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THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
The Medical Officer of Health reported to the Maidstone Town Council on Bonny’s Yard, a group of houses opening out of the south side of King Street and occupying the slope between it and the river.
Bonny's Yard comprised two rows of back to back houses. In one row each house had three floors, with a room on each floor measuring 9 ft 9ins by 8 ft 9ins. The rooms had sash windows, only the lower half of which could be opened for ventilation. Each cottage had its own closet but no water laid on. In the yard there was a communal bin used by all the people. The common water hydrant was also located there.
The eight houses at the bottom of the yard had one room on each of two floors. These ground floor- and first-floor rooms were subdivided into two by partitions. The front partitions measured 10ft by 10ft and the rear 8ft by 8ft. They too had separate closets but no water laid on. They shared the communal dustbin and water hydrant.
‘They are all of a most miserable order of dwellings,’ says the report. In the twenty houses there were 88 people, an average of 4.4 occupants per house although in three dwellings there were eight people and in a fourth there were seven. ‘The occupation of the inhabitants is very various and includes besides general labourers, hawkers, mill hands, gas stokers, sale porters, rag sorters, etc … Viewed as a whole, these dwellings are relics of the past, such as nowadays would not be allowed to be constructed; from a moral and social point of view, without hesitation they must be condemned as not fit for human habitation.’
On the grounds of overcrowding and the effects of ill health from bad ventilation, the author thought they ought to be pulled down.
That reports of appalling housing conditions existed in the Victorian period and beyond ought not to be used a stick with which to be beat politicians and administrators. Put simply, the enormity of the task was quite beyond them. Great efforts were made throughout the period to improve the lot of the poor and though not all such efforts were well devised their intentions in general were sound and sincere.
If a country market town like Maidstone had such sores and blemishes, what could be expected in the great cities and the burgeoning industrial towns?
Five years later Mr Adams, the MOH, had to return to the same theme.
Grove Court and Bonny's Yard were among the oldest buildings in the town. They were all greatly overcrowded and lacking through ventilation. Mr Adams made the following observations:
In Grove Court, ‘there are nine closets about 12 feet in front of the houses with very foul hopper pans, unprovided with any means for flushing. The service channelling and pavement are defective and water finds its way readily into the basements of the dwellings. The wall and ceiling plaster of the interior is broken away in places and the rooms are damp. In one instance, at No. 3, there are six inhabitants of whom four children aged 13, 11, nine and two years, sleep in an attic affording only 127 cubic feet of air space per head.
‘At Number 10 is a broken chimney that is dangerous, a leaky roof and the tenant complains of a bad smell from a drain which is said to be beneath the floor of his living room.
‘The interiors are in most cases dirty, having damp walls, with, in many places, broken and defective plaster; of the windows only the bottom sashes admit of being opened.’
Mr Adams goes on to describe conditions at No 40 in Ebenezer Place where the roof leaks and continues: ‘the rain water pipe is broken, the wall is green from constant wet; then again, as respect the sanitary accommodation, the closets are wooden structures, very dark, out of repair, ceilings broken, pans very foul and unflushed.
‘Socially,’ he goes on, ‘as one might naturally expect, they are occupied by the lowest class of the people, day labourers and costers for the most part. Sometimes bargemen and waterside loafers: such people as belong to a distinct class and who as a matter of choice gravitate to the most squalid slums they can find, they seldom have any ties of occupation that bind them to a given spot, if turned out from one place as a matter of course they emigrate to the next dirtiest and cheapest they can discover, with little regard to locality.’
Mr Adams then turns to mortality rates.
‘I find that during the 10 years from 1st July, 1888, to the last of June, 1898, there have been 52 deaths upon this area, constituting a death rate 25.2 per 1000 per annum, which is little short of double the rate for the town generally. The mean age at death I find to be 17 years, which is just about half of the average length of life in the town generally.’
39 of the 52 deaths were of people below the age of 20. In other words 75 per cent never reached adult life. ‘Without doubt the damp, dirt and squalor are accountable.’