The 1879 Report of the Special Commissioner of the Sanitary Record
In 1851 the population of Douglas was nearly 10,000 [AW Moore], but it was rapidly growing, especially as the tourism trade attracted more money and work to the town.
The poor housing and slum areas in Douglas tended to be grouped around the north end of the town. A section at the end of the North Quay (now demolished) was known as ‘Old Douglas’. It was home to Muckle Row, the Isle of Man’s oldest named street, but the Special Commissioners Report in 1879 was scathing about sanitation in the area (Source A).
The area between Barrack Street and Shaw’s Brow (now Shaw’s Brow car park) was nicknamed both ‘little Ireland’ because of its predominantly immigrant population, and ‘little Hell’ because of its appalling conditions.
Because of the lack of sanitation and poor housing, these areas were often hit the hardest when epidemics swept the island. Problems included the layout of the streets, such as dark narrow streets, blind alleys and tiny, cramped courtyards. Lack of regulations meant that houses were often badly ventilated, unstable and unsafe, and they were often kept in poor repair by landlords (Source C). There was little provision for cleaning the streets of rubbish, dust or animal droppings.
Overcrowding was another serious problem that aggravated the spread of disease. Over fifty people were recorded as living in a single house in Hanover Street, twelve of whom had caught smallpox. It was common for twenty to thirty people to live in a house in the slum areas, and people were often forced to live in cellars.
Drainage was also poor. Although clean water was provided through stand pipes after the Douglas Waterworks Act of 1834, the old and open drains often led to bad smells. In some courtyards sewage water collected in pools. Outdoor toilets called ‘privies’ were shared by families from several houses, but these would overflow if they weren’t regularly emptied (Source A).
For many years there were few regulations to tackle these problems, and no officials that were capable of doing so, such as medical health inspectors or committees. The causes of death weren’t recorded until the late 1870s, so it was difficult to identify the most widespread diseases and causes of death.
Some laws were hastily introduced in response to epidemics, and the Douglas Town Act of 1860 was amended several times between 1864 and 1892. This gave Commissioners the power to clean and pave the streets, to provide street lighting, to improve the drains and sewers, to regulate house building and to organise rubbish collection. In the 1930s, the worst of the slums in ‘Old Douglas’ were demolished, and ‘Little Hell’ was taken down in the 1950s.
A photograph of Thornhill, which stood between Shaw's Brow and Barrack Street, and helped make up 'Little Hell'
A report of the trial of a 'Little Hell' landlord, prosecuted for the poor state of his houses.
The Sanatory Committee of 1848 suggests solutions for sanitation problems in Douglas.