Victorian Halifax (5/5)

5. Conclusion


Chapter One established that Halifax had received its charter of incorporation in 1848. This gave it a new council with a number of departments within it. Here the opportunity was created for the new Corporation to have control over improving the town. However, there was little done so concern from residents lead to the Ranger report in 1851. Poor sanitary conditions were found in the investigation by William Ranger and these were reported back to the General Board of Health. He found that housing was in bad condition in most cases be it old or newly built. It tended to be ill ventilated and filthy inside and out. There were also a number of cellar dwellings. The privy arrangements were bad and added to the refuse around the housing as methods of nightsoil disposal and street scavenging were ineffective. Halifax was only served by one reservoir and most people had to rely on wells that were easy polluted by the number of open sewers and contaminated Hebble Brook. Some residents were lucky to work for Edward Akroyd so felt the benefits of his project at Copley but that was only a small minority and the bulk of townspeople lived in disgusting conditions. This led to disease being rife in town and Halifax was often visited by epidemics. It differed little from the rest of Britain and the conditions in Halifax were repeated in most places. Halifax, therefore, needed much improvement.

Chapter Two investigated how the Corporation attempted to do undertake such improvements over the last fifty years of the nineteenth century. It found that conditions in Halifax gradually went through a change. In housing there were attempts to improve conditions. The Corporation undertook visits to dwellings as part of their work and made the necessary alternations to properties. It was the same with sanitation. The Medical Officer of Health reports show the routine work of the Sanitary Department as it dealt with the ‘nuisances’ reported. It also adjusted its street scavenging methods as the workload increased and it became more professionalized, along with many other aspects of the department’s work. It was during the first part of the period that Halifax benefited from the generosity of Akroyd and the Crossley brothers with their many schemes, most importantly their model housing developments. These men had all died by the end of the 1880s but their legacies lived on for the people of Halifax. The achievements of the Corporation and philanthropic individuals helped to reduce the rates of disease and death in the period. Halifax performed better than most places and stayed below the national average. However, problems did remain. Areas of poor conditions still existed and disease was a frequent visitor. Halifax was in better condition than other places in Britain but not a perfect example of a Victorian town. There was still progress to be made even though it had improved.

Chapter Three looked at conditions in 1901 at the end of the Victorian era. It was found that there were considerable improvements in the fifty-year period. Housing tended to be in better condition and the Corporation had more control over it. They made inspections so could monitor conditions more effectively than in 1851. It was also more of a determined effort on the part of the council. The same applied to other matters such as sanitation. The Corporation was able to correct, or attempt to correct, the problems they found. In the matter of disease and death Halifax had made clear progress. In 1851 disease was rife but in 1901 it was much healthier, it still was a frequent visitor but the council dealt with it more effectively. There were still problem areas. The toilet facilities had made progress from the days of the midden but still had a long way to go, especially compared with the rest of Britain. There were sections of the town still in poor condition, however these were less than in 1851. There were a number of reasons for the change. The authority of the Corporation had increased in size and powers, there were political pressures and there was a desire to better the appearance of the town. Halifax had improved along with the rest of Britain in the last half of the nineteenth century.

Overall the period 1851 to 1901 was one of improvement in the social conditions of Halifax. It still had problems, some of them serious, but the Halifax of 1901 was a better place to live than was the Halifax of 1851. For the average working class person life was relatively comfortable. Their house was better built and with more rooms. It had running water, even a gas supply for the fortunate, and was connected to the drainage system. Their toilet facilities were no longer a hole in the ground and the council had organised disposal for them. The streets were not spotless, that was impossible in the age of horse-drawn transport, but there were no longer accumulations of matter everywhere and if they became ill there was a number of hospitals available for their needs. In general, though it might not have felt like it, they had an easier life than did their 1851 counterpart.

As can be seen in the three chapters Halifax went through a period of improvement. Ranger was disgusted by the conditions he found in 1851 so one of the objectives of the Corporation, and others, during the next fifty years was to rectify them and they had considerable success by 1901. At first it was down to people like Akroyd and the Crossleys to make the initial improvements but as the period went on the Corporation became increasing adept at making changes. By the beginning of the century they took the lead in improving the town. They were helped by the intervention of the state, showing that P. Lawless and F. Brown’s argument that the government had little successful legislation was not always so as there was frequent use of the 1875 Public Health Act in Halifax. Their main argument that housing legislation was not effective was evident in Halifax, though. It was not until the 1890 Housing Act that the Corporation took advantage of the powers granted to it. In housing and other aspects Halifax conforms to A.S. Wohl’s view that it took the whole period for improvements to have and impact as it was only the last ten, maybe fifteen years, of the period covered that the benefits were felt in Halifax though definite changes were there in 1901, at least according to the sources. The sources did have their limitations, though. The MOH reports are useful for the statistical representation of conditions but often lacked a descriptive element, especially when compared with the Ranger report. The same can be definitely said about the censuses, which are simply pieces of data, for example they give the number of houses but not the condition they were in. There is also an obvious bias to the works by Akroyd, Hole and even Ranger. They naturally focused on the bad aspects as they were creating a case for improvement. However, put together the primary material has been an invaluable illustration of conditions in the town. Overall, Halifax had laid the foundations upon which the future generations used to further advance the social conditions in Halifax, such as an effective Corporation and a desire for change. It was not perfect but major improvements were made between 1851 and 1901 and this cannot be denied.

Victorian Halifax (4/5)

4. Halifax in 1901 – The End of an Era or Dawning of a New Age?


The Halifax of 1901 was not the same Halifax as that in 1851. Although it remained a thriving Victorian town it was of a different nature by 1901. In 1851 the textile industry dominated and the town had only recently been reached by railway. By 1901 industry had diversified and not only did the town have three railway stations but also had tram links with the surrounding area. Halifax had become a modern town in a modern world. The economy was not as strong as it had been in the 1850s, which was a nationwide occurrence, but Halifax remained an important player in British industry. However, times were changing. Not only was there now a new century but Queen Victoria died in 1901. The Victorian age had finally ended and it had been an era that had seen many changes, not at least in Halifax’s little corner of the Pennines.

This chapter will look at the social conditions in Halifax as they stood in 1901. It will cover the housing, sanitation and disease and death in the town and how the people of Halifax, council or otherwise, reacted. Along with the primary discussion of Halifax in 1901 there will be a comparison of the situation in 1851 to ascertain whether improvement had occurred. The second part of the chapter will account for the improvements by looking at what was happening at local and national level, focusing especially on the expansion on Corporation activity.

According to the census of 1901 the population of Halifax stood at 62,634[1]. Compared with the 1851 figure of 32,101[2] this was almost double with an increase of 30,533. As with the rest of the period it was down to a number of reasons and was happening elsewhere as well. It was also down to an increase in the size of the borough again with the additions of Copley in 1899 and Wainstalls, Luddenden and Northowram in 1900. This had led to an increase in the area the Corporation had under its authority compared with what it had control over in 1851 and the departments within it had become more efficient and larger as required in the years between 1851 and 1901.

The census also shows that the amount of housing in Halifax continued its steady increase and there were 15,453 houses habited, uninhabited and being built in 1901[3]. This is around double the figure for 1851. The 1901 MOH report gave the average number of people per house as 4.2 compared with 4.6 in 1900[4]. The 1901 census also listed the number of tenements (or houses, in this case) with less than five rooms. According to this out of the 25,030 tenements in Halifax (not just the town), 15,342 had less than five rooms. Of these 1,118 had one room, 5,639 have two rooms, 4,449 had three rooms and 4,139 have four rooms[5]. The majority of these tended to have no more than five people living in them. However there were many exceptions. The census records a tenement of two rooms having at least twelve people living in it and there were two one-roomed houses with eight people living there[6]. From this it can be seen that even though overcrowding was not the problem it had been in 1851 it was still very much there and many people in Halifax lived in cramped conditions.

The Corporation had attempted to ease overcrowding. It continued its programme of slum clearance in the area of poor housing around the parish church. Hanson’s book, first published 1920, says that by the end of period a large portion of the ‘small, miserable houses’ had been cleared from the bottom end of town by the end of the century[7]. The Ranger report noted the poor quality housing around the parish church (‘bottom end of town’) and concern had been expressed about the effects areas like these had on health. Ranger would have been pleased to see that fifty years later, because of legislation and pressure from the public, the Corporation had finally made progress in dealing with the problem whilst carrying on its regular work relation to housing. The Health Department (formerly the Sanitary Department) paid 8794 visits to houses and 847 of these were made in reference to ‘cleanliness, overcrowding, etc’[8]. They also continued their work concerning the removal of nuisances. The Corporation did not deal with all nuisances, housing or otherwise, registered to the Health Department (for example 234 remained at the end of 1901[9]) but action was taken towards the majority of problems. It did not have a perfect system set up but was able to sufficiently remedy most problems reported and was much more competent than the newly-formed Corporation Ranger had encountered in 1851.

Concerns did remain in 1901. Although the building of back-to-back housing was prohibited in many towns and cities Halifax, like other places in the West Riding, had no such legislation preventing their erection and it continued into the twentieth century. Back-to-backs still provided a means of cheap accommodation that would provide twice as many residences as through housing on the same amount of building space. It also suited the terrain of Halifax where places to build were sometimes limited due to the hilly nature of the settlement. This mean that back-to-backs remained a feature of Halifax beyond the period in question. However, the Corporation took precautions to prevent the housing becoming like the ‘closely built, badly ventilated’[10] dwellings common at the time of Ranger’s visit by monitoring conditions regularly.

A key area of concern for Ranger had been the condition of lodging houses in Halifax in 1851, what he termed ‘dens of vice’[11]. By 1901 great steps had been taken towards improving the conditions in them. The MOH report for 1901 includes a section on lodging houses in the town. According to this the Halifax Corporation Act of 1900 included the requirement that the registration of ‘Common Lodging Houses’ had to be renewed every May[12]. The lodging houses, it is said, were under the supervision of the police for ‘overcrowding, limewashing and cleanliness’ with Inspector Osborne in charge[13]. With respect to ‘sanitary arrangements’ the owners of lodging houses were under the Health Department[14]. In 1901, according to the Chief Constable, there was ‘no cause for complaint, no overcrowding, and no need for any prosecutions of any kind’[15] in any of the seventeen Common Lodging Houses in Halifax. During the fifty years after the Ranger report the Corporation had developed a much more efficient way of dealing with lodging houses and they were a much cleaner and healthier place to stay compared to 1851.

Halifax continued in 1901 to be one of the better ranking places in the MOH reports comparison of thirty-three large towns. The general death rate for 1901 was 16.2 per 1000 compared with 17.8 in 1900[16]. The zymotic death rate was 1.36 per 1000 in 1901 compared with 1.2 for 1900[17]. The higher figure for 1901 was due to a scarlet fever epidemic that affected Halifax for most of 1901. The average death rates for the previous twenty-five years had gradually decreased. Between 1877 and 1880 the average was 23.5 per 1000, 1887 to 1890 it was 21.2 per 1000 and from 1897 to 1901 the average was 17.3 (the full periods can be found in Chapter Three, Graph 4.1 in Appendix D)[18]. The report stated that ‘only five of the great towns [had] a recorded death rate for 1901 below that of Halifax’. These were Croydon (the lowest), Derby, Cardiff, Leicester and Bristol[19]. Using the same towns as in Chapter Two for comparison, London had a rate of 17.6 per 1000, Liverpool (the worst) had one of 22.3, Manchester was close behind at 22.1[20]. The fellow West Riding towns of Leeds and Bradford had 19.3 and 16.8 deaths per 1000 respectively[21]. For further comparison Huddersfield, which had developed on similar lines in terms of population and industry to Halifax over the period, had a general death rate of 16.7 per 1000 and a zymotic death rate of 1.38[22]. The average for the thirty-three towns in the report was 18.6 for the general death rate and 2.68 for the zymotic death rate. Halifax was, therefore, one of the healthier urban areas to live in as statistically there was less chance of dying than in, say, Leeds, Manchester or Liverpool and it had the lowest figures out of the great northern English industrial centres. The full figures for the thirty-three towns in 1882, 1893 and 1901 can be found in Table 4.1 in Appendix D.

In 1901 Halifax experienced another scarlet fever epidemic. This disease remained the biggest concern for the town. The number of cases of scarlet fever since 1882, when the Halifax Corporation Act made the notification of certain infectious diseases compulsory, had been in the hundreds, except for 1895 and 1896. The worst years were later in the period. After 1896 (the best year with forty-four occurrences) the number of cases rose rapidly; 1897 had 476, 1898 had 626, 1899 had 762 (the worst year), 1900 had 330 and 1901 saw the return of a large epidemic with 736 cases reported[23]. Scarlet fever remained common in part because of parents not taking the correct precautions when their child developed the disease and allowing them to associate with others when they were infectious. The MOH believed that it was frequently spread due to ‘want of care on the part of the parents’[24] so sent a letter to the local newspaper about his concerns and distributed a handbill advising people on what actions to take when faced with a case of scarlet fever. He wanted to make sure that the victim remained isolated and not infect others. Despite the zymotic death rate statistics decreasing (including that for scarlet fever) many diseases remained a frequent visitor to the people of Halifax.

The provision of health care was another area that had seen improvements between 1851 and 1901. In 1851 there were few hospitals in Halifax. There was one other, the Halifax Infirmary, apart from the infirmary of the Union Workhouse but neither were adequate for the needs of the town. By 1901 Halifax had gained three more hospitals. In 1874 the Borough Fever Hospital opened providing care for the victims of fever, in particular typhus, typhoid and scarlet fever, along with smallpox. A separate smallpox hospital had opened due to the smallpox epidemic of 1892-3 and a convalescent home for scarlet fever patients opened in the summer of 1901. The Borough Fever Hospital had 156 beds and during 1901, 633 cases had been admitted[25]. In all since opening until 1901, 4163 cases had been admitted and the hospital had seen 366 deaths[26]. In 1896 the Royal Halifax Infirmary was opened financed by voluntary donations, an example of philanthropy in Halifax. The final hospital of the period was St Luke’s Hospital at Salterhebble which opened in April 1901 as a purpose-built Poor Law Hospital. It had been built because of overcrowding at the workhouse infirmary.

The sanitation of the town was an area of real improvement since 1851. In 1901 most of the houses built were connected to the water and drainage systems, as well as the gas supply, whereas in 1851 people were still dependent on well water and the sewerage system was an area of great concern. Ranger had devoted a considerable section of his report to describing both the water and sewerage systems and their faults including accounts from Halifax residents. By 1901 the foundations of the modern system were firmly in place. Sewers in the town were no longer open like they had been in 1851. Problems remained, though, especially in the newer area of the borough, for example Warley and Northowram. The 1901 report says that places such as these still had no proper systems. However, the Corporation was endeavouring to change that and the report states that in the main part of the borough the drains and sewers were in ‘good and satisfactory condition’ and that they were ‘frequently flushed’[27]. The Corporation may not have completely solved the problems of drainage but it had greatly improved over fifty years and by 1901 it had been recognised as a major risk to public health but a problem to which much effort was devoted.

The Corporation carried its process of converting to the Goux system. By 1901 the Goux system dominated the methods of nightsoil disposal. There can be no comparison with the number of Goux closets in 1851 because the system was not in use then. However, in 1871, the year the system commenced, there were 1162 Goux closets registered with the Corporation[28]. Over the next thirty years the number gradually rose and in 1901 there were 16,397 Goux closets registered[29]. There were, though, still remnants of the old systems left, for example there were still 1,050 privy middens remaining, especially in the new areas of the borough[30]. Nightsoil disposal, however, was an area where improvement could be clearly seen over the fifty years. In 1851 concern had been expressed over the existing method of disposing nightsoil as it was seen as inefficient. It was a world where open middens and cesspools dominated and polluted the air. In 1901 much of this had gone and the nightsoil was kept out of view behind various types of closet walls. The Corporation had also devised an effective method of clearing nightsoil with a body of men regularly employed for this purpose. However, it took the fifty years for a sewerage treatment works to open at Salterhebble despite it being in planning for most of the period. The Corporation was not always completely efficient.

The water supply of Halifax had improved. In 1851 there had been just one reservoir supplying the people of Halifax with from which very few benefited. Over the period more reservoirs were added, including Ogden in the 1860s, so by 1901 the town had six service reservoirs and six storage reservoirs. This meant that the majority of housing in Halifax was connected to the water supply and people no longer had to rely on the easily polluted wells for their needs. This was greatly beneficial to the health of the town as it reduced the level of contaminated water being drunk which was a major cause of disease.

The condition of the streets had improved between 1851 and 1901. In 1851 they were full of refuse and it had only recently that a man had been employed on a permanent basis to scavenge the streets. Progress had been made by 1901 as the process of cleaning the streets was a continual job and the number of streets swept over the year was 33,395[31]. The condition of the streets had to be cleaner, especially in the main thoroughfares in the town. The volume of traffic had increased and the tram had come to Halifax. Refuse-free streets were now much more of a necessity than had been the case in 1851 and efforts of the Corporation in keeping them clean reflected this.

It has been seen that there was change in Halifax between 1851 and 1901 but why did this happen? There are a number of reasons. Firstly national legislation expanded the powers of local authorities during the period. The Public Health Act of 1872 gave the already existing Sanitary Department more credence as it allowed for a sanitary authority to be created[32]. The MOsH of the period worked with the Sanitary Committee and the MOH reports included a report from the Sanitary Inspector. Between them they were able to oversee conditions in Halifax and the necessary changes. The Public Health Act of 1875[33] further enhanced the powers of the Corporation and was used regularly, as can be seen by the minutes of the Corporation committee meetings. Many meetings included a resolution on an action to be taken under the act. For example the minutes for the Sanitary Committee of 3rd March 1881 show that it was resolved that ‘the Inspector of Nuisances be instructed to take the necessary proceedings under the “Public Health Act, 1875” for the removal of Nuisances in Handel Street and Bentley Street, arising from Ashpits and Privies’[34]. Similarly on 30th August 1881 he was again instructed under the Act to remove a ‘nuisance existing on property situate in Crown Street…arising from defective drainage and water closets’. The Corporation did its utmost to stay abreast of developments and was helped by the legislation. Two pieces of legislation pertaining to local government further added to authority of the Corporation. The Local Government Acts of 1888[35] and 1894[36] gave Halifax a more effective system of government and allowed it to have more authority over the area. Thus, it was able to carry out the improvements it saw necessary more easily.

Not all the relevant legislation passed at national level was utilised. The Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875[37] was apparently little used in Halifax[38]. This is a pity because it meant that the Corporation missed an opportunity to make changes to the state of housing in Halifax earlier than it eventually started to do. Had it began to make a real effort in 1875 then the housing problems might not have been carried on into the nineteenth century to the extent that they were. However, the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890[39] was taken advantage of in Halifax. The Act was used by the Corporation and in the early 1890s, 133 houses were removed, about half of these due to being condemned, and the inhabitants rehoused[40]. The second aspect of the Act, the building of council houses, did not occur in any significant way in Halifax until after the First World War.

National legislation was able to extend the powers of the Corporation and allowed for improvements between 1851 and 1901 but local actions also contributed. The Halifax Improvement Act of 1853 came about because of the Ranger report two years earlier. The Act gave the Corporation more authority and allowed them to undertake the necessary drainage and street widening schemes as well as providing regulations concerning buildings and streets. Under the Act the Corporation took over the running of the town’s markets in 1853 and the gasworks from 1855. Over the period more responsibilities were added such as public baths in 1859, isolation hospitals in 1872 and electricity in 1894. The 1853 Act provided a basis for the period and the Corporation did build upon this. In 1869, a set of byelaws operative for thirty years increased the building regulations included in the earlier Act. These set down requirements such as habitable rooms having at least one window, a privy or water closet for each individual house and the troughings of housing to lead into a drain and not pour onto the streets. Such guidelines meant that the Corporation could control the appearance of houses and streets and help prevent unsuitable conditions occurring.

The Corporation itself increased during the period. In 1851 the Corporation consisted of seven committees; the Board of Works, the Finance Committee, the Watch Committee, the Waterworks Committee, the Improvement Committee, the Sanitary Committee and the General Purpose Committee. By 1900 the number of committees had almost doubled. The council minutes for 9th November show that the appointment of twelve committees was an objective for the meeting. These were a Watch Committee, a Highways Committee, a Waterworks Committee, an Improvement Committee, a Market and Parks Committee, a Gasworks Committee, an Electricity Committee, a Health Committee (formerly the Sanitation Committee), a Tramways Committee, a Technical Instruction and Public Library Committee, a Finance Committee and a Joint Works Committee[41]. In addition to this were a number of sub-committees, for example, the 1901 MOH report shows that the Health Committee had six sub-committees, including a Hospital Sub-Committee and a Nuisance Sub-Committee[42]. The expansion in committees of the Corporation reflects its growing responsibilities throughout the period and that it was creating an effective system to deal with its duties. This was one of the reasons why it was able to improve conditions.

One of the town’s major philanthropists was involved in the Corporation. John Crossley was mayor at the time of the Ranger report and still held that position in the 1860s. To have one of the men committed to improving conditions in Halifax onboard meant that his influence was present in the work of the Corporation and their beneficial schemes. He was also involved in local politics and was returned as a candidate in the 1874 general election only to retire suddenly in 1877. Other local humanitarians were also involved. Crossley’s brother Francis stood as a candidate a number of times and Akroyd was M.P. for Halifax between 1865 and 1874. To have such men as these in high positions meant that the improvement of Halifax was an active concern.

The period saw increased involvement from lower levels in society. Reform Acts broadened the electorate and by 1884 about 70% of the adult males in the constituency had the vote, the highest proportion of all urban constituencies in the West Riding. This meant that some of the very people who were most effected by poor conditions had a political voice should they wish to use it. Due to its proximity to Bradford, Halifax was affected by activity there. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) had been founded there and this influenced Halifax. Indeed the Halifax ILP branch (formed 1893) was the second largest ILP organisation in the country after Bradford. The presence of a politicised working-class group in Halifax put pressure on the Corporation to undertake changes so was one of the reasons why there was improvement.

A fundamental reason for improvement in Halifax between 1851 and 1901 was civic pride and competition with other places. The prosperity of the Victorian era manifested itself in a number of ways and the most visual was the appearance of the towns. Each town in Britain at the time, especially the industrial ones, wished to show how successful it was and Halifax was no different. In a similar vein to the cathedral and church building of the medieval era the Victorian towns showed their wealth with a variety of public structures. The crowning point in Halifax was the construction of its town hall in the 1860s. This magnificent building was one of the last buildings planned by the architect Sir Charles Barry, the man responsible for the Houses of Parliament and Dunrobin Castle in Scotland[43] and was opened in 1863 by the Prince of Wales. Other buildings of a similar ilk sprung up in the town throughout the period; splendid edifices designed to inspire a feeling of pride in the inhabitants. These included such buildings as the main railway station and the headquarters of the Halifax Permanent Building Society. Combined with this was a desire to make the whole of the town visually appealing, especially to visitors, and this was a reason for improvements being made. Collections of miserable-looking, dilapidated houses and filthy streets were not a pleasant image of Halifax to be projected to the whole country so the authorities sought to make alterations. It was something that could be seen all over, like Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, the thriving towns of Victorian Britain wished to exhibit their assets to the world. Improvements had to be made in order to do this.

Halifax had undoubtedly made progress by 1901. It was larger in area and population than it had been in 1851 and the Corporation had advanced with the town. Housing had improved. In 1901 the housing in Halifax was generally in better condition than it had been in 1851. There had been improvements in sanitation since 1851. In 1901 the sewerage and drainage systems were better, there were no longer open sewers in the town like there had been in 1851. The water supply was more efficient and the people of Halifax were not relying on wells as they had done fifty years previously. Streets were cleaner and the Corporation had created an effective street scavenging method, an area that had been defective in 1851. There were still matters of concern, though, the newly incorporated townships were lacking many sanitary requirements and became another undertaking for the Corporation now improvements had been made in the main part of town. Advancements in sanitation led to lower rates of disease and death. Halifax was one of the healthier major towns in Britain though some diseases, such as scarlet fever, which still had a firm grip on the town and work was still to be done. As a whole, though, the social conditions in Halifax were much better in 1901 than they had been in 1851 and the past fifty years had definitely seen improvement and this was down to a number of reasons. The powers of the Corporation had been enhanced throughout the period by both national and local methods so it now had the authority to make the necessary changes. There were political reasons such as the involvement of people committed to improvement and a more political working-class. Lastly, there was a desire to create a Halifax of which its inhabitants would not be ashamed. For these reasons Halifax entered the twentieth century in much better condition than fifty years previously.

[1] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1901, http://www.fromweavertoweb.org, last accessed 21/02/2008. All subsequent census referenced are taken from the same website and were accessed on the same website on the same date.

[2] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1851.

[3] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1901.

[4] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1901, p.6.

[5] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1901.

[6] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1901.

[7] T.W. Hanson, The Story of Old Halifax, 1920 (1993 edition used) p.261.

[8] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1901, p.82.

[9] Ibid, p.83.

[10] Mr Garlick’s Statement in William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, on a Preliminary Inquiry as to the Sewage, Drainage and Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Conditions of the Inhabitants of the Town of Halifax in the County of York, p.17.

[11] Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, p.32.

[12] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1901, p.56.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, p.6.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1901, p.14.

[19] Ibid, p.7.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, p.25.

[24] Ibid, p.31.

[25] Ibid, p.77.

[26] Ibid, p.73.

[27] Ibid, p.52.

[28] Ibid, p.90.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid, p54.

[31] Ibid, p.95.

[32] The Act made the appointment of MOsH compulsory and allowed sanitary authorities to be created. However, Halifax already had a MOH at this point. Mr Garlick had been the MOH at the time of the Ranger report and other MOsH in the period included Dr Britton, Dr Ainley and Dr Neech. The Sanitary Inspector for most of the period was Mr Travis.

[33] The Act gave local sanitary authorities the power to enforce sanitary regulations, including sanitation, drainage and water supply.

[34] Halifax County Borough Council Minutes and Committee Proceedings January 3 – December 23 1881, p.113.

[35] This Act transferred the administration of counties to county councils elected by ratepayers. It was in 1888 that Halifax became a County Borough and it remained that way until 1974.

[36] This Act created rural and urban district councils.

[37] The Act gave local authorities the ability to purchase dwellings unsuitable for habitation.

[38] According to E. Webster, ‘The Borough of Halifax, 1848-1900’ in Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society, 8, (2000) p.117.

[39] This act gave more powers to local authorities to close insanitary houses and build council houses funded by local rates.

[40] Webster, ‘The Borough of Halifax, 1848-1900’, p.120-121.

[41] Halifax County Borough Council Minutes 1900-1901, p.2

[42] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1901, p.2.

[43] Berry died in 1860 and the town hall was then overseen by his son, Edward.

Victorian Halifax (3/5)

3. Social Conditions in Halifax 1852-1900

Halifax hoped to become the centre of a new diocese in 1875, which meant it would have become a city just like Wakefield in 1888 (the eventual ecclesiastical centre), Leeds in 1893 and Bradford in 1897. It failed in its attempt and remained a town but the efforts it made showed the place that some in Halifax believed it had in Victorian England. As with other places in Britain Halifax went through a period of transformation in the second part of the nineteenth century. The British economy remained strong until the mid 1870s and then started to decline. The textile industry was one of the worst hit as countries such as Germany and the United States proved to be rivals for Britain. Textiles remained an important part of the economy in Halifax but the worries experienced in that sector led to diversification of industry and Halifax became known as the ‘town of a hundred trades’. Included within this was John Mackintosh whose confectionary business later became the largest toffee-manufacturing firm in the world. The failure to gain city status did not stop Halifax from developing as a town and this period was something of a golden age in its history.

This chapter will look at whether social conditions were affected by this mixed period of prosperity and uncertainty. It will see whether there were improvements in housing, death and disease rate and sanitation by looking at the work of the town Corporation and individuals. Firstly, it will discuss how Halifax changed in terms of size and population, the social conditions will then be examined whilst also looking at the situation in the rest of Britain will be looked at for comparison to see where Halifax fitted in.

The population of Halifax continued its steady growth in the last half of the nineteenth century. As seen in the previous chapter the population in 1851 stood at 32,101[1]. Ten years later in the census of 1861 it is given as 36,437[2] and by the time the 1891 census was taken there were 58,456[3] people living in Halifax (see Graph 3.1 in Appendix C). The major increase in this period occurred between 1870 and 1890. There were a number of reasons for this. Birth rates were increasing as young people married sooner so had more children, the death rate was decreasing as health care improved and people were migrating into the area. Migration into the area continued throughout the period. Taking 1861 as an example, the census shows that in Halifax there were 225 people born in London, 1210 born in Lancashire, 284 born in Scotland, 2062 born in Ireland and 84 people born in ‘foreign parts’ living there at the time along with people from many other English counties and a few Welsh[4]. The number of Irish is especially interesting as they usually ended up living in the poorest conditions in the towns and this was no different in Halifax. The physical geography of Halifax was also changing. The borough of Halifax grew as nearby townships were incorporated. These were Skircoat Green, Siddal and Boothtown in 1865 and Ovenden, Illingworth, Mixenden, Bradshaw and Ogden in 1892. This naturally increased the population and enlarged the concerns of the Corporation.

More houses were needed to accommodate the increase in population. According to the census of 1851 the total number of houses in Halifax (inhabited, uninhabited and being built) was 6425[5]. By 1871 this number had more than doubled to 14,984[6] and by 1891 the figure was 23,806 houses[7]. There are drawbacks to using census as evidence for housing; they were taken at ten year intervals so do not take into account building and demolishing activity during that time. However it can be plainly seen that the amount of housing in Halifax, regardless of its condition, was growing at a rapid rate.

With the amount of housing in Halifax increasing over the period the Corporation made an effort to remedy the conditions in working-class housing. However there were still sections of poor housing. The area around the parish church contained the slums of Halifax and here the housing was worst. It remained in the conditions described by the Ranger report for much of the period and it was only in the early 1890s that the Corporation began to deal with it. The Medical Officer of Health (MOH used hereafter) report for 1893 says that the Houses of the Working Classes Act was put into operation in 1891 and that ‘four unhealthy areas were at once chosen…[and that] two of them were cleared’[8]. However it goes onto say that ‘the conditions of those areas is very much as it was a year ago’[9] so progress was slow and ‘[o]nly a part of the benefits intended by the demolition of property [had] been realised’[10]. Clearly the problems of slums in Halifax remained throughout the period and it was only at the end of the century that the council started to make headway.

The Corporation made a concerted effort to make improvements even though the problems of slum conditions remained. The Sanitary Inspection reports that formed part of the MOH reports included information on the removal of nuisances. The 1882 report gives information on 2,153 nuisances removed (leaving 279 ‘on the books’, an improvement on the 328 the year before)[11]. The matters dealt with included 16 overcrowded houses, 108 houses cleansed and 20 cases of water in the cellar[12]. Other nuisances handled included defective drains in and around houses and ashpits, privies and goux and water closets. The 1893 report gives more detail and a comparison with 1892. In 1893 3,760 nuisances had been seen to including 47 overcrowded houses (35 in 1892) and 119 houses requiring cleansing (184 in 1892)[13]. In the ten years between the two reports there was an increase in nuisances reported. However this does not indicate a deterioration in housing conditions. The number of nuisances removed also increased and the reports detail the nuisances reported. The people of Halifax became more concerned about their surroundings thus the Sanitary Department had more ‘nuisances’ reported to them.

Sadly, though, it was beyond the means of most of the working classes. Even those who reported ‘nuisances’ to the Corporation and had them rectified had to contend with poorly built houses. As with most places at the time the majority of working-class housing in Halifax was built by small firms and individuals who either could not or would not pay any large amounts for building materials. Therefore the accommodation built by them was lacking in quality, tended to be back-to-back and money saved by reducing the sanitary requirements. Added to this was the persistence of cellar dwellings. They continued to be built until 1869 and lived in for the rest of the period. Circumstances prevented many in Halifax from improving their conditions. Poor quality housing but with cheap rents was always a more realistic situation than better housing that cost more.

The changing conditions of housing in Britain overall depended on the area. In some places a particular type of housing was criticised and in others it was accepted as being the most suitable for the area. The best example of this would be back-to-back housing. Most places prohibited the building of this type of housing, such as Liverpool in 1864 and Nottingham by the 1875, believing them to be a contributing fact to poor housing. However, places like Leeds and Bradford carried on building them well into the twentieth century. They were very much a West Riding way of life and occurred in most industrial towns of that region from the large settlements like Leeds and Bradford to the small towns like Elland and Brighouse. As noted in Chapter One, Halifax was consistent with its area and remained that ways throughout the period.

Rodgers neatly sums up the debate as to the extent improvement took place in housing. He mentions two different views. The ‘optimists’, who he gives as Tarn, Burnett, Gauldie and Daunton, argue that amenities such as running water, gas and water closets, improved structural standards and suburban developments are evidence of better housing, particularly after 1860[14]. The ‘pessimists’, Wohl, Stedman Jones and Rodgers, do not deny that there were improvements but say they only happened to the wealthier and secure members of the working classes[15]. Halifax falls into the second category. Improvements took place but it tended to be for the more affluent, or at least financially secure, like at Akroydon and West Hill Park (to be discussed next), rather than the slum areas.

There was a small section of the working class in Halifax that did not have to rely in the activities of the Corporation in changing the conditions in which they lived. The employees of Edward Akroyd’s mills at Haley Hill had the benefit of working for one of Halifax’s most generous residents at the time. Carrying from his earlier experiment at Copley he planned another village for his workers in the late 1850s. He had noted that the houses of his workpeople were ‘of an inferior class, inconvenient and ill-ventilated, and for the most part with only a single living-room and chamber, however numerous may be the inhabitants’[16]. His solution to this was to build Akroydon. The initial plan was for the erection of 350 houses but this did not come to fruition and the eventual number of houses was much less, coming to forty-nine houses in all, sadly showing Akroyd’s dreams were too far-reaching to be achieved. Building started in March 1861 and by the time Akroyd wrote his book (1862) two blocks, eighteen houses, were completed and inhabited with others in the process of being built. By 1866 when J. Hole wrote his book thirty-eight houses were finished. The houses tended to consist of a living room, scullery and two bedrooms with additional rooms in the more expensive option. All accommodation had a water supply, ash-place and convenience in the yard, gas supply and proper drainage. Akroyd described the occupants of the new houses as ‘satisfied’ and finding their homes as ‘commodious in every respect with an abundance of light’[17]. Though Akroyd naturally was biased about the success of his venture the benefits to his workers cannot be underestimated. As well as the obvious positive impact to their physical health there would have been a psychological impact as well. To go from poorly built, cramped, insanitary houses to brand new ones with more than one room and amenities that did not have to be shared with the neighbours would have been a tremendous experience. The feeling of having one’s own home was strong. Akroyd mentions that they were pleased by ‘the insertion of the owner’s monogram or device, on a stone shield, placed over the door, with the intent to give individuality and a mark of distinction to each dwelling’[18]. To that must be added a feeling of stability; a permanent reminder of who resided there was above the door for everyone to see.

Akroyd was not the only businessman in Halifax to undertake such a scheme. Around the same time as Akroydon was being built John Crossley began his model housing development at West Hill Park. These dwellings were created to ‘encourage thrifty artisans, clerks, and others to obtain freehold dwellings for themselves’[19] so targeted the more affluent lower middle classes and upper working classes rather than the mill workers of Akroyd’s project. To suit the intended residents the houses contained a ‘spacious family living room…a good scullery, small cellar below and three bedrooms above’[20] deemed suitable for artisan families. However as the actual inhabitants were of a ‘higher class’ the layout of the houses were deemed ‘unsuitable’[21] and other blocks were built to also include a parlour. All houses had ventilation flues, steam flues and smoke flues to enable good ventilation as well as gas and water supply.

The Akroyds and Crossleys were also responsible for other charitable acts in Halifax, most stemming from their religious beliefs. The Crossleys were inspired in their philanthropic activities by their mother who believed that ‘if the Lord does bless us at this place, the poor shall taste of it’[22]. She, and her husband John, were non-conformists (Congregationalists) and taught their sons to help the poor. Akroyd built All Souls Church in 1855-9 near the planned housing site before he had even started building houses. The Crossley brothers, John, Joseph and Sir Francis, also provided churches for the town – Park Congregational Church near West Hill Park in 1869 and contributed to building the Square Congregational Church in the late 1850s. As well as erecting places of worship the Crossleys founded other institutions, resulting in part from their beliefs. All three were responsible for the founding of the Crossley Orphanage in 1864 for boys aged two to fifteen years and girls aged up to seventeen years. In addition to this Joseph and Sir Francis also founded a number of almshouses. Sir Francis’s reasons can be summed up from the introduction of the rules and regulation of the almshouses which read ‘These Almshouses have been erected by Frank Crossley, Esq., “in testimony of his gratitude to Almighty God, and with the view of benefiting those of his fellow townsmen and others who may be in need of assistance hereby provided for them.”’[23]. These almshouses were built in 1855 and were intended for those over sixty years and unable to work. As well as attending to the needs of the poor the Crossleys, Akroyd and other businessmen like Henry Charles McCrea created a selection of public parks. The first was the People’s Park in 1857 and was followed by Savile Park in 1866, Shroggs Park in 1881 and Akroyd Park in 1887, the latter being created from his estate at Bankfield (Akroyd died that year). Another, West View Park, was being developed from Highroad Well Moor at the end of the century and would open in 1904. These were formed with the intention of providing a place for people of Halifax, especially the working classes, to wander and relax after their hard work.

However, from the sources available Halifax appears to be lacking in philanthropic activities in the period compared with other places in Britain. It had model housing, certainly, and there it was ahead of most towns as ventures such as these were limited outside of London. It also had a few institutions. What appears to be missing, though, are the charitable organisations and societies that existed elsewhere, such as visiting societies. It was possible that these, or similar, did exist in Halifax as the nature of the sources used meant that they were not noted, which highlights the limitations of the sources utilised.

The disease rates for Halifax remained similar to those of the 1840s and 1850s at the beginning of the period but towards the end of the century there was an improvement. There were still epidemics, for example 1881 saw a scarlet fever epidemic with 102 deaths that year compared with 44 in 1880 and 21 in 1882[24] and for much of 1893 there was a smallpox epidemic[25]. However, from the late 1870s onwards Halifax on average preformed better than the general picture for England and Wales. The zymotic death rate for Halifax in 1882 was 1.3 per thousand of the population compared with general rate of 2.64 for England and Wales[26] and had the lowest in the MOH report’s comparison of twenty-one large towns (where the average was 3.6)[27]. In 1893 the figure was 1.7 per thousand[28], a little higher than preceding years due to the smallpox epidemic. The average figure for thirty-three large towns, a compared by the report, was 3.2 per thousand[29].

The general death rate or Halifax in 1882 was 20.1 per thousand of the population[30]. This was well below the average for twenty-one large towns in England which was 26.6[31]. As a comparison the figures for its near industrial neighbours was 21.2 for Bradford and 23.2 for Leeds[32]. London had a rate of 21.4 and the worst were Liverpool at 26.5 and Manchester at 26.8[33]. In 1893 the figures were 17.4 for Halifax, still below the average of 21.6 (for thirty-three large towns this time)[34]. The figures for the other were 21.0 for Bradford, 22.3 for Leeds, 21.3 for London, 24.9 for Manchester and 27.3 for Liverpool[35]. The data used in the dissertation is limited to the years 1882 and 1893 (the 1882 report also touching upon 1881 and 1880) for this period so only a partial condition can be formed. However, for these years Halifax is amongst the lowest for general rates of death and zymotic disease rates of death and the figures for 1893 are lower than 1882. Therefore it can be deduced that death and disease rates generally decreased as the period went on, that Halifax featured on the lower end of the scale when comparing with other industrial towns and cities and that it remained below the national average.

Although the statistical evidence shows an improvement in health it must not be ignored that disease and death still featured highly in the lives of the people of Halifax and remained a concern for the Corporation. Disease remained a problem in the worst areas of the town. However, as the century went on the Corporation became more adept at dealing with disease by the thorough cleansing of infected houses and removing the victims to hospitals when necessary. Halifax had more success in reducing rates of disease and death than some places in part due to the better sanitary conditions. However, rates did fall in most towns and cities, even where the rates were the highest. Manchester and Liverpool tended to perform the worst and even they had reduced rates towards the end of the period.

As well as the cleansing of houses the Corporation also undertook other means of improving conditions. Gradually as the period went on it took control of more matters such as closets and drains and this allowed them to deal with problems more effectively as they no longer relied on private firms and individuals. At the start ashpits were the main form of toilet arrangement but as the century progressed these were converted to the Goux system[36]. In the 1882 MOH report it is stated that were 516 additional Goux closets registered with the Sanitary Department and 387 of those had been converted from the old system[37]. In 1893 there were 984 Goux closets registered and 188 ashpits changed to the Goux system[38]. However, the Goux system was not the best. Most towns in Britain preferred the water closet, a more efficient way, but Halifax lacked these. Even in 1911 only a quarter of houses had water closets and most remained without them until the interwar years. In addition to this the Sanitary Department was responsible for lime washing privies, closets and cellars amounts other buildings as an attempt to make them more hygienic. For example in 1882 five cellars were lime washed[39], in 1892, 525 privies and in 1893, 287 cowsheds were lime washed[40]. ‘Offensive accumulations’ were also a part of the work of the Sanitary Department. This included clearing away the matter that gathered around closets, privies and middensteads. They also dealt with cesspools. These measure were beneficial to the inhabitants of Halifax, both for aesthetic reasons since the dirty, stinking matter was removed from where they lived, and for health reasons as one source of disease was reduced.

The work of the Sanitary Department expanded as the period wore on. In 1881 the yards of streets swept during the year was 19,301[41]. This figure increased, with some lows, as time went on. In 1887 it was 24,234, in 1891 it was 28,869, in 1895 it was 32,204 and in 1899 it was 30,997[42]. Of course it has to be taken into account the physical growth of Halifax, which added streets, but it does show that the Corporation attempted to improve living conditions by removing rubbish from the streets. As well as helping to prevent disease it also improved the visual appearance of Halifax over the period. It was a thriving Victorian town and the appearance of being a clean place fostered pride in the people of Halifax.

Sanitary conditions in the rest of Britain were like housing in that it varied depending on the place. The day-to-day sanitary requirements were left to the local authority. This meant that it was down to their initiative more than anything else was when it came to making improvements. Most places, though, were trying to make alternation to the state of the time under their jurisdiction.

The Halifax Corporation made increasing efforts to improve the conditions in the town as the period proceeded. Progress was slow at first but in the last twenty-five years of the century it made significant headway. In the environment it had success in dealing with the ‘nuisances’ and in attempting to develop the hygiene requirements. Those who were affected by the projects of Akroyd and Crossley were the most fortunate as they had the benefit of inhabiting some of the better housing provided for the working classes. However, the problem of poor quality housing and slums remained during the period and it was only in the 1890s that the Corporation was able to make a concerted start on clearance. The same applied to sanitation. The Corporation tried its best, it made changes to the drainage and sewerage and tried to keep the streets clean but improvements were only gradual. It had more success in reducing the rates of disease and death. Although disease still played an important part the Corporation was able to reduce rates significantly and Halifax tended to score below the national average for death and disease rates. Overall, the period was a learning process for the Corporation as it was in many places. It was a period of trial and error as it attempted to find the most suitable way of dealing with the problems it faced. Halifax was fortunate in that it did have success in many areas and conditions in Halifax did improve.

[1] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1851, http://www.fromweavertoweb.org, last accessed 21/02/2008. All subsequent census referenced are taken from the same website and were accessed on the same website on the same date.

[2] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1861.

[3] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1891.

[4] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1861.

[5] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1851.

[6] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1871.

[7] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1891.

[8] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1893, p.22.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1882, p.12.

[12] Ibid.

[13] ‘Sanitary Department Report’, p.4 in Medical Officer of Health Report, 1893.

[14]R. Rodgers, Housing in Urban Britain, 1780–1914, p.12.

[15] Ibid.

[16] E. Akroyd, On Improved Dwellings for the Working Classes with a Plan for Building Them in Connection with Benefit Building Societies, 1862, p.6.

[17] Ibid, p.12.

[18] Ibid.

[19] J. Hole, Homes of the Working Classes with Suggestions for Their Improvement, 1866, p.75.

[20] Ibid, p.76.

[21] Ibid, p.77.

[22] From J.A. Hargreaves, Halifax, p.78.

[23] Rules and Regulations for the Residents of the Crossley Almshouses, c.1855.

[24] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1882, p.4.

[25] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1893, p.10.

[26] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1882, p.4.

[27] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1882, p.6.

[28] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1893, p.5.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1882, p.6.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1893, p.5.

[35] Ibid.

[36] The Goux system was the invention of Frenchman, Pierre Nicholas Goux. It was a domestic waste-disposal system which involved the waste being collected into tubs, compacted by large plugs and then covered by deodorising powder before being removed and disposed of. Halifax was one of the first towns to use the system, starting in 1871 with the Corporation taking of the Goux Depot from the Goux Company in 1876. The system was still in use in the early twentieth century even though water closets were a much better system.

[37] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1882, p.11.

[38] ‘Sanitary Department Report’, p.2 in Medical Officer of Health Report, 1893.

[39] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1882, p.12.

[40] ‘Sanitary Department Report’, p.4 in Medical Officer of Health Report, 1893.

[41] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1882, p.12.

[42] Medical Officer of Health Report, 1901, p.95.

Victorian Halifax (2/5)

2. Social Conditions in Halifax in 1851


For the Victorians 1851 was the year of the Great Exhibition. It was held in the newly built Crystal Palace in London, a huge edifice made from glass. Goods came from all over the British Empire showing the diversity and opulence of the largest empire on Earth. Britain at the time was the richest country in the world. It was the leader in commerce and industry and there was a great demand for British products with little competition from elsewhere. The industrial North was growing rapidly and Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire had established themselves as textile centres. The Great Exhibition was a celebration of the prominence of Britain and gave Halifax a chance to display the textiles it was known for that could not be missed. Fancy damasks and fine fabrics were produced for the world to marvel over. For Halifax to be a part of this showed its position in Britain at the time. Its location in the industrial West Riding and long-established foothold in the textile industry meant it played an important part in the economy. During the period in question the Akroyds of Halifax owned one of the largest worsted-manufacturing firms in the country and the Crossleys had a very successful carpet business.

This chapter will consider the social conditions of Halifax around 1851 to see how the workers who participated in Halifax’s industry lived. It will look first at the structure of the Halifax local authority. Then it will examine the state of the housing, streets, water supply, sewerage and sanitary conditions in general. It will then find out what efforts were made towards easing the circumstances of the poor in terms of philanthropy and poor relief. It will end with a discussion of the rest of Britain to see how Halifax compared.

‘For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay…Near to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke…[T]hey were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly built houses…Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory…puffing out ‘unparliamentary’ smoke.’[1]

Though this is an account of the fictional Milton in Mrs Gaskell’s North and South (published 1854-5) a visitor to Halifax in the 1850s would have come face-to-face with a similar landscape of houses, mills and clouds of smoke except the houses of Halifax were in, according to T.J. Maslen writing in 1843, ‘little, miserable, narrow, ill-looking streets’[2] at this time rather than like the regularly built streets of Milton. Like Milton and other, real-life examples at this time, Halifax had become one of the thriving industrial towns of northern England. It had grown in terms of people, industry and area in the past half century.

In the 1851 census the population of Halifax stood at 32,101, almost triple its 1801 figure (11,224)[3] (see Graph 2.1 in Appendix B for the full figures for 1801 to 1851). This was down to a number of reasons including natural population increase and migration from surrounding areas in search of employment. It was part of the process of urbanisation and was happening elsewhere. The mills and factories offered jobs and attracted people from the surrounding countryside, especially the young who had no prospects back at home. Halifax was also one of the towns of the industrial West Riding that the Irish immigrants were attracted to and in 1851 the Irish community in Halifax (and Skircoat) numbered 1169[4]. These people and other from elsewhere helped increase the population of Halifax in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Halifax received its charter of incorporation in 1848. This set up the Corporation as the local government of Halifax. Before this the town had been under the guidance of a body of trustees appointed in an Act of 1823. The Corporation in 1851 was made up of the Mayor, 10 Aldermen and 30 Common Councillors. The Corporation consisted of a number of sub-committees. These included the Board of Works, the Finance Committee, the Watch Committee, the Waterworks Committee, the Improvement Committee and the Sanitary Committee. The Board of Works was responsible for the repair of streets, sewers and watercourses plus the running of various public works and amenities, such as lighting. The Finance Committee managed the income and expenditure of the Corporation. The Watch Committee looked after the police and fire services. The Waterworks Committee was concerned with the water supply of Halifax. The Improvement Committee dealt with the improvements needs, especially the streets. The Sanitary Committee enforced various pieces of legislation and undertook measures that were associated with the public health of the borough. It can be seen from the presence of these different committees that Halifax had a number of foundations present in 1851 that could be utilised and improved upon during the remainder of the century. It shall be seen whether they were effective in the 1850s as the condition of Halifax is discussed in the rest of the chapter.

The work of the Corporation became part of an inquiry in the beginning of 1851. As a result of a petition sent in January 1851 by a number of ratepayers in Halifax (735 signed it), William Ranger was sent by the General Board of Health to investigate the conditions there. The petition asked for the implementation of the 1848 Public Health Act to the whole borough. The Public Health Act allowed for boards of health to be set up and for medical officers of health to be appointed. The Act had just been applied to the Northowram and Southowram because of an earlier inquiry by Ranger.

The petition had been sent due to the Town Council’s rejection of the proposal to apply the Act to the whole of Halifax. The Council believed that it was unnecessary as it already had sufficient powers. A proportion of the ratepayers thought otherwise so submitted the petition. This led to Ranger’s arrival in February 1851 and his report entitled Report to the General Board of Health, on a Preliminary Inquiry as to the Sewage, Drainage and Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Conditions of the Inhabitants of the Town of Halifax in the County of York. This contained observations made by him and others on the condition of Halifax. It ended with his recommendations; one of those was that the Public Health Act should be applied to Halifax.

What conditions would Ranger have encountered? The state of housing was a pressing concern at the time. The amount of housing had increased in Halifax due to the demands of a growing population of workers. Land near to the mills was used to build dwellings on so the inhabitants were near their place of work. The traditional closes and lanes around the parish church was another area. Here the residents experienced overcrowding and the houses were in poor condition.

Mr Garlick, the medical officer for the township, gave an account of the housing of the poor of Halifax. He described it as ‘frequently closely built, badly ventilated and lighted, and abounding in accumulations of offensive matter’[5]. He was much concerned about the ventilation of dwellings saying that it was ‘neither understood nor regarded’ as the windows were rarely opened and the chimney often blocked[6]. This fits in with the Victorian notion of the harmfulness of bad air and Ranger was equally concerned. He noted that the working classes lived in the ‘most close, confined quarters of town, where the fresh air has the greatest difficulty in penetrating’ and the houses were ‘surrounded by collections of filth and refuse which contaminate the air’[7]. The houses were overall in ‘bad repair, deficient in the accommodations required by common decency, and still more in those of purification ventilation’[8]. The Victorian preoccupation with moral conditions also featured in his view. The picture created is of an environment that was cramped and dirty where the air bore the mark of the multitude of people living there. Neither was it just the older dwellings that suffered. Ranger reported that the proper ventilation was also lacked by the newer houses, especially those built as back-to-backs.

Unfortunately, the habitations mentioned above were not the worst. As with many other places at the time, Halifax had a considerable number of cellar dwellings. At the time of the Ranger report there were 318 (six empty) with 958 people living within them[9]. Mr Garlick believed them to be ‘unfit for human beings to live in’ as they were ‘provided with neither air, light, nor ventilation’ and were ‘almost always damp, dirty, and unhealthy’[10]. They consisted of a single room usually around 13ft by 12ft in area and 7ft in height[11] and had the potential to be overcrowded. These subterraneous dwellings were inhabited by the poorest and their presence hindered attempts to improve. For many they were the only shelter they could afford and preferable to living on the streets or in the workhouse.

The mode of shelter for the migrant worker was the lodging house. Here lived those who had come to Halifax in search of temporary employment. They were seen as places of immorality as they were also used by vagrants and prostitutes; Ranger described many as ‘dens of vice’[12]. The attempts to improve them by legislation had not been very effective. It was often a problem getting landlords to cooperate. Ranger recommended that Halifax followed the examples of other places that had managed to make a difference by saying that the most effective way of ‘preventing the evil’[13] was by model lodging houses ‘similar to those which have been erected in London’[14].

The Ranger report made connections between the conditions of housing and the prevalence of disease. Mr Garlick called overcrowding a ‘fertile cause of disease’[15] and contributed many cases of sickness to the filthiness of the surrounding area. He had noted that the areas where some improvement had taken place had seen a reduction in cases of sickness. The town was often visited by diseases that, in the terminology of the day, were classed as ‘zymotic’. These included smallpox, measles and fever. There was occurrences of typhus and typhoid and had been a cholera epidemic in 1849.

The sanitary conditions also contributed to the rates of disease in Halifax. Dr Kenny had noted that the lack of drainage in Union Street meant that it was the part of town generally affected the worst when disease broke out. Some progression had taken place. The Sanitary Committee had attempted to improve the sewerage and drainage systems in the area and had undertaken inspections of problematic areas. However, their efforts were limited and the Mayor, John Crossley, commented that although the Council was concerned about the condition of the sewerage they were prevented from doing anything due to ‘the want of power under the Local Act, and from the lack of adequate funds’[16]. This was a major problem for the Council. They were limited by what they were able to do. This is why some members petitioned for the application of the Public Health Act. The Act increased the powers of the local authority.

The major outlet for the sewerage of the town was the Hebble Brook. This contributed greatly to the poor conditions in Halifax. It flowed near to, or through, much of the working-class housing yet was subjected to a range of pollutants. Not only did sewage pour into it but also the waste from the many mills and factories along its banks, including the Crossley’s mills at Dean Clough and Akroyd’s Bowling Dyke Mill. Even upstream in places like Ovenden mills were using the Brook as an outlet. It was simply an open sewer running through Halifax. Dr Alexander noted that ‘a considerable amount of sickness may be almost constantly found amongst the houses on the side of the stream’[17]. The brook also contaminated the water supply. As it was the people of Halifax had trouble obtaining water. Many people depended on wells and these were shared by hundreds. The Victoria Reservoir had been created in 1848 and that provided water for some but the majority of Halifax found it hard to find clean water. The need for improvement was recognised but again the Corporation was powerless to act. It was clear, though, something had to be done.

The condition of the streets was another cause for concern. In residential areas vegetable and animal matter was left for months to decay around dwelling places and it was not much better in commercial parts. There were also concerns about the removal of other nuisances. The report of the Sanitary Committee asked whether the Corporation could ‘adopt measures to more perfectly and effectually remove the night soil…cleanse the ash-pits and take away other nuisances’[18]. The collections of such matter around places where people lived and worked added another hazard to health. The rotting debris polluted the air and caused disease.

There had been attempts to cleanse the streets and perform general improvements but progress was slow. T.J. Maslen had complained about ‘shabby and filthy’[19] streets in 1843 though admitted that Halifax was ‘not as dirty as Leeds’[20] but said that ‘for mud and slush [he would] match them against the worst street of ancient London’[21]. There had obviously been little change in the 1840s as there was still concern about the condition of the streets in 1851. The Corporation had hired men to scavenge the streets until 1850 and after had a professional scavenger under contract. The total number of streets cleaned were sixty-seven, leaving ninety-one unswept[22]. This obviously left room for improvement as less than half the streets were being cleaned.

The Corporation was not the only section of Halifax concerned about trying to improve conditions. It was around this time that Edward Akroyd had made his first foray into the building of model dwellings for his workforce (his crowning point would come later in the 1860s with Akroydon). Building work began near his mills in Copley in 1848 and the initial part was finished in 1853. It consisted of three blocks of houses. They were back-to-backs but Akroyd made sure they were well provided with ventilation. By the 1860s the village had allotment gardens, a recreation ground, a school with play yards and a church. Akroyd called his ventures his ‘experiment’ in social science and one of the intentions was the ‘improvement of their [his workers’] social conditions, by fitting up their houses with every requisite comfort and convenience’[23]. Akroyd was concerned about the conditions the workers lived in and wished to make a contributing to easing them. Sir Titus Salt was influenced partly by Akroyd’s work at Copley when creating Saltaire.

The initiative at Copley only affected a small minority of the working classes in Halifax. For most of the poor the only option in times of hardship was the Halifax Union Workhouse which had opened on Gibbet Lane in 1840 to replace the old workhouse. Also erected was a fever hospital. This was the only hospital in Halifax available for the lower orders apart from the Halifax Infirmary, which provided some relief though there had been complaints of it being unsanitary. Up to the early 1850s there were concerns that the fever hospital was reaching saturation point along with the rest of the workhouse. There were worries about the costs of running the workhouse and the provisions for poor relief. However, this had started to ease by the period in question, partly due to the workhouse coming under control of the Corporation and partly because of the increased prosperity of Britain.

The conditions in other industrial towns and cities were very much the same as in Halifax. The housing was of poor condition. The trend of building back-to-backs was associated with the West Riding of Yorkshire so Halifax was consistent with its area of the country. Leeds was especially known for back-to-back housing and carried on building in that style for well beyond the period in question. The arrangement of housing in courts occurred in most towns and cities in this period. Like Halifax they tended to be in the traditional core of settlements and were either the older housing or the housing that had been built in the early part of the century to accommodate the explosion in population. Much of this housing was badly built or in poor condition and lacked ventilation, hence why ventilation had become such a concern for Victorian reformers. Older accommodation also lacked a water supply and sewage outlet. The working-class housing found in Halifax had parallels all around the country.

Cellar dwellings, too, were found in most industrial areas. They were used as residences for the very poor and as a way to accommodate the excess population due to overcrowding. Liverpool and Manchester were the worst hit, often because of Irish immigrants. The Irish tended to occupy the worst places and Halifax was no different; Mr Garlick noted that the houses of the Irish poor were the worst[24]. Engels in 1845 reported that Liverpool had around 45,000 people (a fifth of the population) living in 7,826 cellars[25] and in Manchester had about twelve percent of the population living in cellars in the 1840s[26]. Liverpool had made efforts throughout the 1840s to clear the dwellings and it had closed over 5,000 cellars by 1851. Unfortunately a similar strategy was not followed in Manchester until the 1860s and nor did William Ranger refer to any attempts made in Halifax. The conditions in these cellars were the same all over. They were damp, unsanitary and ill-ventilated so Halifax was no exception.

The rapid rise in population and subsequent overcrowding had an impact on the general environment in urban areas. Halifax was no different in that respect. The large amount of people put pressure on the few water and sewerage systems in existence and as most places lacked such amenities there were serious problems. The demand for water was great but many places could only rely on wells. Waste disposal was also a challenge. Waste gathered around houses because the poor could not afford to have it taken away or it was left to rot in cesspools, which were a common feature everywhere. These were rarely cleaned out at this time and some places, like Leeds, did not frequently clear out its cesspools until later on in the century. All of this created a fine breeding ground for disease and, like Halifax, most places had high rates of disease and death; the cholera epidemic that occurred in Halifax in 1848-9 happened nationwide.

The means of improving conditions was hard to come by. Local authorities were often powerless, Halifax was no exception to that, and it had been only recently that the central government had become concerned. A laissez-faire approach dominated at the time and though mainly applied to the economy many of the elite stood by it in other cases. Many members of the Corporation believed that they were doing an effective job on their own without interference from central government in the form of the Public Health Act. This had only started to change because of the studies undertaken by Edwin Chadwick. He was responsible for bringing the problem of public health to general attention. The Public Health Act was one of the few pieces of legislation passed that dealt with the conditions that people lived in.

Some local authorities did attempt to make improvements. Manchester passed the Police Regulation Act in 1844. This increased the powers of the Corporation in matters concerned with public health. Two years later Liverpool passed a Sanitary Act that enabled the Corporation to act as a health authority. It became the first place to appoint a Medical Officer of Health. However, legislation such as this was usually limited to the large settlements like Liverpool, Manchester, and others like London. Halifax was not on the same scale as these places.

Halifax appears to have differed from the norm in the matter of the ratepayers’ dislike of improvement. Both A. Briggs and A.S. Wohl say that the ratepayers wanted to keep the rates low so were often opposed to any improvement as this would mean rates became higher[27]. However, in Halifax it was the ratepayers that, as mentioned earlier, sent the petition asking that the Public Health Act be applied. Though it was not from all the ratepayers in Halifax it had been a considerable number and these wished to seen an improvement.

With this in mind it is strange to consider that Halifax lagged behind in voluntary ways of helping. Many places at this time had societies that visited and helped the poor, for example the Metropolitan Visiting and Relief Society had been set up in 1843. There does not appear to have been similar societies operating in Halifax at the time. It appears that the only organisation involved in poor relief was the local workhouse, which was hardly voluntary. The only undertaking that was ahead of the majority of Britain was the model village built at Copley. There had been similar ventures taking place in other places, mainly in London, but Akroyd was one of the first outside the metropolis. The majority of model dwellings appeared later in the century.

William Ranger recommended that the Public Health Act be applied to the borough and this was done in August 1851. It is easy to see why he thought it should be. The working-class houses of Halifax were generally in poor condition and ill-ventilated. Refuse gathered in the streets and around dwellings. The water supply and drainage was often nonexistent and in a bad state where it did. There were many open sewers and drains and the main body of water, the Hebble Brook, was so polluted that it was little different to a sewer. The conditions created widespread disease often resulting in death but little could be done because the local authority lacked the power.

However, Halifax was no different to other urban areas in Britain. Most places had terrible housing and streets with neglected sanitation. Epidemics of disease tended to be nationwide and overall rates of death and disease were high. Halifax only differed in the attitudes of its ratepayers and, unfortunately, it lacked voluntary efforts to ease the lives of the working classes present in other places. It had become a forerunner in the matter of model villages, however, with the development of Copley.

Overall, Halifax was in an unhealthy and unpleasant condition in 1851 and much was needed to be done. The housing needed to be improved, as did the sanitary conditions and the provision of services as many problems were being caused by the deficiencies in these areas. What was undertaken and whether it was successful shall be seen later.

[1] E. Gaskell, North and South, p55.

[2] T.J. Maslen, ‘Halifax’ from Suggestions for the Improvement of our Towns and Houses, 1843, p.1

[3] ‘Census of Yorkshire’, 1851, http://www.fromweavertoweb.org, accessed 04/06/2007. The website is an online version of the Halifax Archive Service of Halifax Central Library.

[4] J. A. Hargreaves, ‘Catholic Communities in Calderdale in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’ in Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society, 3 (1995) p59.

[5] Mr Garlick’s Statement in William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, on a Preliminary Inquiry as to the Sewage, Drainage and Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Conditions of the Inhabitants of the Town of Halifax in the County of York, p.17.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, p.35.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, p.31.

[10] Garlick in William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, p.18.

[11] William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, Appendix C, p.115-120.

[12] Ibid, p.32.

[13] Ibid, p.31.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Garlick in William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, p.18.

[16] John Crossley’s Statement in William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, p.44.

[17] Dr Alexander’s Statement in William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, p.54.

[18] Report of the Sanitary Committee in William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, p.21.

[19] Maslen, ‘Halifax’, p.1.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, p.2.

[22] William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, p.56.

[23] E. Akroyd, On Improved Dwellings for the Working Classes with a Plan for Building Them in Connection with Benefit Building Societies, 1862, p.4.

[24] Garlick in William Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, p.17.

[25] Quote from Engels in P. Lawless & F. Brown, Urban Growth and Change in Britain, p.24.

[26] A.S. Wohl, Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain, p.297.

[27] A. Briggs, Victorian Cities, p.41, Wohl, Endangered Lives, p.171.

This is my final year dissertation.

Working Class Social Conditions in Victorian Halifax, c.1850 to c.1901.

1. Introduction.


‘The town of Halifax, the capital of the very populous parish of the same name, within the wapentake of Morley, in the West Riding of the county of York, is situate in about 53° 35’ of north latitude, and 1° 50’ west longitude. It lies 14 miles to the S.W. of the town of Leeds, and 7½ of Bradford; 16 W.N.W of Wakefield, and 12 miles from the eastern borders of Lancashire. It may likewise be said to be on the line of communication between the ports of Liverpool and Hull’[1].

These words giving a precise location of Halifax were written by Dr Alexander in his report on the physical character of the district in the William Ranger report of 1851. Its location in the country, which can be further seen on the map which is included as Appendix A puts Halifax firmly in the industrial north. Its proximity to places such as Manchester, Preston and Leeds meant it shared the prosperity brought by the Industrial Revolution. Textiles were Halifax’s speciality and had been since the fifteenth century when Halifax turned from a village into a town. It had grown as a textile centre and its importance crowned by the opening of the Piece Hall in 1779. This gave Halifax a place where the manufacturers and merchants of the area could perform their business thus giving Halifax a purpose.

This purpose makes Halifax an important area for research. It contributed to the growth of the British economy and the hegemony Britain achieved in the nineteenth century. It contained some of the leading businesses of the Victorian world and its name was synonymous with places such as Leeds and Preston, especially by 1850. It had the potential to become a city and though this was not realised, something usually blamed on the physical geography of Halifax, it is still a worthy case for investigation.

This dissertation will focus on the social conditions in Halifax to see how the people involved in this industrial town lived, especially the workers. The intention is to look at housing, sanitation, morbidity and mortality in the town and what was done by the local authority and others to change conditions in the period between 1851 and 1901. It is expected that an improvement in social conditions will be found to have taken place during these years and that Halifax was a better place to live in 1901 than in 1851. This will be done over three chapters. Chapter One will look at the conditions in Halifax at the time of the William Ranger investigation and report in 1851 into conditions in Halifax[2]. It will look at the state of housing, sanitary conditions and disease and death in Halifax and briefly the population and local government of the town. There will also be a discussion of what conditions were like in the rest of Britain to see how Halifax fitted in. Chapter Two will look at the period after the Ranger report up until the end of the century to see what, if any, improvements took place in Halifax. There will be a discussion of the model dwellings at Akroydon and West Hill Park. The overall conditions in the rest of Britain to see if Halifax conformed will be examined. Chapter Three will look at what Halifax was like in 1901, again focusing on housing, sanitation and death and disease. There is a comparison with 1851 to see how, or if, Halifax differed from that earlier time followed by a section that suggests reasons for the potential improvement. The dissertation will conclude with an assessment of whether social conditions in Halifax improved in the period 1851 to 1901.

[1] Dr. Alexander ‘Physical Character of the District’ quoted in W. Ranger, Report to the General Board of Health, on a Preliminary Inquiry as to the Sewage, Drainage and Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Conditions of the Inhabitants of the Town of Halifax in the County of York, 1851, p.9.

[2] William Ranger was sent by the General Board of Health to investigate conditions in Halifax because of a petition from some of the ratepayers in the town about applying the Public Health Act of 1848 to Halifax. The resulting report is of interest to the dissertation because it is a thorough indication of conditions in Halifax in 1851.

The Modernity of Nations

This is a essay I wrote in my 3rd year of university. It is three years old now but still remains a favourite. I really enjoyed researching and writing it.

It answered the question as to whether nations in a modern sense existed before the nineteenth century.

The modernity of nations is an issue that has had a long and varied debate. The term ‘nation’ has been given many different definitions to show whether it is a recent construct or whether it has a long history of use. Some historians, like the modernists (such as Hobsbawm and Gellner) believe that recent nationalism created nations whereas others (like Hastings) believe that the opposite is true. The modernity of nations has sometimes been used as an attack on nationalism, particularly after the World Wars, when active nationalism was seen as problematic and led to conflict. Denying that nations existed before the nineteenth century meant that nationalism was something that was new and a threat, using recent events such as the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany as evidence.

This essay will look at whether nations in the modern sense existed before the nineteenth century; that is whether nations are rooted in history or are a new concept. It shall begin by establishing what the ‘modern sense’ of nation is by looking at a dictionary definition. Then, pieces by Ernest Renan and Joseph Stalin will be looked at to see what two late nineteenth and early twentieth century definitions of ‘nation’ were, followed by a discussion of the ‘new’ versus ‘old’ debate, focusing on E.J. Hobsbawm (a modernist) and A. Hastings (an anti-modernist). The essay will then finish with a variety of case studies – England, France, America, Germany, Japan, Ethiopia and Ancient Greece – with the intention of reaching a conclusion as to whether nations existed in the modern sense before the nineteenth century.

First, a definition of what ‘nation’ means in the present time is needed. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a nation as ‘an extensive aggregate of persons, so closely associated with each other by common descent, language or history, [forming] a distinct race or people, usually organised as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory’[1]. From this it can be said that a nation has elements in common, namely that the people should have a shared history, language and descent. To this can be added religion and culture, also important in forming most modern nation, for example Scotland has taken pride in its Calvinist Presbyterian identity and Italy is proud of its cultural achievements of the Renaissance period. Lastly, as sense of there being an ‘Other’ has contributed to forming nations and national identities. Much emphasis has been placed on what a group of people is not, such as Scottish rather than English or Christian instead of Jewish, and it has been present in some form throughout history. These factors, then, are what make up the modern sense of what a ‘nation’ is.

Next is Ernest Renan’s definition of ‘nation’ from 1882. He was a French historian and gave a lecture that was entitled ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une Nation?’ (‘What is a Nation?’), partly in response to the unification of Germany in 1871. The fact that he was French adds another angle to the piece, the French Revolution, along with the American War of Independence, has long been given as the starting point of the modern nation so this may have influenced his writings. He believed that nations have existed in Europe since the break up of the Roman and Carolingian Empires in the early medieval period and will continue to exist. His argument rejects the idea that race, language, territory and religion are necessities for a nation; his example is that Switzerland was, and is, made up of different races, languages and religions but still considers itself a nation. His definition of what constitutes a nation is the possession of shared memories and history and the desire of the people to remain together, to him ‘nation’ is a spiritual principle[2]. In its context, it is an attack on the process of German unification, as that state came together because its people had a shared language, race and origins, so is not as relevant today. It is, however, a useful example of European nineteenth century thinking on what a nation was.

Stalin, leader of Soviet Russia from 1924 to 1953, had a different definition of ‘nation’. He said that it was ‘a historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture’[3] and says that all of these factors should be present in a nation. The piece does not mention religion, perhaps because the Communists did not believe in organised religion. His perspective in an interesting one, he was the dictator of an amalgamation of countries, the USSR, where the only desirable national identity was that of a Soviet worker, regardless of the ethnic minorities present there. This could be why he says Russia is not a nation because it does not share all his listed elements. He does not mention politics either, which is surprising as the USSR, if it was ever to be called a nation, had a definite, and uniting, political structure.

Hobsbawm, who says that nations did not exist in the modern sense before the nineteenth century, writes that the definition of ‘nation’ has changed and the original meaning is different to the modern meaning. He gives the modern sense of nation as being mainly political and economic and says that these factors did not apply to nations before the nineteenth century, as many were too small and not economically viable. According to him nationalism created nations and, because it was a recent phenomenon, nations could not have existed before. However, this view can be critiqued many countries had political features and strong economies before modern times. The most obvious example, to be discussed in more depth below, was England, who possessed both of these features long before the nineteenth century.

Hastings, who uses England as his main example, argues that nations did exist before the nineteenth century. He says that the modern definition of ‘nation’, such as that in the Oxford English Dictionary, is applicable to a number of countries throughout history and gives the example of Israel from the Bible, which has long been used as the model for Christians and Jews. He mentions that the ‘modern’ interpretation of nations being primarily political is present in texts from the sixteenth century onwards. His argument is more rounded than Hobsbawm and other modernists’ as it considers a range of examples and is not so rigid in its distinction between the modern and pre-modern eras. However, his argument that the English nation is traceable back to Saxon times can be taken as extreme, at that time England was still made up of warring tribes that attempted to resist unification but there is truth in the claim that an English nation existed in the late middle ages.

Taking the lead from Hastings, the first of the case studies to be looked at is England. It is a good example of a nation existing before the French and American Revolutions and meets the requirements from the definition of ‘nation’. It had a common religion; after Edward III expelled the Jews in the late thirteenth century, it was a solely Christian country until they returned in the mid seventeenth. Although the Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century meant that it became a Protestant and Catholic country, there was still a state Church of England with the English monarch at its head. It had a common language; even the Norman French nobles also spoke English. Throughout the medieval period, literature was increasingly written in the vernacular rather than Latin or French, as examples Chaucer, Shakespeare and Marlowe all wrote in English.

Territorially it was united, though being an island meant it was easier than in other places. The boundary with the other kingdom in the island, Scotland, was stabilised in 1603, when James VI, the king of Scotland, also became king of England (as James I) so the England of then is easily recognised as the England of today. Racially, despite having Saxon, Danish, Jutish, Anglian and French blood, a feeling of there being an English people had developed by the early modern period, shown by the wave of English patriotism created by the threat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Culturally, England developed its own style, for example, architecturally, buildings can be described as ‘English Gothic’ and look different to the Gothic on the Continent (this can been seen by comparing York Minster with Reims in France).

There have also been histories of England and the English people produced before the nineteenth century, David Hume wrote his History of England in the mid-eighteenth century and, to back up Hastings’ Saxon argument, Bede produced his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the eighth century. There must have been an idea of England having a separate history from other places and a shared one among its people for writers to think that it warranted its own history writing. Tied in with the idea of having a distinct history apart from other countries, is the idea of having an ‘Other’, and England has had many ‘Others’ over the centuries – the Scots, the French and Spanish were all seen as the enemy at various times and used as rallying cries for England to unite against the threat they posed.

Lastly, is the question as to whether England had the political element? This would make it a nation in the modern sense according to Hobsbawm. It definitely did, there have been various instances that can be classed as political throughout the centuries. The Magna Carta in 1215 is seen as being the beginnings of the English constitution, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 sealed the importance of parliament alongside the monarch and Robert Walpole is seen as being the first ‘Prime Minister’ (though not with that title) between 1721 and 1742. These factors demonstrate that there was the political elements needed and, combined with the other factors, show that England met both the old and modern requirements to be a nation well before 1800.

Like England, France was a dominant country from the medieval period and on the surface appears to be a united medieval nation along the same lines as the former. It had a thriving culture that dominated the rest of Europe, the French tongue became one of the international languages and it had its ‘Other’ in England. Religiously, it had a shared faith; Clovis’ baptism in 494 is seen as the reason why France became Catholic and it remained this way. Catholicism survived the Reformation as France’s main religion and provided a means of unification against the Protestants and the Jews; an example would be the persecution of the Huguenots, the French Protestants in the late seventeenth century. France was also seemingly united under a strong monarch; the king of France was one of the most powerful in Europe.

However France was much more complex underneath and was heavily regionalised. Each region had its own dialect of French, or even its own language, which were often difficult to understand by other French people. Separate cultures also developed and race often differed, for example, the Bretons of Brittany were related more to the Celts of Britain than the Franks (from whom France took its name) and Normandy had its distinctive Normans, a blend of Frankish and Scandinavian (Viking) blood. Politics and administration were localised and this would remain so until the French Revolution, the Middle Ages had been a process of acquisition by the French crown and this contributed to the regionalisation. It remained this way until the centralisation process of the French Revolution and it was only after this time and Napoleon’s regime following it that France became more of a nation, therefore, France as a modern nation does date from the nineteenth century and is often seen as one of the founders of the modern nation.

Along with France, America is seen as one of the founders as well. It had been a colony of Britain until the American War of Independence, 1775 to 1783. The drive for independence had been by the settlers of English descent who wished to create a ‘New England’. They felt that England was in danger and wanted to preserve its way of life and values. They decided that the way to do this was to become independent from England and make their own nation. This idea of creating a ‘New England’ was an important part of the growing American national identity, they wanted to keep the Protestant religion safe, as they saw it as being under threat from Catholicism back in England. They also wanted to preserve the English language and because of the measures taken, American English became distinct in from British English. The ‘New English’ nation, therefore, became the American nation during the course of the nineteenth century, developed its own way of life and political structure, and is a modern nation that was not in existence before that period.

Germany is another country that developed into a nation in the nineteenth century. Before unification in 1871, there had been a loose connection between the states that became the new Germany but not in a political sense. Hastings says that there was a sense of German nationhood present but it was not developed[4] and this is true. There was pride in the German culture and intellectual achievement and they had a Germanic racial identity and a common language. The German states had been part of the Holy Roman Empire until Napoleon disbanded it and created the Confederation of the Rhine. After the fall of Napoleon, it became the German Confederation, which covered a similar territory as the German of today and semi-united by a customs union, the Zollverein, founded in 1818, which gave it an economic bond. However, these separate states had their own systems of government and administration and remained so until 1871. Therefore, Germany is a nation that was created politically in the nineteenth century but had its roots of national identity from an earlier time.

Now the two non-Western countries, Japan and Ethiopia, will be looked at to see if there was an idea of nation and national identity outside of the Western world. The first will be Japan in the medieval period. Japan had the beginnings of an administrative structure from the fourth century AD and the religion, Shinto, was used as a form of political control. There were officials in some areas and a system of governors, the kuni-no-miyakko, was present. A clan system based on corporations of occupations developed and the leading clans often had power in Japan. The administrative and legal systems were further changed in the Taika reforms of the early ninth century when a Bureau of Archivists (the kurōdo-dokoro) and system of police commissioners (kebüski) were set up. These undeniably political measures would not be out of place in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries yet this is some thousand years before similar institutions appeared in most ‘modern’ nations. Here is evidence of Hobsbawm’s political element taken place many centuries before his date of 1780.

In addition to the political side, Japan also meets the dictionary definition of ‘nation’. It had a shared culture, around the same time as the Taika reforms Japan was beginning to form its own culture, distinct from the Chinese that had influenced it before. It placed emphasis on literature and theatre, such as poetry and the Noh, or drama. Linguistically it was unified and it had a state religion, Shinto, with Buddhism having its followers. Like England, its territorial unity was helped by it being a series of islands with the power focused on the main one, Honshu. Racially, the Japanese dominated but it did have its minorities, such as the Chinese craftsmen. This is so in most modern nations. Japan is, therefore, a good example of a nation existing before the nineteenth century.

The next country, Ethiopia, also has its national roots in the medieval period. It is one of the oldest independent countries in the world and retained this even though the countries around it fell victim to the empire building of the European powers. It has a shared history and religion and these were often interlinked, the fourteenth century work, the Kebra Negast, was a history of the ruling family at the time and was used to legitimise it with the claim that it was descended from the Biblical King Solomon. The book was important in creating Ethiopian national identity, as Christianity was the dominant religion there. Christianity acted as a unifier against medieval Ethiopia’s ‘Other’, the threat of Islam from neighbouring countries. It was not as united racially and linguistically but sometimes this is not present in modern nations, the multicultural USA is an example. Territorially it has long covered a similar area in Africa and was a dominant force in the Middle Ages. However, the main argument for Ethiopia being a pre-modern nation was its ability to resist losing its independence and becoming part of a European empire when the rest of Africa was being colonised. This suggests that sense of identity and unity and ties in with Renan’s theory that it was the desire of the people to remain as a nation, and the Ethiopian people knew what it meant to be Ethiopian and had the political means to stay that way, something that must have developed before the nineteenth century.

The last example, Ancient Greece, is one that shows just how far back the idea of nations and national identity can be traced back. The Greek historian, Herodotus, in the fifth century BC, defined to hellēnikon as ‘shared blood, shared language, shared religion and shared customs’[5], a definition that is very close to that of a modern dictionary. This shows that a selection of the Ancient Greeks had an idea of what constituted a national identity and nation and were able to relate it to their present situation. Greece at the time was made up of city-states, such as Athens, Sparta and Thessaly, which were independent but sometimes did unite in war, usually against the common enemy, Persia. However, the states valued their independence and did not wish to permanently unite and become, as they believed, subordinate to another; they knew the theory but did not like the reality. Nonetheless, they did have an idea of what a nation was and, as the states often had a complex political and administrative structure, they would not have lacked the political element had they united. After all, democracy was a classical creation.

As seen by the examples of England, Japan and Ethiopia, nations in the modern sense did exist before the nineteenth century, as these places shared, or came to share, a common descent, culture, religion, an ‘Other’, language and history. Most importantly, though, they also had a political element to them, the main point in Hobsbawm’s argument that nations in the modern sense did not exist before the nineteenth century. Even the Ancient Greeks had an idea of what a nation was, and would have been able to provide a political slant, had they had the inclination to unite.

However, it must not be ignored that most modern nations were created because of events close to, or during, the nineteenth century and that before they were not a nation. They might have been a colony (America), or political unity may have been only achieved in that century (France and Germany) so before that they lacked Hobsbawm’s most important component of nationhood, even though other elements were present. Some nations are still being created today, which suggests that the ‘nation’ is something that will always open to change and interpretation, depending on circumstance. It is certain, though, that nations in the modern sense did exist before the nineteenth century and that they are not a modern occurrence.

[1] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Volume X, p.231


[2] E. Renan, ‘What is a Nation?’ in S, Woolf (ed.), Nationalism in Europe, 1815 to the Present: A Reader, p.48-59

[3] J. Stalin, ‘The Nation,’ in J. Hutchinson and A.D. Smith (eds.), Nationalism, p.20

[4] A. Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, p.106

[5] J. Boardman, J Griffin and O. Murray, The Oxford History of the Classical World, p.127

Primary Sources:

  • F. Chabod, ‘The Idea of Nation’, in S, Woolf (ed.) Nationalism in Europe, 1815 to the Present: A Reader (London, 1995).
  • E. Renan, ‘What is a Nation?’ in S, Woolf (ed.) Nationalism in Europe, 1815 to the Present: A Reader (London, 1995).
  • J. Stalin, ‘The Nation,’ in J. Hutchinson and A.D. Smith (eds.) Nationalism (Oxford, 1995).

Secondary Sources:

  • P. Alter, Nationalism (London, 1994).
  • B. Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, 1991).
  • D.A. Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France: Investing Nationalism, 1680 – 1800 (Cambridge, MA, 2003).
  • J. Boardman, J Griffin and O. Murray, The Oxford History of the Classical World (Oxford, 1986).
  • N. Davies, Europe: A History (London, 1997).
  • E. Gellner, Nation and Nationalism (Oxford, 1999).
  • M. Hane, Pre-modern Japan: A Historical Survey (Oxford, 1991).
  • A. Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge, 1997).
  • E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1789: Programme, Myth and Reality (Cambridge, 1995).
  • H.G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia (London, 1994).
  • A.D. Smith, National Identity (London, 1991).
  • B. Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia (London, 1991).
  • The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Volume X (Oxford, 1989)
  • The Chambers Dictionary (Edinburgh, 1993)


This is going to be a blog of my writings – any writings. It’s purpose in life is to encourage me to write more. It will (hopefully) be about anything that takes my fancy – factual, fictional or otherwise.

So, here goes! 🙂