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Victorian Leeds: Good or Bad?

Housing and Health

During the first half of the 19th Century lower class people were moving to the city because there was lots of work in the factories and mills. Middle class businessmen, tradesmen and shopkeepers also came because they thought Leeds offered them a chance to make more money.

So where did all these new people live and what were their homes like?


Houses for the Middle Classes


Black and white lithograph of a large three storey building with multiple chimneys
Hyde Terrace

As Leeds became more crowded and polluted, many of the wealthier people began to move out of the centre of Leeds to Chapel Allerton and Potternewton. Land was cheap then and they built impressive large houses with huge gardens. These houses would have been finely decorated with wallpaper, carpets, pictures and paintings, fireplaces and expensive furniture.

These families often had domestic servants and there would have been a cook, housemaids and butlers.


Houses for the Working Classes

At first workers cottages were built in the yards and courts behind the buildings on the main streets of the town. As the population grew new workers houses had to be built quickly. These were mostly small and built in rows or ‘terraces’ and were ‘back to back’. Whole families had to live in just two rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs.

There was usually a cellar that was rented out as a one room living space with no windows.

There was usually no running water and no drainage. It would be rare to find wallpaper, paintings, carpet or curtains and the furniture would be very basic. And to make things worse there were no toilets, just ‘privies’ outside the back of the houses. Often these were not cleared for up to 6 months – can you imagine how bad they would have smelt, especially in the summer?!

Most of these houses were built in the Bank, Far Bank, Quarry Hill, Mabgate and the Leylands. The worst examples of bad living conditions were at Boot and Shoe Yard in Kirkgate.


In 1832 this yard was home to 340 people living in 27 rooms and because there were no toilets, waste was collected in buckets and thrown onto the streets.

At one point the yard had not had the rubbish moved for 6 months and when men were sent to clear it they took away 70 cart loads!

Black and white photograph showing buidings on either side of a cobbled street.   There are no drains.
Rose and Crown Yard, Leeds

By the middle of the 19th Century these areas had become filthy slums.

Deadly diseases like Cholera, Typhoid and Small Pox were common in Leeds’ Victorian slums.  A report for the Leeds Board of Health in 1833 showed that the poorest areas were worst affected by Cholera. Leeds suffered from two major outbreaks of Cholera. Dr Robert Baker, a Leeds Surgeon had noticed the link between disease and poor living conditions. You can see an extract from his report here:


“From the privies in the Boot and Shoe Yard (where there are but 32 houses) which did not appear to have been thoroughly cleansed for the last 30 years, 70 cart loads of manure were removed by order of the commissioners.”


“In three parallel streets which neither sewered, drained, paved, nor cleansed, in one division of the town, occupied entirely by cottage dwellings, with cellar dwellings to boot, for a population which I have taken by house row of 386 persons, there are but two small single privies and these in such a state as to be totally unavailable.”


“I never but once met with a town, where in certain parts, so large a quantity of offensive matter was allowed to accumulate in the streets, and where cholera ranged so nearly in proportion to the population, as it has done in Leeds.”


“In a large manufacturing district and amidst a population of 76,000 persons, to find only 68 streets upon the state of whose pavement any dependence can be placed, that not more than 14, and for those for the most part in the higher parts of town, have thorough sewers; that but 59 streets are cleansed by scavengers; and the rest left to any chance, by which their condition may be improved, most of them unsewered, undrained, unpaved, formed upon clayey land and broken up by vehicles of every description, the only wonder is, that diseases of a pestilential character do not oftener and more fatally prevail.”

One cholera outbreak, in 1832, killed over 700 people and one, in 1849, killed over 2000 people.

The symptoms of Cholera are sever watery diarrhoea and vomiting. Victims could die within hours from loss of water from the body.

In the overcrowded town diseases could pass easily from one person to another. At that time it was expected that at least one child in each family would die young.


Hand drawn map showing all the outbreaks of cholera in the city of Leeds
1832 Cholera Map of Leeds

The 1842 Leeds Improvement Act began the slow process of making life better. It wasn’t until 1875 after the Public Health Act that things really started to improve. This Act allowed councils to pull down the slums and build new homes with sewers. By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, the council had provided gas, water, electricity and trams. It had also created parks and markets to improve life for everyone.


Extract from the 1842 Leeds Improvement Act.  This section prohibits the renting out of cellar accommodation without windows or a fireplace.
1842 Leeds Improvement Act: Cellars