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Slums and suburbs: water and sanitation in the first industrial city

Published: 11 February 2021

Water is fundamental to life on our planet, and access to clean water and safe sanitation is a human right. Yet today across the world, poor sanitation and contaminated water put billions of lives at risk, just as they did in rapidly expanding 19th-century industrial Manchester.

Lessons from the first industrial city

Today, one in three people globally do not have access to clean drinking water and over half the world’s population lives without safely managed sanitation. Lack of access to these basic services causes millions of deaths from preventable diseases each year. Clean water and sanitation for all is high on the global agenda for sustainable development, yet a variety of environmental challenges put achieving this goal at risk. 

There are striking parallels between the factors affecting access to clean water and sanitation across the world today and the problems that confronted 19th-century industrial Manchester, the original shock city—a term coined by historian Asa Briggs to describe the rapid and radical change undergone by such cities. 

Increasing pollution, rapid urbanisation and rising demand for water are key issues. Today, 80 percent of the world’s wastewater goes untreated before flowing back into ecosystems. Global water use has increased at more than twice the rate of population growth over the last century, and the pace of urbanisation is outstripping many cities' capacity to develop water and sanitation infrastructure. 

Can the environmental challenges and solutions of the first industrial city offer an insight into the water and sanitation dilemmas confronting our modern world? How far (or not) have we come since Manchester’s unprecedented 19th-century industrial transformation?

Conditions in industrial Manchester

From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)

When French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited Manchester in 1832, he witnessed first-hand the paradox of Manchester’s economic expansion and environmental deterioration. By the early decades of the 19th century, Manchester was growing famous around the world for its booming textiles trade, which was rapidly transforming the town into an industrial powerhouse. Manchester’s towering cotton mills and warehouses created a brand-new urban environment, and visitors flocked there to see a vision of the future. 

Drawing of large building with many windows and smoking chimneys Science Museum Group Collection
Cotton factories on Union Street in Manchester’s Ancoats, about 1830

However, with fame, Manchester’s industrial transformation brought notoriety. As migrants arrived in their thousands to work in its burgeoning cotton mills, Manchester experienced a population explosion, growing from a town of 60,000 inhabitants in 1800 to 142,000 by 1842. Manchester’s unplanned, unchecked growth led environmental conditions to rapidly degrade. This is a situation playing out in fast-growing cities around the world today, as urban migration continues to increase.

Manchester gained a reputation as one of the most filthy, overcrowded and unhealthy places in Britain. Death rates soared and life expectancies plummeted. In 1837, the Manchester Statistical Society published data on the life expectancy of the city’s inhabitants, putting the average age of death for the labouring population at just 17.

Diseases like typhoid and dysentery spread rapidly and the town was badly hit by outbreaks of cholera in 1832 and 1849. 

19th-century medicine chest containing treatments for cholera, a bacterial infection spread through contaminated food and water.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about 19th-century medicine chest containing treatments for cholera, a bacterial infection spread through contaminated food and water.

The problem of poor infrastructure

At the heart of Manchester’s environmental problems was its woefully inadequate water and sanitation infrastructure. In 1847, of the 47,000 houses in the town, only 11,000 had a piped water supply. A further 12,000 homes relied on a shared tap or standpipe in the street, while thousands more drew their water from shallow wells or streams, which were often polluted.  

From the 1750s, ceramic carbon water filters for use in the home, like this Manchester-made example, could be used to remove bacteria from water—but only by those who could afford them.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about From the 1750s, ceramic carbon water filters for use in the home, like this Manchester-made example, could be used to remove bacteria from water—but only by those who could afford them.

Privy middens, consisting of a wooden seat built over a pit, were in widespread use in Manchester’s densely packed streets of workers’ housing. Shared between up to 30 families and rarely emptied, human waste seeped into watercourses and overflowed into the streets. The plumbed toilets that did exist connected to drains which discharged directly into the town’s rivers.

Wooden door from a 19th-century Manchester privy
Science Museum Group More information about Wooden door from a 19th-century Manchester privy<br />
Seat from outdoor privy, 1850–1900.
Science Museum Group More information about Seat from outdoor privy, 1850–1900.

The gradual conversion of Manchester’s privy middens into pail closets, which used a removable, galvanised metal bucket to collect waste, did improve matters. The pails were emptied more frequently and the so-called night soil was taken away to be processed into manure. However, pail closets were incomparable with the benefits brought by flushing toilets, and scientists and reformers continued to campaign for a ‘water carriage’ system of sewage removal for Manchester.

Model of a night soil cart, representing the type used in 19th century Manchester to collect waste from pail closets.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Model of a night soil cart, representing the type used in 19th century Manchester to collect waste from pail closets.

Manchester’s early sewer network was haphazard and inadequate, having been designed primarily to deal with the rainy town’s surface water. The expansion of the network and innovations in sewer design in the mid-19th century, including the development of egg-shaped, clay sewer pipes to encourage better flow, did nothing to fix the fact that these sewers were releasing untreated waste directly into Manchester’s rivers. 

Section of egg-shaped, clay sewer pipe from Manchester City Centre, about 1840
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Section of egg-shaped, clay sewer pipe from Manchester City Centre, about 1840

Industrial pollution

Compounding the problem of pollution from human waste, Manchester’s manufacturing industries dumped gallons of contaminated water and tonnes of solid waste into the rivers. Some of the worst offenders were the town’s textile dye-works, who themselves, ironically, relied on a plentiful source of pure water. Today, this problem reaches far beyond Manchester—textile dyeing is a major polluter of clean water globally.

Manufacturers argued that there was no other way to get rid of their waste products. They were stubbornly resistant to attempts to control river pollution, claiming restrictions would cause economic damage and put people out of work. Today, there is an equally uncomfortable relationship between the world’s profit-driven, capitalist industries and the environmental campaigners calling for them to make radical adjustments to their activities in order to protect the planet.

View of a river with industrial buildings on either side and a bridge crossing the water in the distance Science Museum Group Collection
The River Irwell, 1830. Many of the factories on either side discharged their industrial waste directly into the river

The build-up of waste in Manchester’s rivers heightened the city’s vulnerability to flooding. By the 1860s, the River Irwell was so polluted that the riverbed was rising at a rate of about three inches a year. A series of devastating floods, culminating in the Great Flood of 1872, when the rivers Irwell, Medlock and Irk all overflowed their banks, drew increasing attention to the environmental impact of river pollution.

New technology, old inequality

Sluice gate installed at Crowden Brook, c.1850, as part of the first phase of the Longdendale reservoir scheme

With industrial Manchester’s expansion, the city’s demand for clean water continued to increase. In response, in 1851, Manchester Corporation completed the first stage of a huge project to supply Manchester with water from Longdendale in the Peak District.

Chief Engineer John Frederick Bateman pushed the boundaries of Victorian hydraulic engineering. A chain of six reservoirs gathered the plentiful rainwater falling on the Pennines. The water flowed by gravity into Manchester along a series of aqueducts. 

The arrival of water from Longdendale in 1851 allowed Manchester Corporation to extend the network of pipes delivering water around the city. While this brought benefits, not least to Manchester’s manufacturers, who were desperate for a plentiful supply of clean water, it also widened inequalities.

The local government invested in pipes to Manchester’s growing, middle-class suburbs, supplying residents with fresh water inside their homes. Meanwhile, most working people in Manchester’s densely populated centre continued to rely on a shared standpipe, which meant queuing for water and carrying it through the streets to their homes. Manchester Corporation also continued to deny these homes access to plumbed toilets, while extending this service to the suburbs. 

Decorated Victorian toilet pedestal made in London, about 1880. Decorative sanitary wear became fashionable as access to indoor plumbing grew.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Decorated Victorian toilet pedestal made in London, about 1880. Decorative sanitary wear became fashionable as access to indoor plumbing grew.

Pressure and protest: Towards environmental reform

Front page of a pamphlet published by the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association in 1869.

Despite the obvious need for environmental reform, Manchester Corporation determined to keep public spending to a minimum, was slow to act. Many in local government held discriminatory views about Manchester’s poor, blaming their ‘immorality’ for the situation they found themselves in.

However, protests by working people in the 1840s and 1850s forced local government to realise that they could not put off the provision of basic urban infrastructure for much longer. Pressure from Parliament following the landmark 1848 Public Health Act, championed by social reformer Sir Edwin Chadwick, also drove change in the second half of the 19th century.

Councillors were also compelled to act by local reformers in organisations like the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association, set up in 1851, who lobbied Manchester Corporation to take responsibility for improving the urban environment.

They demanded universal indoor plumbing, along with a system of sewers that would divert waste away from Manchester’s rivers to recycling farms.

Changing tides: A more sustainable water supply

A conviction that the prosperity – indeed the very existence – of a town depended on its supply of water, led me very frequently to consider where additional sources were to be obtained…

John Frederick Bateman

By the late 1860s, the demand for water in Manchester had outstripped the supply from Longdendale. Manchester Corporation turned again to engineer John Frederick Bateman for the solution. Bateman set his sights on the Lake District, which has some of the heaviest rainfall in the country. He designed a pioneering scheme to create a reservoir at Thirlmere and bring water to Manchester via a 96-mile, gravity-fed aqueduct. 

Map from 1917 showing the Thirlmere aqueduct which brought water to Manchester.

The engineering project began in 1885 and water from Thirlmere finally reached Manchester in 1894, effectively ending the problem of supplying the city with adequate water. 

Cast iron water pipe laid in the 1890s and extracted from Water Street in Manchester city centre in 2007.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Cast iron water pipe laid in the 1890s and extracted from Water Street in Manchester city centre in 2007.

Alongside the ambitious water supply project, in the 1890s, Manchester Corporation finally constructed a series of intercepting sewers that carried waste away for treatment to a new sewage works at Davyhulme. These, along with the plentiful water supply from Thirlmere, allowed for the mass conversion of privies to flushing toilets. In 1890, Manchester Corporation ruled that all new residential constructions must have indoor plumbing and in 1892, it ordered landlords to refit existing homes with this convenience. 

The election of councillors who represented the interests of Manchester’s working people—like Ancoats-born Charles Rowley, who campaigned for “healthy lives, healthy homes, and healthy surroundings”—helped to usher in a more progressive and egalitarian approach to environmental and public health issues, spurring ongoing reform into the 20th century. 

Water in the industrial city: The present and future

Manchester still grapples with environmental challenges, not least the ongoing pollution of its rivers, but Mancunians no longer face the daily threat of death and disease from unclean drinking water or inadequate sanitation. Terribly, billions of people around the world still do. In today’s fast-growing cities, it is still the poorest inhabitants who are most affected by the absence of basic infrastructure and the impact of pollution, with nearly 900 million city dwellers lacking access to safe water or sanitation.

The textiles industry is no longer based in Manchester, but it remains one of the world’s  most polluting industries. 93 billion cubic metres of water are used by the industry every year, and textiles finishing plants continue to dump toxic chemicals into rivers and oceans.

Huge engineering advances enabled Manchester’s environmental reform, but improvements would not have happened without vocal protests and campaigns by both sanitary reformers and ordinary people. In 2018, the UN announced its Water Action Decade to drive forward its goal of clean water and sanitation for all. Continued activism, and the empowerment of people to advocate for change in their communities, will play a vital role in stopping water pollution and ending water inequality for good.

Find out more


  • Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities, 1963.
  • Harold L. Platt, Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago, 2005
  • Anthony S. Wohl, Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain, 1984