Yeovil in the nineteenth century was one of the most insanitary and unhealthy places in England, with endemic diseases resulting from squalid living conditions, substandard and hazardous working conditions, poverty, overwork and inadequate public services.
A Yeovil doctor, in 1849 described the town as ‘a very filthy, a very dirty, and a very stinking place’.
Town Improvement Commissioners appointed in 1830 had gone some way, as far as their limited powers permitted, to alleviate conditions by improving the streets. Until then, the town had been ‘destitute of sewerage' scarcely a street being without an open ditch or drain along the whole or part, in some places five feet deep.
It was apparent that prevailing conditions could no longer be tolerated. Though the Town Commissioners turned down the request for a public meeting to discuss matters, a group of townsmen called a meeting of ratepayers in 1849 following which a committee was formed to petition the Central Board of Health for an enquiry.
The Board’s inspector, Dr. Thomas W. Rammell, conducted the enquiry in December 1851, his report appearing the following August. This showed a lack of piped water, while many of the town’s wells were condemned as being polluted by leaking cesspools and drains, as well as effluent from leather dressing works. A further health hazard due to overcrowded living and working conditions, resulted in a high incidence of tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid fever. Several instances were cited of a single privy serving a number of dwellings, particularly in many courts.
The report also showed that of Yeovil’s 1,115 inhabited houses, 72 were entirely without a water supply, 278 were partially supplied but the quality was so contaminated as to be unfit for drinking. Of the remaining 765 dwellings, 467 were supplied from 113 pumps or wells. Thus, nearly two-thirds of the houses, mainly occupied by the poorer class, had an imperfect or improper supply.
It was largely due to Dr. Rammell’s report that moves towards a municipal corporation came to fruition in 1854.