Don’t drink the water!

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A warning the Brontë sisters clearly never received.

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Today we think of water as a pure and healthy drink, but there’s a reason many 19th century inhabitants consumed alcohol instead.

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An 1850 investigation by Benjamin Hershel Babbage—which was instigated by Patrick Brontë, the novelists’ father and the parish priest, shortly after the deaths of Emily (1848; she was 30), Branwell (1848; he was 31), and Anne (1849; she was 29)—showed that the small town of Haworth, where the Brontës lived, had much higher mortality rates than other nearby towns of similar size. 41.6% of Haworth’s inhabitants died before the age of 6; the average age of death was 25.8. (Charlotte would die in 1855 at the age of 38—of what would have been a treatable condition today; Patrick would outlive all of his children.)

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Average death age of 25.8? I have whiskey older than that…

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Babbage, seeking to get to the bottom of these statistics, found, among other things, that there were not enough privies for the population, and those they had were filthy, not properly drained, and—bizarrely—much too public. “Two of the privies used, by a dozen families each, are in the public street,” he wrote, “not only within view of the houses, but exposed to the gaze of passers by, whilst a third, as though even such a situation were too private, is perched upon an eminence, commanding the whole length of the main street.” The cesspit beneath this privy would sometimes overflow into the street; a water tap was two yards away from its door.

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That is equal parts astounding and atrocious. To all those who long for the simple days of old? I have two words – flushing toilet.

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Then there was the graveyard—which sat on a hill, right in front of the parsonage where the Brontës lived—which Babbage found to be overstuffed, badly laid out, and poorly oxygenated, so much so that the decomposing material from the graves had filtered into the town’s water supply. The long-term exposure to harmful bacteria would have made the Brontës weaker, shorter, and more susceptible to other diseases.

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Drinking great uncle Rupert is a hard pass from me.

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Well . . . it’s still romantic in theory I suppose—a family of young, brilliant novelists dies from drinking graveyard water, has anything been more Gothic—but in practice, I will spend today being grateful for modern plumbing.

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Sanitation is a wonderful thing.

Long may it flush!

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27 thoughts on “Don’t drink the water!”

  1. Two outhouses for a dozen families. Sounds like a permanent waiting line. There truly is no need for privacy, I think that was a Puritan thing, but once you are used to it it’s a hard habit to break, I guess. When I was a kid, family of twelve, we had a double seater outhouse. No big deal. Moving to the big city and having room for only one in a toilet seemed really weird to me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We moved to Maine when I was 15. Huge house, 5 1/2 bathrooms… but what totally amazed this New Jersey city kid? The 4 hole outhouse on the back of the barn/shed. Talk about togetherness.
      🤣

      Like

      1. Quadruple the pleasure, quadruple the fun. The outhouse was probably for the maids, cooks, and handymen. I doubt the lady of the house allowed her family or guests to use it!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s like we disown the fact we even do it these days. Many fear making noises and splashes in our own toilets, let alone in public ones. So we’re ashamed of this and all other things about our humanity as well. How sad. Ah, to be a dog and own it … or maybe a cat – they don’t leave them on the surface.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A femanle friend of mine nought a jouse that had no door on the ensuite yoilet room. The girst thing she did was install a door. I thought that oddly curious. Since only her and her husband use it (the kids are all grown up) what need was there for a door. It was designed to be doorless…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I had a history teacher in junior high that shared a lot of details like this. His favourite was how many people had syphilis, especially the royal and rich. It was the reason why they wore wigs and makeup.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Quick scanned… It’s truly weird how often I see that headline! Kinda freals me out due to the time I called the city, then the mayor’s office, because the water in my area smelled of “a dead body”. I was assured it was safe, which I didn’t doubt. It still smelled of death! It went away (they changed water sources) right after my call to the mayor.

    I recently saw something about the avg life span info being “misleading” due to high infant mortality rates. Supposedly (I didn’t verify), if someone survived infancy they were likely to have a lifespan nearly as long as present time.

    Liked by 1 person

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