The Penwith Papers

Penzance Sanitary Conditions in 1849

A short piece on George Thomas Clark’s report of 1849 appeared as the “On This Day” item for February 20th. But the story is too good to be restricted to a mere 600 words… so here we provide an extended version:


After the Public Health Act was passed in 1848, inspectors were appointed to visit selected towns and suggest improvements. The selection of Penzance for an early visit was probably not a random one. In 1836 the West Briton – the most local newspaper at that date – had commented on the “wretched state” of the streets, “long the subject of general conversation among the inhabitants”. The paving was not only “vile” in itself, but covered with “filth of every description”. Anyone walking the streets on wet night, the newspaper excitedly warned, ran the serious risk of “being covered with mud and afterwards breaking your neck”. In 1846 cholera was feared and permission sought – unsuccessfully - for a new water supply from Madron.

George Thomas Clark was one of the Public Health Act inspectors, but his talents and interests were wide-ranging. His biography suggests an energetic and able man, with a venturesome nature, antiquarian interests and a archetypal Victorian dedication to business success and Good Works. He was not yet 40 at the time of his visit, but had already established himself as both a member of the Royal College of Surgeons with a Bristol practice, and as an engineer, taking responsibility for whole stretches of Brunel’s South Wales line and planning the first passenger railway line in India.

George Thomas Clark in full collar and whiskersThis, then, is the man who arrived in Penzance on 10th February 1849 for a three-day visit. It is not surprising to learn that he made good use of his time – walking around the place, meeting the key men of the town and holding a public meeting at the Guildhall - and was able to make his preliminary report within ten days.

Clark reported an estimated population of 9,500 and about 1938 houses. The staple trade of the town was fishing with those living on the outskirts involved in tin and copper mining. He described the town as being in one of the most beautiful positions “upon a bay proverbial for its salubrity and beauty” yet stated that “It would be difficult to find a spot so foul in which life is so seriously affected “– the sickness and mortality in Penzance had been excessive 

in his judgement. 1848 had seen 123 cases of dysentery reported in five months by the Union surgeon, including 16 deaths. These cases had occurred in 25 different localities but 18 were either in the lowest part of the town near the quay or in certain parts of the higher town above the Fountain Inn, all being “remarkable for their filth and want of drainage.”

George Thomas Clark in relaxed moodThe lowest parts of the town near the battery bathing place, pier and quay were the older, more densely peopled areas of the town where lack of space meant that privies and often cess pools were under the roof of the house and people living on upper floors regularly discharged all filth by an open shoot directly into the street or into the harbour above the tide level. Because this part of town was so tightly packed little sea breeze found its way into the packed courts to disperse the smells. The low ground behind the Esplanade and Marine Terrace was another area of dirt, damp and sickness with the privies, cess pools, piggeries and open gutters lying on low marshy soil that was not naturally drained. The area around St Clare Street, St Clare Terrace and Pendarves Row, all higher than the water supply, had houses arranged in small courts that were close together, unpaved and without drains but with an open irregular gutter about a yard from the back door of each house. Clark described the slaughter houses and piggeries in many yards adding to the contents of cess pools, privies and blocked gutters. The unpaved alleys leading to the backs of these houses were narrow, unpaved and unpassable having been used “by the people as public necessaries.”

Penzance 1836

As well as noting the lack of house drainage Clark also commented on the open stagnant ditches near some of the public walks and footpaths. He disliked the fact that fish and vegetable markets were still being held in the public streets despite the provision of covered rooms and he noted the lack of paved streets (apart from the main street) even though cheap and good material for paving was readily available. He also commented on the heavy losses from fire which an efficient water supply would probably have saved but “the want of water is …severely felt” with the town’s reservoir being below the higher part of town. Scavenging or the clearing of refuse cast into the broad highways took place daily but he found the depot for the scavengers’ dirt within the harbour to be very foul and offensive. Household refuse was rarely cleared away by individuals and the disposal of cess pool contents was left to house owners or occupiers to arrange. He estimated that each house produced approximately two tons of manure per year which could be sold to farmers. Clark also noted that a large portion of the town was “very insufficiently provided with necessaries” or public toilets which, when present were connected with foul, open cesspools and were injurious to health and comfort. They were also “generally in exposed places, nor is there a distinction between the sexes in their use.”

Public Health Act 1849

The Public Health Act 1849 

Despite the shortcomings highlighted in his report Clark felt “it would cost so little to make pure” and he proposed arrangements to ensure an adequate water supply using the five streams rising in Madron and building small storage reservoirs to support the main reservoir at St Clare. He recommended providing a service pipe into each house with privies being converted to water closets. He also suggested providing a “fire plug” in each thoroughfare to eliminate the risk of serious fire; providing hoses to provide water to the many ships in the harbour; providing apparatus to wash the streets in dirty weather and water them in dusty weather. Regarding sewerage, he recommended two outfalls draining into the sea at Alverton and Chyandour, or if desirable, using the sewerage to manure land towards Newlyn and become a source of profit that could reduce costs. He said pipe-drains should be laid down from each house and yard into an adjacent main sewer. Cess pools would be declared “nuisances” and filled in. The improvements would necessitate a water and sewerage charge which Clark thought would be 1d per week and certainly not more than 2d. He went so far as to claim that “these remedies by reducing sickness and saving labour will be a reduction on existing charges.” They would also help the town to maintain the reputation as a residence for invalids.

Clark provided quite detailed costings for his proposals and on several occasions, states he has probably over-estimated the costs. Between 1849 and 1851 he produced 63 reports on towns and villages in South West England and Wales and he went on to become one of the three Commissioners who made up the Board of Health. The government was now acknowledging some responsibility for upholding the health of the population but this focus on the link between sanitary conditions and disease and mortality rates ignored other factors such as diet and working conditions.

This would not be the end to the problems. The water supply was a favourite topic of discussion, with a wide variety of more or less impractical schemes hatched every time there was a summer drought, and shelved every time there was a wet winter. Late 19th century newspapers abound with complaints about muddy, obstructed streets, inefficient scavenging and poor lighting (with the blame usually laid on the Gas Company, many of whose major shareholders were also councillors and other leading men of the town). The sewage arrangements were repeatedly called into question, and this – and other problems - did not end with Victorian improvements.  

George Thomas Clark died in 1898, nearly 50 years after his official visit to Penzance. Had he returned at the end of his life, he would have seen much to approve of: public baths, improved gas lamps, water shortages diminished by the installation of meters to trace leaks. But 20th century Penzance was far from perfect, and seems to have remained rather below the standard of more fashionable resorts. Within living memory, vast piles of ordure were dumped just east of the town boundary, in the hope that farmers might find the waste valuable as manure and take it away. It was once rumoured that pigs’ heads were on show at Eastern Green, by way of a greeting to touring motorists. Penzance was responsible for most of the sewage that notoriously drifted across the bay, with attendant flocks of seagulls, until the end of the 20th century. The incidence of diphtheria was notoriously high, with blame attributed variously to careless ice cream manufacture, the state of the Bathing Pool and over-crowding. The town was notorious for the number and siting of its slaughterhouses, until these were closed down virtually overnight by government decree after the Second World War. And the public toilets? Don’t even get us started….

Report to the General Board of Health on a preliminary inquiry into the sewerage, drainage, and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants, of the borough of Penzance available at accessed 27 2 2017 accessed 27 2 2017



The Penwith Papers:

Penwith Local History Group
The Penwith Papers:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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