Messum's Court

by Derek Slape

Living conditions in mid-Victorian Portsmouth were terrible for the poorer classes, including our ancestors, Charles Slape and family. At the time of the 1851 census Charles and his wife Sarah were living at 13 Messum's Court with their two sons George and William.

Most houses at the time were badly built, many of them back-to-back, and the ground floors of all were very damp. The older houses were always in a state of filth and bad repair. Their cellars, in which people often lived, were soaking either from water filtering in from land-soaks or springs or, worse, from the overflow of nearby privies. Some houses had outer walls of only half a brick thick and others were actually built over filthy privies. New streets soon became impassable because of mud which could reach a depth of two to three feet and people often had to be rescued from it.

Everywhere there were cowls which were closed at both ends and approached by covered passages. In them the filth flooding from privies and refuse thrown by the inhabitants accumulated. In some streets there was only one tap to serve as many as sixty people. Such was Messum's Court, situated below sea level and therefore very damp, reached from a narrow street below the town walls known as Prospect Row (now Gunwharf Road) and a tunnel only two feet wide which was called Squeeze Gut Alley. Here 116 people lived, some of them in cellars, with one privy and one standpipe which perhaps supplied water for only ten minutes per day. Through the court ran a large open drain and when this was emptied the contents would remain on the surface opposite the exit, suffocating the whole area with its stench.

The short supply of water meant that for most purposes the people who lived in such places used rainwater collected in butts or bought it at a halfpenny or three farthings a bucket from travelling water carts. They sometimes sank wells in the muddy paths outside their doors. Often the well water was polluted by a nearby cesspool, as well as the feet of passersby. The wells were a danger to walkers, especially at night and it was a common occurrence for small children to be rescued from them if they did not drown first. The shortage of privies meant that chamber pots were emptied into the cowls or passages or  into the Camber[1] where they accumulated.

Another nuisance in these courts was the practice of pig-keeping. In East St. twenty or thirty pigs were kept in a confined space and their dung was left in an open yard for three months at a time. The stench was so bad that people had to leave their homes.

No wonder that a year after the census, in 1852, Charles Slape died of bronchitis because of living in conditions such as these. (One wonders how he was able to survive so long!).

Messum's court was also visited by cholera in 1849 when the disease was rife in Portsmouth because of the poor sanitary conditions.

[1] The Camber is the small Harbour in Old Portsmouth that is now used as a small yacht marina and where local fishermen land their catches for the local fish wholesalers in Old Portsmouth.

copyright Derek Slape 2001