Mrs Yates: (b.1882- 1976) Illness, Health & Disability

“There was only dirty windows, you know. They weren’t like they are now, today. There was no… not much hygiene back then

Mrs Yates (p.18)

The late nineteenth century had seen great strides in public health provision and hygiene however dangerous and most often fatal illnesses and diseases were still very prevalent within society. In 1900 the life expectancy was below 50 and 165 infants out of every 1,000 died before their first birthday. Many of the working classes in Britain suffered from occupational diseases as a result of poor working environments with little access to healthcare.

Home Visit from a Doctor- Nineteenth Century

Mrs Yates discusses the health and disability of the residents in Lower Darwen from sick workers to the expense of doctors’ bills. In the nineteenth century, towns in Lancashire had some of the poorest health outcomes in Britain due to the insufficient factory conditions the working classes had to endure. As Lower Darwen was a mill town many of the village residents suffered from respiratory problems, and Mrs Yates reveals in her interview that the biggest health issue was Bronchitis (which can be caused by inhaling cotton dust). The dominance of the cotton industry in Lancashire meant that many people were suffering from occupational illness and disease: ‘by the late nineteenth century, Lancashire mill towns had gained an infamous reputation for having some of the lowest health expenditures and poorest health outcomes in Britain’ (Greenlees, 2019, p.31).

Health care was also not attainable for many working-class families due to its expense, and Mrs Yates confesses to Berger how the doctor would have a great impact on finances if a family member ever happened to fall ill, ‘you didn’t have the doctor if you could avoid having the doctor’ (p.16). Unfortunately, working-class people would most often live with debilitating ailments and illnesses due to their poor financial state. Although, many would pay the doctor off on tick every week as Mrs Yates’s mother did, ‘I know my mother used to pay a shilling a week off the bill’ (p.16) however this debt would only mount up again if a family member became ill which left them in an endless cycle of debt. If a mill worker ever became ill a ‘sick-worker’ would take their place in the factory for as long as they needed to ensure the mill continued running smoothly. However, this meant that people would have to go without wages for the period that the sick workers were in which left families destitute.

There was only dirty windows, you know. They weren’t like they are now, today. There was no… not much hygiene then” (p.18)

The conditions in the workplace were below standard with loud machinery that caused deafness and poorly ventilated spaces that caused respiratory issues. Mrs Yates recalls how workers could not hear each other over the heavy machinery: ‘you’d have to go right to their ear and speak that way. You couldn’t talk- you know over it. Oh, it’s very very noisy’ (p.11). Deafness was not seen as a disability in the nineteenth century as it did not prevent people from physically working. It was only in 1907 when industrial deafness gained political awareness when the Home Office Departmental Committee on Compensation for Industrial Diseases debated whether to include deafness caused by work on the list of comprehensible injuries and illness (Greenlees, 2019, p.133). On top of this, the mills were very hot places to work and dew often collected on the floor from the humidity which caused slipping hazards. To prevent this, workers would have to wear clogs. Overall, mill factories were very dangerous places and work often resulted in injury and in some cases death. In addition, compensation was not given to workers who injured themselves in the workplace which meant there was no support given to people who sustained lifelong injuries.

After the Public Health Act of 1872, towns were required to employ a Ministry of Health who was meant to be independent of council pressures: ‘During the nineteenth century, the local business elite dominated Lancashire town councils and helped set the public health agenda.’ (Greenlees, 2013). Lower Darwen’s acting Ministry of Health would most likely have been the Eccles family who Mrs Yates describes as being the reliever of the working-classes: ‘the Eccles family were very good to the work people. anybody in lower Darwen who was sort of ill or short they’d only have to go to the Elms and they would be relieved’ (p.16). Many villagers would utilise the help from the Eccles family to relieve them of debts in order to help them from spiralling into financial difficulties.

Young Boy Lost Two Fingers Working in a Cotton Mill- 1912

It is evident from Mrs Yates’s recollection that public health was not up to the standard it should have been in the late-nineteenth century. Occupational illnesses were very prevalent in Blackburn due to the significant part the town played within the textile industry in Britain, however, health care was not accessible to everyone due to its expense. Fortunately, the Eccles family were at hand to relieve the villagers in lower Darwen of crippling doctors debts.


Greenlees, J. ‘The dangers attending these conditions are evident’: Public Health and the Working Environment of Lancashire Textile Communities, c.1870–1939.’ Social History of Medicine, [online]. 2013. Available at: <> [Accessed 31 March 2021].

Greenlees, J. When the Air Became Important: A Social History of the New England and Lancashire Textile Industries. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick. 2019. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [18 April 2021].

‘Mrs Yates: Before My Time’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection

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