To Resources Home

Dr John Sutherland, Report on the Measures Adopted for the Relief of Cholera in Glasgow during the Epidemic of 1848-1849

Dr John Sutherland was a physician and promoter of sanitary science. In 1848 he became an inspector under the first Board of Health for the city and conducted several special enquiries. His description of Glasgow demonstrates in detail why cholera spread so quickly after the outbreaks in 1832 and 1848. Below are some extracts:


It is in those frightful abodes of human wretchedness which lay along the High Street, Saltmarket, and Bridgegate, and constitute the bulk of that district known as the ‘Wynds and Closes of Glasgow’, that all sanitary evils exist in perfection. They consist of ranges and narrow closes, some only four or five feet in width, and of great length. The houses are so lofty that the direct light of the sky never reaches a large proportion of the dwellings. The ordinary atmospheric ventilation is impossible. The cleansing, until lately, was most inefficient, and, from structural causes, will always, under existing arrangements, be difficult and expensive. There are large square midden-steads, some of them actually under the houses, and all of them in the immediate vicinity of the windows and doors of human dwellings. These receptacles hold the entire filth and offal of large masses of people and households, until country farmers can be bargained off with their removal. There is no drainage in these neighbourhoods, except in a few cases; and the want of any means of flushing, the sewers, where they do exist, are extended cesspools polluting the air. So little is house drainage in use, that on one occasion I saw the entire surface of a back yard covered for several inches with green putried water, although there was a sewer in the close within a few feet to which it might have been drained away. The water supply is also very defective; such a thing as a household supply is unknown, and I have been informed that, from the state of the law, the water companies find it impossible to recover rates, and that, had the cholera not appeared, it was in contemplation to have cut off the entire supply from this class of property.

The interior of the houses is in perfect keeping with their exterior. The approaches are generally in a state of filthiness beyond belief. The common stairs and passages are often the receptacles of the most disgusting nuisances. The houses themselves are dark, and without any means of ventilation. The walls dilapidated and filthy, and in many cases ruinous. There are no domestic conveniences even in the loftiest tenements, where they are most needed, except a kind of wooden sink placed outside some stair window, and communicating by a square wooded pipe with the surface of the close or court beneath. Down this contrivance, where it does exist, is poured the entire filth of the household or flat to which it belongs, and the solid refuse not unfrequently takes some direction till the tube become obstructed.


Source: Parliamentary Papers 1950 [1273, 1274 and 1275], Report of the General Board of Health on the Epidemic Cholera of 1848 and 1849, p.73.