Overcrowding like this was common and households often included unofficial sub-tenants who did not appear in official listings.

The hub of the house would be a multi-purpose room with a fire grate. There was usually no separate kitchen.  David Brunning’s wife, Susannah, would do her household tasks such as cooking, laundry and heating water around the open fire in the main room.  The Brunnings and their neighbours had no bathrooms, inside toilets, electricity, gas or running water.

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One room house, 1891 (source – Hannah, I think you were going to find a free-to-use copy)


Inadequate ventilation

Many houses on the Cold Dunghills were ‘back to back’.  This meant they did not have doors or windows at the back and so there was no through ventilation.  The Brunning‘s house was probably a back to back, and they would have struggled to dry out their damp rooms.  Susannah would have had to wash and dry clothes indoors in bad weather, only making the moisture worse.


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Susannah Brunning spent most of her married life on the Cold Dunghills.  She had twelve children, three of whom died in infancy.  Four of her sons and two grandsons served in the First World War.  One son was killed in action. (Image from the Suffolk Chronicle and Mercury 1918,  thanks to the Ipswich War Memorial Project)  

What did the three young ones die of?  One from measles; one from a skin infection related to poor sanitation, the third – can’t find record in Death Returns but have found burial record at St Margarets but no cause of death given (unsurprisingly)


Poor sanitation


Water supply


Ipswich was lucky.  The town had a good supply of pure water.  However, there was no effective way to get it to people’s houses. This meant that water was wasted.  For example, water for the Cold Dunghills area came from the hills at Spring Road, flowed downhill into Upper Orwell Street and then onwards to the Wet Dock.  When it was too plentiful, Upper Orwell Street flooded, and so was known as ‘The Wash’.  Henry Austin observed in his report on the sanitary condition of Ipswich that this unlimited quantity of water:


‘runs to waste in the streets and carries dampness and decay along its track’.

Report on the present sanitary condition by Henry Austin, 1848


Public sewers and house drains


Like Henry Austin, John Glyde was outraged that, in 1850, Ipswich had no proper system of sewerage.  Despite their efforts, Ipswich Borough Council was slow to install public sewers. Even after the construction of the main sewer in 1881-1882, which ran through the town centre to tanks on the Orwell, raw sewage still found its way into the river.


Sewage often lay in stagnant and dead wells in the courtyards, and the town was pockmarked with large cesspools.  When, in 1879, a landlord was ordered by the Borough Council to cleanse and disinfect his property in nearby Regent Street, he replied there was NO sewer for domestic waste to drain into from his houses.

Where they did exist, sewers and drains were often blocked, broken or the wrong size.  According to the Suffolk Chronicle, the stench from a new sewer was so bad at one time, that the inhabitants of the Cold Dunghills area resorted to burning paper and rags to cover the stink.  (It was found to be coming from the Fish Market where men were pumping putrid water into the new sewer.)

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Saturday 4 February 1854, Suffolk Chronicle (British Newspaper Archive)

Drainage and pavements

The lanes on the Cold Dunghills were made up with broken stone.  The pathways were gravel and not kept up by the Borough Council or anyone else.  Muck and excrement seeped up through the stones and gravel to make disgusting stagnant pools.  Long dresses then dragged in the filthy mud which was then brought inside the house, adding to the squalor.


Wells and pumps

John Glyde reported that in the 1840s ten Ipswich courts had no water supply at all.  However, wells and pumps in the remaining courts usually only gave contaminated water.  Many of the wells were dried up.  Families such as the Brunnings would have had to rely entirely on these insanitary pumps and wells for all their water.


Toilets on the Cold Dunghills were outside and shared between households.  John Glyde estimated that there was, on average, just one toilet per five households in these poor areas.  They were open at the back and without roofs. 

Known as middens, privies or bumbies, they were nothing like modern toilets. The user had to sit on a plank with a hole, and pee and poo went straight into a pit of ash or earth below.  The pits were difficult to empty as there was no route to the street for many of the Cold Dunghills dwellings except through the house.  The men sent to empty them only took away the solid and left the liquid behind.  The middens leaked into the soil around them and that meant they polluted the wells.  The filth and stench were abominable. 


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Lower Orwell Street with residents standing in the dark, narrow entrance to the courts.  (From Rags and Bones by Frank Grace.  I don’t know the original source.  Will be able to get permission to use the image  from Frank’s widow if that would be helpful)



3.Obstacles to improvement


Landlords did not want the expense of improving their properties and the town authorities did not have the teeth to make them do so until the public health legislation of the 1870s came into force.

Saturday 13 February 1869, Ipswich Journal (British Newspaper Archive)

On the Cold Dunghills and elsewhere, the residents were paupers and did not own where they lived.  They were tenants or sub-tenants  and were too poor to make improvements themselves.  Their land owners tended to be local business men such as solicitor, Rolla Rouse, and house-builders such as Richard Samuel Smith.

Rate payers

Rate-payers objected to paying money to pay for improvements

Ipswich Borough Council

For much of C19th, the Westminster Government and local authorities took a laissez faire attitude to their role.  This means that they did not believe they should interfere in people’s lives.  Despite reports of the poor conditions, and the well-known link between these and ill-health, Ipswich Council was slow to act.  And, moreover, some of the councillors had vested interests in doing very little.  (for example, Cllr Fisk was, himself, one of the main builders/developers.)

Attitudes to the poor

A prevalent attitude towards the poor was that they were naturally dirty and disliked water and washing.  This gave landlords the excuse not to provide wash houses or keep them in good repair.

It was also widely claimed that the poor did not want their waste cleared because they kept it to sell it to farmers as fertiliser.  This was one of the reasons given by Cllr Fisk, the builder, for objecting to proposed sanitary reforms in the 1850s.

Misunderstandings about how diseases spread

The miasma theory of how disease spread was still current.  For example, here is a letter from Mr Peachey, a teacher whose school was less than half a mile from the Cold Dunghills.  When a major cholera outbreak hit England in 1853, he wrote to the Board of Health in London about the smells coming from a nearby manure factory.  Influenced by the miasma theory, he was worried that the horrible fumes would help spread cholera – which, as John Snow was shortly to demonstrate, was in fact caused by bacteria in contaminated water.


I deem it important to call the attention of the Board of Health to the existence of a manure factory in the poor and populous district of the Parish of St. Clements, Ipswich; carried on by the firm of E. Packard & [Company] and that there arise from the said factory such an unwholesome effluvia [unpleasant or harmful smells] as to render it almost insufferable living in the vicinity and further that in the opinion of medical men practising in the neighbourhood its tendency is to generate disease. 

Should that fearful scourge the cholera be permitted to visit us, there is reason to fear that such a nuisance would play a heavy part in intensifying its malignity [evil] and in widening its sphere [spread of disease]. 

Will the Board of Health, therefore cause such enquiries to be made as shall either remove the offensive factory or show that its operations are not deleterious [harmful] to public health.


Equally, many ‘quack’ remedies were readily available.  These were medicines made and sold by people who did not understand the causes of illnesses and who had no evidence that they worked.  For example, Condy’s Fluid was widely advertised in Ipswich in the 1890s.  Taken as a medicine, it was said to cure all sorts of diseases.  It also doubled as a household disinfectant.

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East Anglian Daily Press, Saturday 16 November 1895


4.Making a difference


Individual benefactors

Fore Street baths were principally funded by Felix Thornley Cobbold.  He was a wealthy member of the local brewing family and also remembered for giving Christchurch Park Mansion to the town.

The baths opened in 1894 and provided hot baths at a time when people didn’t have bathrooms, let alone baths.  (They were less than half a mile away from the Cold Dunghills, by now known as  Upper Orwell Courts).  They also  provided a public swimming pool.

Fore Street Baths, photograph taken soon after they were opened.  (A photo from David Kindred’s archive so fee may be payable)


District visitors

Throughout the C19th, practical help for the sick and poor usually came as part of a Christian package.  Church of England parishes appointed district visitors (mostly middle class ‘ladies’) who called on parishioners with blankets, food and improving pamphlets. 


On the Cold Dunghills, St Margaret’s Church set up a mission room in a two roomed cottage in the 1860s, and by the 1870s it was running as a cheap soup kitchen and hub for the community.


Ipswich’s public health services


Before the 1870s

Locally and nationally, official reports on poverty, sanitation and health were published over the years.  For example, Chadwick’s Report on the national situation came out in 1842, and Henry Austin’s report on Ipswich was published in 1848.  In Ipswich, a Board of Health was set up but, without support from the Council, it had no real power to get much done.  For example, unhealthy privies were identified in the Cold Dunghills in 1861, action was called for, but we know from subsequent reports that little if anything was done:


Report to the Ipswich Board of Health, Saturday 21 December 1861, Suffolk Chronicle (British Newspaper Archives)


1875 Public Health Act

However, the Public Health Act of 1875 made it a legal duty for town councils to appoint medical officers to improve the health of residents.  The first Ipswich Medical Officer of Health, Dr George Sampson Elliston, was appointed just before the Act came into force and he was a keen and tireless campaigner.

Dr Elliston believed that squalor and disease were largely preventable by improving sanitation.  He was particularly insistent that middens should be replaced with flushing toilets.  As one historian has written (Frank Grace in Rags and Bones), ‘his chief weapon was the water closet’.


A Victorian midden, privy or bumbie



Victorian water closet


He was in post for nearly forty years, putting pressure on the Borough Council to support his work, give him an adequate budget, and allow him to employ staff to carry out all that needed to be done.  These ranged from factory inspectors to teams of men to carry away sewage from backyards.

Every year, Dr Elliston gave the Council a detailed account of what his Department had achieved:


Sanitary work completed by Dr Elliston’s Department, year ending 31 December 1877


The Cold Dunghills, even under Dr Elliston, had to wait to the end of C19th for substantial improvements.  In 1897, Elliston’s department made a house to house inspection of the Cold Dunghills (now known as Upper Orwell Courts).  All middens were abolished and water closets with proper drains were installed.  He reported that:


‘The whole character of this neighbourhood has changed’

Medical Officer’s report to Ipswich Borough Council on the Sanitary Condition of the borough and the port, 1897


5.Healthier Ipswich

Numbers of cases of fatal diarrhoea fell gradually in the C20th.  In the 1920s, only the numbers of  babies dying from diarrhoea were given in the Medical Officer of Health reports.  In 1923, there was just one fatal case recorded.  Better sanitation certainly had played its part, but improved housing and welfare support are also thought to have been key factors.

6.How do we know?


Censuses for Ipswich 1841 - 1911 (Ancestry:

Newspapers (

  • East Anglian Daily Times
  • Ipswich Journal

Other websites


Sources available at The Hold




Catalogue no.

Austin, Henry

Report on the present sanitary condition … Ipswich



M.O.H of Ipswich

Medical Officer’s reports to Ipswich Borough Council on the Sanitary Condition of the borough and the port

1874 – 1905


M.O.H of Ipswich

Medical Officer’s reports to Ipswich Borough Council on the Sanitary Condition of the borough and the port

1921-23 and  1924


Glyde, John

The moral, social, and religious condition of Ipswich



Glyde, John

Suffolk in the nineteenth century; physical, social, moral, religious, and industrial



Grace, Frank

Rags and Bones, includes extract (reduced in size) from the OS town plan of Ipswich.  10.56 feet to the mile



Ipswich Borough records

Poor rate books for Cold Dunghills



Ipswich Borough records

Annual death returns

1874 Jan-Jun

1874 Jul-Dec








Map of Ipswich


MC 4/52


Tithe map of St Margaret’s parish and apportionment





Map of Ipswich


MC 4/58