Poor health and hard lives in early 20th century Richmondshire

Leyburn market place in the early 20th century.

In a new feature, local historian Ian Spensley looks at the social development of Richmondshire during the 20th century. In part one he examines the unsanitary conditions and poor health endured by the district’s rural residents.

Along with newspaper reports, the records of the rural district councils (RDC), now stored at the North Yorkshire Record Office, give a good impression of the conditions under which people lived.

At the start of the 20th century despite some new houses being built, many of those of the working class were unsanitary. There was a great shortage of workman’s houses in 1907; of the existing stock most were badly ventilated at best. In Leyburn, this particularly applied to Hanover Terrace, Heddon Villas, Richmond Terrace, and those in Wilson and Campbell’s Yard.

The ashpits and closets were too near the houses and emptied infrequently. In Arrathorne, the closets were all in the cowhouses, which was not only unsanitary, but deemed to be “indecent”. At Hunton the ashpits were also too near houses, the slops being put on the gardens. As the drinking water was pumped from wells below the surface of the gardens it was contaminated.

Death rates give some indication of general health. In 1902 within the Leyburn RDC area alone there were 11 deaths of children aged under one, or 94.83 deaths per 1,000 births registered. In 1905 there were two premature deaths, two from scarlet fever, three erysipelas, 12 diphtheria, three enteric fever. Of the diphtheria cases, six were at Middleham and six at West Witton, all due to a lack of sanitation.

The area had never been free of measles and by 1910, every child under 13 in Middleham had the disease. It then spread up Coverdale and reappeared at Patrick Brompton. Diarrhoea at Thornton Steward had started with school children but spread to nearly everyone in the village. The source of infection was the school room which was then used for Sunday service.

At Bellerby the common lodging house had one sleeping room with three double beds for men only. They used the kitchen to wash in. Drinking and washing water was taken from the beck near to where a drain entered it, with a closet and ashpit close by. Both this lodging house and another one in Middleham were described as filthy in 1908.

Conditions at West Witton had not improved by 1909. The population was only 1/19th of the whole district but deaths were 1/6th of the total. Of ten deaths under one-year-old, four occurred at West Witton with three cases of diphtheria.

As operations at the quarries expanded, a serious nuisance was found at the Harmby Quarries in 1910, where no sanitary accommodation had been provided for the quarrymen.
Influenza was noted in 1916, and the medical officer stated that “it was undesirable at present to attend dances, whist drives or meetings of any sort while religious buildings should be thoroughly ventilated”.

During the year to April 1919, 23 deaths were from influenza, taking the death rate from an average of 17.6, to 19.08 per 1,000.

Jumping ahead to 1931, Mr JH Rider occupied a barn in Redmire as a dwelling which was judged unfit for human habitation and he was given notice to quit.

The medical office also reported that the house occupied by S Harrison in Leyburn was “in such a filthy (or unwholesome) condition” that his health was endangered.

It was resolved that the council should clean it at his expense, however a year later nothing had changed in both these cases.

Records show that at Harmby in 1933 a Mrs Atkinson and her four children were living in a shelter in Harmby Gill not fit for human habitation.

Life in Richmondshire in the early 20th century could be hard and short.



  1. Interesting about the Harmby Quarries. My great-grandmother’s brother, Joseph Simpson, worked in that quarry, late 18th/early 20th century. They lived in Brook Terrace, Harmby, which I believe still exists.

  2. My great-grandmother’s brother, Joseph Simpson, worked in the Harmby Quarry. They lived in Brook Terrace, Harmby.

Comments are closed.