Public Health Reform in the 19th century (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Public Health Reform in the 19th century

Q1: Describe what is taking place in sources 1 and 4. How does source 6 help to explain why water pipes were eventually laid in all British towns?

A1: Source 1 shows a man selling buckets of water. Source 4 is a painting of men laying water pipes. In source 6, Thomas Hawkley claims that water transported by carriers cost one farthing a bucket. However, when piped directly into people's homes, it cost the customer only a farthing for 79 gallons. Nottingham showed that
it was far cheaper to pipe water into people's homes than to sell it by the bucket.

Q2: How does source 3 help to explain why historians do not always agree about how bad public health was in the 19th century?

A2: Source 3 reveals that officials in Hexham had "cooked" the figures and therefore published death-rates that were inaccurate. Robert Rawlinson's account also suggests that there were occasions when opponents of public health reform tried to bribe Board of Health Inspectors. In this case, the attempt at bribery failed. However, in some other cases in might have been successful.

This source indicates that published death-rates and the reports written by Board of Health Inspectors were not always accurate. Historians disagree about how often these attempts to falsify the statistics took place. As a result, historians do not always agree how bad public health was in the 19th century.

Q3: Why did people living in Carrier Street write to The Times in July, 1849?

A3: People in Carrier Street were living in terrible housing conditions. They had probably complained to their landlords without success. Maybe someone had told them that important people like Queen Victoria and MPs read The Times newspaper. Probably someone involved in social reform had recommended them to write to The Times. Perhaps they had helped them to write the letter and told them the address of The Times. At this time some MPs were beginning to take a close interest in housing conditions. They probably hoped that one of these MPs would take up their case in the House of Commons. Maybe they thought that the letter might shame their landlords into taking action.

Q4: Study source 9. Describe one aspect of the British economic system today that is similar to the late 18th century. Describe one that is different.

A4: One aspect of the British economic system today that is the same as the late 18th century is that it is based on private capital (capitalism). The aspect that is different is that the doctrine of laissez-faire "has been sharply modified or rejected".

Q5: (a) What is the meaning of the term laissez-faire? (b) Is George Hudson (source 2) a supporter or opponent of laissez-faire? (c) Use the information in sources 8 and 10 to explain why most MPs gradually changed their mind about the doctrine of laissez-faire.

A5: (a) Laissez-faire is a belief that governments should not interfere in economic affairs. However, this policy caused serious problems in the 19th century (source 8). Gradually attitudes began to change and Parliament was persuaded to pass legislation such as the Factory Acts which controlled the actions of manufacturers.

(b) George Hudson was a supporter of laissez-faire. He thought private enterprise was dealing with health problems: "I think that the evils resulting from defective sanitary regulations had been very much exaggerated". Hudson was totally opposed to government intervention: "The country is sick of centralisation of commissions of inquiries. The people want to be left to manage their own affairs; they do not want Parliament to be so paternal as it wishes to be - interfering in everybody's business".

(c) Source 10 shows a man representing the British government distributing Acts of Parliament to local councils portrayed as pigs. In the early part of the 19th century the British government left it up to private companies to provide services such as the supply of water and the removal of sewerage. This example of laissez-faire resulted in serious health problems in Britain's industrial towns and cities and by the middle of the century Parliament began passing legislation that encouraged some local councils to provide services such as the removal of sewerage.

Q6: What were the short-term and long-term reasons for Parliament passing the 1848 Public Health Bill?

A6: The short-term reason for Parliament passing the 1848 Public Health Act was an attempt to deal with the outbreak of cholera that was spreading through Europe. However, MPs had known about the arguments in favour of a Public Health Act since the publication of Edwin Chadwick's report in 1842. Some MPs were convinced by Chadwick's arguments that there was a strong connection between an inefficient sewerage system, impure water supplies and infectious diseases. These MPs took the long-term view that an efficient system of sewage removal and a constant supply of cheap, fresh water, would eventually result in a fall in Britain's death-rate. Although these MPs supported a Public Health Act, they were opposed by those who favoured laissez-faire. It was only when cholera was spreading through Europe in 1848 that some laissez-faire MPs agreed to vote for the Public Health Act.