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Dr. Duncan changed the nation’s health

YOUNG Liverpool born doctor William Henry Duncan saw the terrible insanitary living conditions in his home city at first hand – especially in the court and cellar housing of Vauxhall district’s north Liverpool dockland.

He also experienced mortality on a larger scale than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. And that grim personal experience spurred him to deliver influential talks and pamphlets to the city’s officials, and motivate them to appoint the country’s first Medical Officer of Health.

The professional post was created in 1847 in a brave, radical fashion by Liverpool’s Town Council to work hand in hand with the newly created posts of James Newlands, as the country’s first Borough Engineer, and Thomas Fresh as Inspector of Nuisances. This powerful trio were entrusted by the council to implement — in a practical way — all the necessary Poor Law recommendations plus reports from pioneers like Edwin Chadwick and Dr. Farr, that otherwise might gather dust as all text and no action.

But what had led up to this innovative development?
Like many rapidly industrialising towns and cities in the UK, the rural population flocked to work in the massive and rapidly establishing manufacturing industries. Liverpool’s immoral wealth from the slave trade in the 1600s and 1700s was used to service exports and imports via its docks for the booming industrialisation of other Lancashire towns and cities from the early 1800s.

But the lack of investment in skills – allied to casual, insecure work in Liverpool’s port jobs — contributed to the city reaching the top of the national tree in the poverty and mortality ranking.
Dr. William Henry Duncan, who had worked since the 1830s as a young doctor, was all too aware of this, and tirelessly and persuasively used facts, figures and comparisons with other towns to lobby for local government to attend to the sanitary needs of the people.

Liverpool’s immoral wealth from the slave trade in the 1600s and 1700s was used to service exports and imports via its docks for the booming industrialisation of other Lancashire towns and cities from the early 1800s.

Until 1842 there were no planning or construction restrictions on housing in Liverpool. That led to many thousands of courtyard houses which Dr. Duncan came to loathe almost as much as grimy cellars. Liverpool had the highest volume of such habitation in Britain.

These “‘Courts” usually ran at right angles to the main street and were entered through a passageway from the main road. Inside the courtyard, homes faced one another across the open space. Built back-to-back and of high density, courts and cellars were often overcrowded, damp, dark, with little ventilation — a breeding ground for deadly diseases such as cholera, typhus and dysentery.

It was as a result of his visits to such places – and those in the Vauxhall district in particular – that Dr. Duncan published his most influential document, in 1843, titled: “On the Physical Causes of the High rate of Mortality in Liverpool”. It was a most damning and fact-rich report on the terrible conditions of court life.

Published while he was working as a lecturer in the Royal Infirmary School of Medicine, Duncan demonstrated that most of the working-class population of the town was without sewers or piped water. He described the abominable insanitary conditions prevailing in the courts and cellars. Ashpits and privies were infrequently emptied and their contents often spread over the court.
“I do not know a single court,” he said, “which communicates with the street or sewer by a covered drain.”

Number Six Court, Baptist Street. Photos ©Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Libraries.

Dr. Duncan was a prime mover in influencing the Town Council to enact the Liverpool Sanitary Act of 1846, which is seen as the nation’s first legislative attempt to improve housing conditions and prevent disease. He also got a job out of it too — as the country’s first Medical Officer of Health. And who better!

Duncan was born in 1805, the fifth child of a Liverpool merchant father and a mother from Dumfriesshire. He was raised in Seel Street, on what is now the site of The Blue Angel (or ‘Raz’) nightclub. Look on the wall and you will see a blue plaque in his memory.

In the next edition of the Scottie Press I will highlight the great partnership between Dr. Duncan and James Newlands, the country’s first Borough Engineer who transformed sewage treatment for the working class areas. I will also investigate mortality and my own family history in the Vauxhall and Kirkdale area.

The entrance on Burlington Street to number 32 Court Photos ©Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Libraries.

I will introduce you to my great grandfather Tom Pender’s eight brothers and sisters, born in Liverpool to Irish immigrants from rural county Wexford. Only one other sibling, Joseph, lived past his mid-40s, though Tom lasted 85 years.

Three others died in childhood, and I will find out why in time for the next edition, while 21 year old Patrick succumbed to scarlet fever, in the Northern Hospital at Great Howard Street. Later, siblings Robert and John Pender died from industrial accidents while working as firemen-stokers on the ships. Their sister Mary died in her early forties soon after a childbirth.

For improvements in housing, health and safety we owe a great deal to the likes of Dr. William Henry Duncan. To honour his memory we should also be vigilant that standards improve and are never allowed to slip.

Raise a glass to him in Dr. Duncan’s pub — or dance in his honour at The Blue Angel!

A narrow passageway into number 11 Court, Burlington Street Photos ©Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Libraries.