Industrial Belfast: The Rise of the Pathogenic City, c.1830-1900

by Ian Miller, Ulster University.

In 1841, Belfast’s population was just 75,308. By 1911, this had risen to 386,947. The promise of regular paid work in the city’s industries, and lack of industrialisation elsewhere in Ireland, encouraged migration to the north’s industrial capital. Cotton spinning peaked in the 1820s when around 3,500 people were employed in over 20 mills. In the following decades, Belfast became a leading international producer of linen and flax. By 1860, Belfast had 32 operating linen mills and had earned itself a new title: ‘Linenopolis’.[1] Health conditions in the mills were often poor and workers had low life expectancy. For working-class men, shipbuilding was an important source of employment. Between 1839 and 1849, the city’s harbour was considerably improved. An area was set apart for shipbuilding enterprises, later occupied by Harland and Wolff. Belfast swiftly transformed into Ireland’s largest port.[2]

Like all Victorian industrial centres, wealth and poverty co-existed. Industry and commerce brought progress and affluence, but urban living conditions threatened a return to plagues and primitivism. Writing in 1852, Andrew George Malcolm, a prominent doctor and sanitarian working at Belfast’s General Hospital, recalled:

When we consider that, little more than twenty years ago, we could boast of but a single flax-spinning factory, and that now upwards of forty tall chimneys spring from similar establishments, it is little wonder that we should find disease, and especially epidemic disease, on the increase. To give accommodation to the thousand [factory] operatives which the giant demand of an unusually prosperous manufacture created, strings of houses on the simplest plan were hurried up, generally without sufficient carefulness as to drainage, ventilation, house wants or situation.[3]

Rapid urbanisation placed pressure on housing, water supplies, public health and natural environments. Ever-growing numbers of families living side-by-side meant that disease spread quickly, especially during epidemic outbreaks. This was a hazardous situation. The cause of most human infections – germs – remained unknown until the 1850s. Even then, it took some decades to convince all doctors that germs, not miasmas and smells, produced disease.[4] Late-century medical scientists identified specific disease-causing micro-organisms, but effective antibiotic cures (or ‘magic bullets’) were not developed to treat the infected until the twentieth century.[5] In Victorian times, disease prevention was the only option.

The ‘Blackstaff Menace’

Image: ‘The Blackstaff Menace’. A.G. Malcolm, The Sanitary State of Belfast with Suggestions for its Improvements (Belfast: Henry Greer, 1852), p. 43

Belfast’s waterways filled with industrial pollution and human sewage. The city’s doctors sensed that polluted rivers and deficient housing were hardly conducive to health, even if they didn’t yet know precisely why. One physician, Henry McCormac, attracted praise for successfully helping manage Belfast’s 1831-2 cholera outbreak. He went on to secure a lectureship at Queen’s College and gain international repute as a medical expert.[6] In 1852, McCormac, speaking to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, referring to the River Blackstaff asked: ‘Who would believe that in a large, flourishing intelligent town like Belfast, and in the very face of an approaching pestilence, a black sewer-like stream, worse than the London fleet, should be suffered to pollute the air with exhalations the most virulent and intolerable?’.[7]

The Blackstaff had once carried fresh clear water from nearby mountains and valleys. New houses built near its banks in the 19th century meant that it ‘gradually intersected with open sewers’. The river became ‘the depository of nuisances of all kind’. The building of mills along its banks further worsened the problem. The water and air surrounding the river now gave off a sickening, pungent smell. Flooding was common. The contents of the black river overflowed regularly into the nearby homes of workers.[8]  Throughout much of the century, fever cases were notoriously high in adjoining areas such as Sandy Row. In 1849, at a Town Hall meeting about the ‘Blackstaff nuisance’, Rev. William Johnston reported visiting sick persons ‘while the water was within half-an-inch of the beds on which they were lying’. Little wonder that disease was endemic ‘so long as people have damp feet and a flood of water poured in upon them’, warned Johnston.[9]

The situation persisted for decades. Reporting in 1865, the Board of Guardians reported a ‘great unwillingness’ among Sandy Row’s residents to attend hospital. Parents refused to send their children go to hospital, despite a risk of falling victim to fever themselves.[10] With some justification, many families saw hospitals as insanitary places with limited capacity to cure the infected. The workhouse hospital carried significant stigma. In 1872, local doctor George Frederick Wales blamed apathy and inaction, and also the enormous costs of cleaning the river and diverting sewage for the ongoing situation.[11] Eventually, an Act of 1878 authorised the diversion of the River Blackstaff. Much of the river was built over and remains hidden underground to this day (underneath the area stretching from Sandy Row, Ormeau Avenue to the Gasworks).[12]

Walking among the Poor

Image: Working Class Dwellings of Belfast, W. H. Stephens & Sons, Chartered Quantity Surveyors, Belfast. Courtesy of the Deputy Keeper of the Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, D1898/1/52.

It was a book written by a reverend, not the dry pronouncements of medical officers, which captivated public attention. In 1853, William Murphy O’Hanlon published his scandalous book, Walks among the Poor of Belfast. In this, he warned that just next to Belfast’s great throughfares existed ‘social misery, vice and squalid poverty which lurk in obscure dens, within, it may be, a few hundred yards of these more open ways’. O’Hanlon depicted an urban geography that allowed the wealthy to go about their business unaware of the ‘dark and noisome haunts’ in nearby alleyways. When investigating Grattan Street (in an area now occupied by the Cathedral Quarter), O’Hanlon stumbled across one house in which seven people lived and slept without beds. In his words, ‘the desolation and wretchedness of this apartment – without windows and open in all directions – it is utterly impossible to describe’. For too many members of the poorer classes, the Industrial Revolution promised not civilisation and advancement, but a return to animalistic, disease-ridden ways of life. ‘Do not this and similar foul blots upon our artificial civilisation cause the thoughts sometimes to revert to the happier condition of the children of the wilderness?’, asked O’Hanlon. But there was no turning back to pre-industrial life.

Reports of poor health were rarely enough alone to arouse public opinion. When discussing over-crowding, O’Hanlon carefully reported on families with mothers who had passed away, leaving the father living in cramped conditions with his surviving daughters. The implication here was incest, described by O’Hanlon as a loathsome social ulcer, a first step towards street-walking and prostitution. Campaigners and reformers knew that lapsing sexual morals, not health, usually spurred the middle classes into action.[13]

Hygiene and Apathy

In the ‘pathogenic city’, disease was a constant threat. Families, friendships and communities, especially those of the working classes, were under constant siege from diseases which doctors could not cure, manage or ward off. Nonetheless, for most of the century, concern peaked only when cholera endangered the city. For centuries, cholera had been rife in the Indian sub-continent. The cholera micro-organism flourished in warm rivers and infected anyone who drank contaminated water. Improvements in global transport, also a product of the Industrial Revolution, meant that an outbreak which began in India in 1817 spread across Asia and Russia in the 1820s, before arriving in Europe and North America in the 1830s.[14] The century saw four major outbreaks in Belfast.[15]

During the Irish Famine, between 1847 and 1848, an estimated 2,500 Belfast residents died of fever and dysentery. A Sanitary Committee was formed, Medical Officers of Health and sanitary inspectors appointed, and water fountains erected.[16] In 1849, a further 1,128 deaths from cholera followed.[17] Medical Officer of Health, Samuel Brown, later recalled: ‘the epidemic of 1849 passed away, and very soon the general public seemed almost to have forgotten the lesson so dearly imparted but, I fear, not learned’. Once cholera departed, subscriptions to the Sanitary Committee stopped arriving and the operation ‘died from apathetic neglect’.[18]

Similarly, William Murphy O’Hanlon commented on the ‘vast sensation’ produced in the public mind when a dreaded plague [cholera] arrived, but advised: ‘Let us not forget the thousands who are dying around us, by no sudden stroke it may be, but nevertheless as the victims of filth, foul air and putridity’.[19] In his 1852 report, The Sanitary State of Belfast, Andrew George Malcolm also commented on the rapid loss of interest in the Sanitary Committee.[20] Cleanliness, hygiene and the plight of the poor interested the public only when cholera loomed. Concern lapsed at other times. Meanwhile, endemic, day-to-day diseases continued to flourish.

Legislation was introduced in the 1840s that set out basic standards for new housing, but over-crowding remained common. Streets were left in a similarly squalid state. In 1858, during a house-to-house visit of the entire town, local medical officers discovered that Belfast had 79 unpaved and 285 badly paved streets, 4046 houses with no back yard, 4326 without draining and 6179 without a proper receptacle for human waste.[21]

Fear and Public Action

Image: View of Castle Place towards Hercules Place. © National Museums NI.

In 1865, when reporting on ‘pestilence‘ (cholera) spreading across Russia, the Belfast Newsletter warned that the ‘nervous fear’ of cholera returning to Belfast was itself enough to trigger ‘some disease just as fatal’. This statement reveals much about the mental anguish and emotional turmoil roused even by suggestions that cholera, still incurable, was heading towards the city. In the 1860s, memories of the Famine-period outbreaks were still fresh in many minds. Anticipation alone could induce intense emotional anxiety, exposing fragile, under-nourished bodies to stress-related sickness (using modern-day terminology), even before pestilence had arrived.[22]

In reality, the Victorians were getting better at managing disease. In 1865, another Sanitary Committee was appointed, largely due to fears of a renewed cholera outbreak. When cholera did arrive the following year, only 73 cases were reported (with 33 deaths), mostly in areas with poor sanitation, unpaved streets and limited sewerage arrangements.[23]

Disease outbreaks impacted greatest upon Belfast’s poor, but the middle classes knew that contagion had no respect for class boundaries. Public health reformers appealed to the wealthier with reminders that disease spread easily from impoverished areas to middle-class homes. In 1865, the Belfast Newsletter warned that it was not possible to quarantine and isolate the ‘close and crowded lanes and entries behind Hercules Street’ was impossible, meaning that nothing would stop cholera, should it arrive, ‘from visiting the wider streets, the pleasant terraces and fashionable suburbs’. Hercules Street was a narrower, squalid predecessor of today’s Royal Avenue, home to nearly fifty butchers and slaughterhouses, littered with animal waste and carcasses.[24] It was a perfect environment for disease to thrive and spread.

For labourers, life had to carry on, regardless of the threat of infection. In the industrial age, neither working at home or ‘social distancing’ were feasible. To survive, families still needed income. However, the cramped conditions in which labourers worked and lived increased their exposure to infection. ‘Hercules himself would fail to cleanse the alleys that border on the street called after his name’, warned the Belfast Newsletter. ‘There is but one remedy for the evil…the whole nest of horrors must be swept away’.[25]

Eventually, it was. In 1880, the street was widened, improved and re-named. But, by then, the fourth great cholera pandemic had already ended. Regardless, many believed the new buildings that emerged around Royal Avenue, later joined by the new City Hall, were built first and foremost by the Belfast Corporation as symbols of civic pride, rather than due to any genuine concern about the former residents’ health.[26]

© The Author(s) 2021. Published by the Epidemic Belfast team on behalf of Ulster University. Any unauthorised broadcasting, public performance, copying or re-recording will constitute an infringement of copyright.

[1] Stephen A. Royle, Portrait of an Industrial City: ‘Changing Belfast, 1750-1914 (Belfast: Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, 2011), esp. chapter 2.

[2] J.P. Lynch, An Unlikely Success Story: The Belfast Shipbuilding Industry, 1880-1935 (Belfast: Belfast Society, 2001).

[3] A.G. Malcolm, The Sanitary State of Belfast with Suggestions for its Improvements (Belfast: Henry Greer, 1852), p. 14.

[4] Christopher Hamlin, Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick, 1800-1954 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Michael Worboys, Spreading Germs: Disease Theories and Medical Practice in Britain, 1865-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[5] Mark Harrison, Disease and the Modern World: 1500 to the Present Day (London: Polity, 2004), esp. chapters 5 and 8.


[7] Henry McCormac, On the Connexion of Atmospheric Impurity with Disease: A Paper Read before the Statistical Section of the British Association (Belfast: Henry Greer, 1852), pp. 3-6.

[8] McCormac, On the Connexion of Atmospheric Impurity, pp. 3-6.

[9] ‘The Blackstaff Nuisance: Public Meeting in the Town Hall’, Belfast Newsletter (28 August 1849).

[10] ‘Belfast Board of Guardians’, Belfast Newsletter (19 April 1865).

[11] Linen Hall Library. George Frederick Wales, A Proposal for Abating the Blackstaff Nuisance (Belfast: Alexander S. Mayne, 1872).

[12] Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol. 78 (London: The Institution, 1884),  pp. 437-8.

[13] William Murphy O’Hanlon, Walks among the Poor of Belfast and Suggestions for their Improvement (Belfast: Greer, M’Comb, Phillips and Mayne, 1853), pp. 1-5.

[14] Christopher Hamlin, Cholera: The Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[15] Nigel Farrell, ‘Asiatic Cholera and the Development of Public Health in Belfast, 1832-1878’, Unpublished PhD thesis, Ulster University, 2014.

[16] Samuel Brown, ‘On the Progress of Sanitary Inquiry in Belfast’, Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1868), pp. 477-86 on p. 477.

[17] Christine Kinealy and Gerard Mac Atasney, The Hidden Famine: Hunger, Poverty and Sectarianism in Belfast (London: Pluto Press, 2000), pp. 168-71..

[18] Brown, ‘On the Progress of Sanitary Inquiry’, p. 477.

[19] O’Hanlon, Walks among the Poor, p. 61.

[20] Malcolm, Sanitary State of Belfast, p. 16.

[21] ‘The Public Health’, Poor Law Magazine and Journal of Public Health for Scotland 1(October 1868), pp. 3-8 on p. 6.

[22] ‘Editorial’, Belfast Newsletter (10 April 1865).

[23] Brown, ‘On the Progress of Sanitary Inquiry’, 480.

[24] Lesley E.E. Donaldson, ‘‘A Street of Butchers’: An Economic and Social Profile of Hercules Place and Hercules Street, Belfast 1860-90’, Irish Economic and Social History, 44:1 (2017). See also

[25] ‘Editorial’, Belfast Newsletter (10 April 1865).

[26] Donaldson, ‘A Street of Butchers’.

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