Drains, sewers, cesspits and slaughterhouses

Photo:The site of a former abbatoir in Trafalgar Street

The site of a former abbatoir in Trafalgar Street

Photo by Peter Crowhurst

Health and squalor in the 19th century

By Peter Crowhurst, North Laine resident

North Laine in the mid-19th century was not a particularly healthy place to be. In fact living in the area exposed its inhabitants to most of the country's diseases. There were frequent epidemics of whooping cough, smallpox, scarlet fever and consumption. In his report in 1848 Dr William Kebbell found that 5% of the population suffered from contagious diseases. The reason for this was the general condition of the houses and the streets.

North Laine at this time was a warren of narrow streets and courtyards. They were poorly ventilated, badly drained and grossly overcrowded. Rubbish was left on the street and gutters were not repaired. The sewage was deposited into open cesspits and emptied at night by scavengers employed by the council. The houses were often built with inferior brick and the mortar was often made from sea sand. The walls were green - covered with lichen.

Contaminated water

Water was often contaminated. It was ordinarily fetched from pipes in the street but these were often contaminated by nearby cesspits, which in bad weather leaked into them. The cesspits were bored into porous chalk often too near to drinking wells.

Although Brighton had some sewers at this time, no houses in North Laine would have been linked up to them. There were drains for rainwater, although people often used the rainwater drains to dispose of their sewage, which was then deposited on the beach.

Slaughterhouses and animals

All this was made even worse when you consider that North Laine had many of the town's slaughterhouses. Animals would be brought by train to Brighton Station and then driven down Trafalgar Street to one of the many slaughterhouses in the area. Vine Street alone accounted for seven of these and the former house at No 34 can still be seen. The main problem for these houses was the disposal of the waste. The universal practice was to get rid of the dung and refuse into the nearest cesspit and to give the blood to the pigs.

Another reason for the noxious smells was the number of farm animals kept in the area. Many of the inhabitants were former farmhands hit badly by the depression of the 1830s or their descendants.  These people brought with them into the town the animals they had in the country, so in any of the backyards there were chickens and pigs being kept.


The Pimlico, Pym's Gardens, Orange Row area was inhabited by many of the town's fishing families and was regarded as one of the worst slums in the town. In 1849 Orange Row had 19 houses in a court 12 feet square, with 130 residents residing in just 17 properties. This was an average of 7.6 per house, although No 9 contained 20 residents. The buildings in this area were no better than wooden huts with small gardens attached. The pathways in front of the houses were littered with the skins and intestines of fish and must have stank in the middle of summer, as must have the many outdoor toilets.   In the 1860s the Pimlico area was demolished and new, better housing was erected but at a higher rent that the inhabitants could not afford. Much of the area's population moved away to the remaining overcrowded slums in other parts of town.

This page was added on 27/02/2008.

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