Angus Reach, the son of a solicitor, was born in Inverness in 1821. He received a good education at Inverness Royal Academy and the University of Edinburgh. While at university Reach began to contribute articles for the Inverness Courier, a newspaper owned by his father.
In 1841 Reach moved to London where he was appointed as parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle, a post previously held by Charles Dickens. Reach developed a unique style of "picturesque reporting" that helped influence a generation of journalists. One critic wrote that: "He had the power to bring a vivid picture before the reader, a practice which was then associated with the novelist rather than the journalist. Under his influence the public saw what he saw, heard what he heard, and shared all the emotion and excitement of a spectator at the scene."
In 1849 Henry Mayhew suggested to the editor of the Morning Chronicle, John Douglas Cook, that the newspaper should carry out an investigation into the condition of the labouring classes in England and Wales. Cook agreed and recruited a team that included Reach, Mayhew, Shirley Brooks and Charles Mackay. Reach was given the task of investigating the Manufacturing Districts. He told his readers that he intended to investigate the question: "What was the impact of the social and economic development of the age on the life of the working man and working woman". Angus Reach went into the homes of working people and encouraged them to speak about their lives. Reach visited most of the important industrial towns and cities including Manchester, Oldham, Leeds, Halifax, Bradford, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester and Sheffield.
The publication of Reach's investigations in the Morning Chronicle, increased his reputation as one of Britain's leading journalists. His work was in great demand and he contributed to various newspapers and journals. Reach was also a talented humourous writer and wrote Town Talk and Table Talk for Punch Magazine. He was also joint editor of the journal The Man in the Moon.
Reach's health began to deteriorate during his late twenties. His friends warned him that he was suffering from overwork but he refused to take it easy. Other book produced in his final years included The Natural History of Bores (1847), Natural History of Humbugs (1848), A Romance of a Mince-Pie (1848), Clement Lorimer (1849), and Leonard Lindsay: The Story of a Buccaneer (1850).
In the final months of his life, Reach was supported by his great friend Shirley Brooks. The date of his death is not known but his fellow writer at Punch Magazine, M. H. Spielmann, says he died before he was thirty.
The traveller by railway is made aware of his approach to the great northern seats of industry by the dull leaden-coloured sky, tainted by thousands of ever smoking chimneys, which broods over the distance. The stations along the line are more closely planted, showing that the country is more and more thickly peopled. Then, small manufacturing villages begin to appear, each consisting of two or three irregular streets clustered around the mill, as in former times cottages were clustered round the castle.
You shoot by town after town - the outlying satellites of the great cotton metropolis. They have all similar features - they are all little Manchesters. Huge, shapeless, unsightly mills, with their countless rows of windows, their towering shafts, their jets of waste steam continually puffing in panting gushes from the brown grimy wall. Some dozen or so of miles so characterised, you enter the Queen of the cotton cities - and then amid smoke and noise, and the hum of never ceasing toil, you are borne over the roofs to the terminus platform. You stand in Manchester.
There is a smoky brown sky over head - smoky brown streets all round long piles of warehouses, many of them with pillared and stately fronts - great grimy mills, the leviathans of ugly architecture, with their smoke-pouring shafts. There are streets of all kinds - some with glittering shops and vast hotels, others grim and little frequented - formed of rows and stacks of warehouses; many mean and distressingly monotonous visas of uniform brick houses.
There are swarms of mechanics and artisans in their distinguishing fustian - of factory operatives, in general undersized, sallow-looking men - and of factory girls somewhat stunted and paled, but smart and active-looking with dingy dresses and dark shawls, speckled with flakes of cotton wool, wreathed round their heads.
The piecers, either girls or boys, walk along the mule as it advances or recedes, catching up the broken threads and skilfully reuniting them. The scavenger, a little boy or girl, crawls occasionally beneath the mule when it is at rest, and cleans the mechanism from superfluous oil, dust and dirt.
The opinions of two medical gentleman of Manchester, with whom I have conversed upon the subject of factories and health, some to this: that the insalubrity of Manchester and of the Manchester operatives is occasioned not by the labour of the mills, but by the defective domestic arrangements for cleanliness and ventilation.
The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy, and most wicked locality in Manchester is called Angel Meadow. It lies off the Oldham Road, is full of cellars and is inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps, and, in the very worst sites of filth, and darkness. My guide was sub-inspector of police - an excellent conductor in one respect, but disadvantageous in another, seeing that his presence spread panic wherever he went. Many of the people that night visited had, doubtless, ample cause to be nervous touching the presence of one of the guardians of the law.
There were no Irish in the houses we visited. They live in more wretched places still - the cellars. We descended to one. The place was dark, except for the glare of the small fire. You could not stand without stooping in the room, which might be about twelve feet by eight. There were at least a dozen men, women, and children, on stools or squatted on the stone floor round the fire, and the heat and smells were oppressive. This not being a lodging cellar, the police had no control over the number of its inmates, who slept huddled on the stones, or on masses of rags, shavings and straw, which were littered about.
Half the people who lived in the den, had not yet returned, being still out hawking lucifers, matches and besoms. They were all Irish from Westport, in the county of Mayo. After leaving, a woman followed me into the street to know if I had come from Westport and was greatly disappointed at being answered in the negative.
The visitor to Oldham will find it essentially a mean-looking straggling town, built upon both sides and crowning the ridge of one of the outlying spurs which branch from Manchester, the neighbouring "backbone of England". The whole place has a shabby underdone look. The general appearance of the operatives' houses is filthy and smouldering.
Airless little back streets and close nasty courts are common; pieces of dismal waste ground - all covered with wreaths of mud and piles of blackened brick and rubbish - separate the mills, which are often of small dimensions and confined and crowded appearance. The shops cannot be complimented, the few hotels are no better than taverns, and altogether the place, to borrow a musical simile, seems far under concert pitch.
I observed as I walked up from the railway station, melancholy clusters of gaunt, dirty, unshorn men lounging on the pavement. These I heard were principally hatters, a vast number of whom are out of employment. Another feature of the place was the quantity of dogs of all kinds which abounded - dog races and dog fights being both common among the lowest orders of the inhabitants.
Mr. Smith of Deanston, in a sanitary report made about 1837, describes Bradford as being the dirtiest town in England. Mills abound in great plenty, and their number is daily increasing, while the town itself extends in like proportion. Bradford is essentially a new town. Half a century ago it was a mere cluster of huts: now the district of which it is the heart contains upwards of 132,000 inhabitants. The value of life is about 1 in 40. Fortunes have been made in Bradford with a rapidity almost unequalled even in the manufacturing districts.
The houses of the work people are very inferior. They are one and all constructed back to back, or rather built double, with a partition running down the ridge of the roof. This is the case even in rows and streets at present building. "The plan," said my informant, "is adopted because of its cheapness, and because it saves ground rent."
Bradford is well suited for drainage. There is ample fall, and the "Bradford Beck," a rapid stream which flows through the town, would, if arched over, make a capital main sewer. The brook at present runs the colour of ink. The relieving officer with whom I inspected the town, showed me a spot where the foul water washed the grimy walls of half a dozen steaming mills. "There," he said, "when I was a boy. I used to catch trout in as bright a stream as any in Yorkshire."
The streets of Halifax are disgracefully neglected. This applies especially to the courts and cul-de-sacs inhabited by the very poor - including of course the Irish. I inspected several very closely and found them reeking with stench and the worst sort of abomination. The ash-pits were disgustingly choked, ordure and filthy stagnant slops lay freely and deeply scattered around, often at the very thresholds of swarming dwellings; and among all this muck, uncared for children sprawled by the score, and idle slatternly women lounged by the half dozen.
I talked to several in their cellars. One old woman who had been more than thirty years in England, talked dolefully of the decline of the hawking trade. She had frequently in her youth, she said, made 20s out of one house. But the poor people now seldom earned more than a shilling at the very most for a hard day's work.
Two strapping fellows sat smoking by the smouldering fire. The beds were greasy mattresses, partially covered with foul rags, and rolled up in corners. In another cellar which was almost totally dark, for which its occupant paid 9d per week, a grey-haired negro - an old man-of-war's man - had lived for seventeen years. He seldom or never stirred out - vegetating there in a world of dirt and darkness.
The corporation of Leeds is, I understand, about to spend a very large sum (about £30,000 or £40,000) in the formation of an extensive system of paving, drainage, etc., in hitherto neglected portions of the borough. Never were sanitary reforms more imperatively called for. The condition of vast districts of the opulent and important town of Leeds is such that the very strongest language cannot overstate.
Virulent and fatal as was the recent attack of cholera here, my wonder is that cholera, or some disease almost equally as fatal, is ever absent. From one house, for instance, situated in a large irregular court or yard - a small house containing two rooms - four corpses were recently carried. I looked about and did not marvel. The floor was two or three inches deep in filth. This seemed to be the normal state even of the passable parts of the place. In the centre of the open place was a cluster of pigsties, privies and cesspools, bursting with pent-up abominations; and a half a dozen places from this delectable nucleus was a pit about five feet square filled to the very brim with semi-liquid manure gathered from the stables and houses around.
The east and north-east districts of Leeds are perhaps the worst. A short walk from the Briggate, in the direction in which Deansgate branches off from the main entry, will conduct the visitor into a perfect wilderness of foulness. I have plodded by the half hour through the streets in which the undisturbed mud lay in wreaths from wall to wall; and across open spaces, overlooked by houses all round, in which the pigs, wandering from the central oasis, seemed to be roaming through what was only a large sty. Indeed, pigs seem to be natural inhabitants of such places. I think that they are more common in some parts of Leeds than dogs and cats are in others.
In Sheffield there are many old, crowded, and filthy localities, and a very considerable proportion of the operatives' dwellings are constructed back to back. Generally speaking, the cottage houses contain a small cellar, a living room about twelve feet square, a chamber of the same size above, and, in perhaps one-half of the entire number, an attic about seven feet high over the chamber. Cases are rare in which more than one artisan's family inhabit the same house, and cellar dwellings are totally unknown.
Diseases of the lungs and air passages are, it is well-known, the most fatal and characteristic complaints of Sheffield. Amongst the diseases of the air passages are reckoned cases of bronchitis, pleuritis, asthma, catarrh, and phthisis.
Several of the grinding processes, by the quantities of excessively fine steel-dust flung into the atmosphere, are frequently and rapidly fatal to those engaged in them; while the bending and stooping postures necessary in all grinding, wet as well as dry, have necessarily their more gradually prejudicial effect. The average age of death of the gentry and professional person in Sheffield is 45.90, that of saw-makers is only 13.94, and that of various grinders, 18.15.
About three-fourths of the housing in Nottingham are constructed for and occupied by the working-classes, and as a rule they are built in courts and back-to-back. The general plan of construction divides them into three clear stories, of one room each - singularly inconvenient and defective arrangement. The staircases are very steep, dark and narrow.
The lower room is in general the living apartment. It is almost floored with brick, or, if boarded, as it may be in rare cases, sand supplies the place of carpeting. The street door is invariably the room door. In point of furniture, I should say that that the living apartments of the Nottingham operatives, particularly those of the framework knitters, are decidedly inferior to the dwellings of the mass of the work people in the cotton, woollen, and northern coal districts. I have been frequently struck with the bare appearance of the rooms, and this even in the houses of middlemen in the hosiery trade, who had perhaps a dozen or score of knitting frames at work. An inferior sort of sofa, however, and a clock are common. The lace-workers' houses are somewhat better furnished. A few of the latter belonging to operatives earning the higher class of wages. The apartment on the first floor is invariably a bedroom; that above it either a bedroom or a workshop, in which the knitting machines and occasionally warp-lace frames are set.
In the late cholera visitation Nottingham got off almost scot-free. There occurred but eight cases of which six resulted in death. One of the causes of this comparative immunity may no doubt be found in the sanitary improvements effected since 1832. The water supply subsequent to that year has been, and is, most abundant; and the work of sewer-making and pavement-making has been steadily progressive. A sanitary committee was appointed and thirty-four dwellings erected over the privies and ash-pits have been removed, the change in many instances throwing open hitherto unventilated courts and noisome alleys. A great number of foul nuisances of a similar class, including 21 pig-sties and 24 cess-pools containing "dangerous collections of manure", have been got rid of, and many courts and small streets paved and drained.
There are about 35 silk manufactories engaged in the various branches of the trade in Derby, and in the different factories it is estimated that about 5,000 people find employment. The town possesses minor resources in its iron-founding establishments. The population of the town in 1841 was 35,019. The total number of marriages in 1840 was 450. Of these, 382 were celebrated according to the rites of the Church and 74 in other modes. Of the 456 couples married, 103 men and 189 women signed with their marks. The number of illegitimate births during 1846 was 111.
The sewers and drains are very defective; refuse accumulates in house drains to a great extent; there are no local regulations for systematic drainage, but there is a regular service of scavengers. The town is supplied with water, principally from pumps and wells. The sanitary and structural state of matters are not particularly favourable. Nevertheless, in point of building arrangements the working population of Derby are very decidedly better off than their neighbours at Nottingham. Derby, in fact, has always had more elbow room. Its suburbs spread freely forth, and the town exhibits none of that structural piling and huddling, characteristic of Nottingham.
The town of Leicester lies in a gentle hollow, sheltered, except towards the east, by the undulations of the Dane and Spinney hills. The sluggish stream of the Soar winds through the town; and in wet weather the adjacent meadows are swampy and often overflowed. The consequence is, the frequent prevalence of fever in the lowest-lying portions of the town. The mean duration of life in England is 29.11 years. In Leicester it is 25 years.
The drainage is miserably defective. Out of 242 streets and 3,417 courts, alleys and yards, only 112 are entirely culverted, and about 130 partially so. There are nine outfalls of sewers, all situated in the town, and all pouring their contents into the most stagnant waters of the Soar. The surface drainage is equally defective. This is seldom sufficient fall to carry away the dirty water.
At the back of each block of the more ordinary class of houses is a common yard, with privies, cesspools, and ash-pits, for the use of the occupants. From these places there is seldom or never any sub-soil drainage. Slops and liquid refuse are left to evaporate, and send up their noisome effluvia.
Of the 13,991 houses in Leicester only 120 are supplied with water closets - the average cost of each being £31 10s, a sum equal to half the amount necessary for building a four-roomed house. Many of the cesspools are of great depth; some of them not less than 25 feet; and the consequence is that, in numerous instances, the water which is found still nearer the surface is poisoned by noxious percolations.