Life in Britain in the 19th Century

Historians have estimated that in the 17th century average life expectancy at birth was around 35 with about 25% of people dying before they were 5 years old. However if you could survive childhood you had a good chance of living to your 50s or your early 60s. Some people, especially from wealthy backgrounds, could live into their 80s or 90s.

George M. Trevelyan, the author of English Social History (1942) has argued that the 18th century great changes took place: "In the first decades of the century the death-rate had risen sharply and passed the birth-rate. But this dangerous tendency was reversed between 1730 and 1760, and after 1780 the death-rate went down by leaps and bounds... In the course of the eighteenth century the population of England and Wales rose from about five and a half millions when Queen Anne came to the throne (1702) came to the throne to nine millions in 1801... The advance in population represented a rather larger birth-rate and a very much reduced death-rate." (1)

Trevelyan argued that the main reason for the increase in population was an "improved medical service". J. F. C. Harrison, the author of The Common People (1984) disagrees: "Contrary to older opinions, this decline in mortality is not to be attributed to progress in medical knowledge or techniques, but to a general improvement in standards of living, which strengthened people's resistance to disease and mitigated some of the worst harshness of life. In particular there was some improvements in infant mortatility, which was where the greatest waste of human life occured." (2)

Wages improved steadily in the second-half of the 18th century. Inventions by James Hargreaves (Spinning Jenny) and Samuel Crompton (Spinning Mule) meant that weavers were assured of a plentiful supply of yarn, and the 1790s became the golden age of handloom weaving, when work was plentiful and wages high. One observer pointed out: "Their little cottages seemed happy and contented... It was seldom that a weaver appealed to the parish for relief... Peace and content sat upon the weaver's brow." (3)

This enabled weavers and other artisans to live in better homes and by the 1790s they began buying their own homes. A study of Birmingham by John G. Rule, the author of The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850 (1986), showed that artisans in the city began joining together in clubs that allowed them to buy houses over a fourteen-year period. At that time it was possible to build a two up and two down room house for £60. This was a very popular venture as it cost less to buy a house than to rent one. (4)

Manchester and the Industrial Revolution

The prosperity of the handloom weavers was short-lived. With the invention of the steam-engine by James Watt, factories no longer had to be built by the side of fast-flowing rivers. Businessmen now tended to build factories where there was a good supply of labour. The obvious place to build a factory was therefore in a town.

Manchester is a good example of how a town was changed by the Industrial Revolution. In 1773 Manchester was a market-town with a population of 27,000. Businessmen began building factories in the town because of Manchester's large population and local coal deposits. By 1802, Manchester had fifty-two textile factories and the population had grown to 95,000. (5)

This attracted others who wanted to sell their goods and services to this large population. This caused further growth, and by 1851 the population of Manchester was over 300,000. The people who moved to Manchester needed somewhere to live. Builders realised that good profits could be made by quickly building cheap housing. One way of doing this was to make sure that the houses shared as many walls as possible. The result was rows and rows of back-to-back, terraced houses. The gaps between the rows were often as narrow as eight or nine feet.

The journalist, Henry Mayhew, argued that the government needed to know the scale of the problem that existed. He wrote a series of articles for the newspaper, The Morning Chronicle. He later described himself as a "social explorer" and saw his role "as supplying information concerning a very large body of persons, of whom the public had less knowledge than of the most distant tribes of the earth". (6) Another journalist, James Greenwood, who also investigated the problems of living in the new industrial towns saw himself as a "volunteer explorer in the depths of social mysteries". (7)

James P. Kay-Shuttleworth was a doctor in Manchester and in 1832 he reported: "Frequently, the inspectors found two or more families crowded into one small house and often one family lived in a damp cellar where twelve or sixteen persons were crowded. Children are ill-fed, dirty, ill-clothed, exposed to cold and neglect; and in consequence, more than one-half of the off-spring die before they have completed their fifth year. The strongest survive; but the same causes which destroy the weakest, impair the vigour of the more robust; and hence the children of our manufacturing population are proverbially pale and sallow." (8)

Painting by William Wylde of Manchester from Kersal Moor in 1851
Painting by William Wylde of Manchester from Kersal Moor in 1851

The large number of factories in Manchester caused a considerable amount of pollution. Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who visited the city in 1835. "A sort of black smoke covers the city. The sun seen through it is a disc without rays. Under this half daylight 300,000 human beings are ceaselessly at work.... From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage." (9)

Growth of Cities

London was probably the most polluted city in England: "It was noon, and an exquisitely bright and clear spring day; but the view was smudgy and smeared with smoke. Clumps of building and snatches of parks looked through the clouds like dim islands rising out of the sea of smoke. It was impossible to tell where the sky ended and the city began; and as you peered into the thick haze you could, after a time, make out the dusky figures of tall factory chimneys plumed with black smoke; while spires and turrets seemed to hang midway between you and the earth, as if poised in the thick grey air." (10)

Houses were also severely overcrowded. Friedrich Engels was shocked when he visited Liverpool in the 1840s. "Liverpool, with all its commerce, wealth, and grandeur yet treats its workers with the same barbarity. A full fifth of the population, more than 45,000 human beings, live in narrow, dark, damp, badly ventilated cellar dwellings, of which there are 7,862 in the city. Besides these cellar dwellings there are 2,270 courts, small spaces built up on all four sides and having but one entrance, a narrow-covered passage-way, the whole ordinarily very dirty and inhabited exclusively by proletarians. In Bristol, on one occasion, 2,800 families were visited, of whom 46 per cent occupied but one room each. (11)

Gustave Dore, London (1872)
Gustave Dore, London (1872)

The conditions outside the homes were also extremely bad. There was no system of refuse collection and most people just dumped their rubbish in the streets. Working-class homes did not have inside lavatories and people therefore had to share communal privies. These privies were often just holes in the ground covered by a wooden shed. When the privies were not cleaned out on a regular basis, the cesspits overflowed and the sewage ran down the streets. According to a report carried out in Leeds: "The privies are invariably in a filthy condition, and often remain without the removal of any portion of filth for six months." (12)

A magazine published in October 1843 pointed out the problems experienced by the people of Edinburgh: "These streets are often so narrow that a person can step from the window of one house into that of its opposite neighbour, while the houses are piled so high, storey upon storey, that the light can scarcely penetrate into the court or alley that lies between. There are neither sewers or drains, nor even privies belonging to the houses. In consequence, all refuse, garbage, and excrements of at least 50,000 persons are thrown into the gutters every night, so that, in spite of all the street sweeping, a mass of dried filth and four vapous are created, which not only offend the sight and smell, but endanger the health of the inhabitants in the highest degree." (13)

Nottingham was another town that had changed dramatically. It had a population of about 10,000 in the middle of the 18th century and it was described as "a garden city, with well laid out houses, surrounded by orchards and gardens in the midst of parkland and open spaces". By 1831 the population had risen to about 50,000 but the people were packed into very much the same ground area as had been occupied a hundred years before. It was now "a chequer board of mean streets, alleyways and courts". (14)

This was supported by an official report published in 1845: "I believe that nowhere else shall we find so large a mass of people crowded into courts as in Nottingham... The courts are almost always approached through a low-arched tunnel of some 30 or 36 inches wide, about 8 feet high, and from 20 to 30 feet long... In these confined quarters, the refuse is allowed to accumulate... until it has acquired value as manure... It is common to find the privies open and exposed to the public gaze of the inhabitants... The houses are three stories high, side by side, back to back." (15)

Back-to-back terraced houses built for factory workers in Preston
Back-to-back terraced houses built for factory workers in Preston

The worst slums were in London. The journalist, Henry Mayhew, carried out an investigation into the problem in 1849. "By the last census return (1841) the metropolis covered an extent of nearly 45,000 acres, and contained upwards of two hundred and sixty thousand houses, occupied by one million eight hundred and twenty thousand souls, constituting not only the densest, but the busiest hive, the most wondrous workshop, and the richest bank in the world. A strange incongruous chaos of wealth and want - of ambition and despair - of the brightest charity and the darkest crime, where there is more feasting and more starvation, than on any other spot on earth - and all grouped round the one giant centre, the huge black dome, with its ball of gold looming through the smoke and marking out the capital, no matter from what quarter the traveller may come". (16)

In 1750 around a fifth of the population lived in towns of more than 5,000 inhabitants; by 1850 around three-fifths did. This caused serious health problems for working-class people. In 1840, 57% of the working-class children of Manchester died before their fifth birthday, compared with 32% in rural districts. (17) Whereas a farm labourer in Rutland had a life-expectancy of 38, a factory worker in Liverpool had an average age of death of 15. (18)

Wealth and Poverty

Friedrich Engels agreed with Mayhew that they rich and poor lived very close together but they rarely visited each other's territory: "Every great city has one or more slums, where the working-class is crowded together. True poverty often dwells in hidden alleys close to the palaces of the rich; but, in general, a separate territory has been assigned to it, where removed from the sight of the happier classes, it may struggle along as it can... A person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working people's quarter... This arises from the fact... that the working-people's quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle-class." (19) Thomas Carlyle pointed out: "Wealth has accumulated itself into masses and poverty, also in accumulation enough, lies impassably separated from it; opposed, uncommunicating, like forces in positive and negative poles." (20)

Carrier Street was considered to be one of the worst places to live in London and was described as "an almost endless intricacy of courts and yards crossing each other, rendered the place like a rabbit-warren." (21) The people living in the street became so angry that they decided to write to The Times about their problems: "We live in muck and filth. We ain't got no privies, no dustbins, no drains, no water supplies, and no sewers in the whole place... We are living like pigs, and it ain't fair... We hope you will let us have our complaints put into your influential paper, and make the landlords... make our houses decent for Christians to live in." (22)

Obtaining clean water was a constant problem in industrial towns. Some people used buckets to collect rain-water. However, the air was so polluted that this water would soon turn black. "As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow - indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink." (23)

Coloured lithograph of Stockport in 1850
Coloured lithograph of Stockport in 1850

George R. Sims was another journalist who urged the government to take action to improve living conditions. "I was the other day in a room occupied by a widow women, her daughters of seventeen and sixteen, her sons of fourteen and thirteen, and two younger children. Her wretched apartment was on the street level, and behind it was a common yard of the tenement. For this room, the widow paid four and sixpence a week; the walls were mildewed and steaming with damp; the boards as you trod upon them made the slushing noise of a plant spread across a mud puddle in a brickfield. Of all the evils arising from this one room system there is perhaps none greater than the utter destruction of innocence in the young. A moment's thought will enable the reader to appreciate the evils of it. But if it is bad in the case of a respectable family, how much more terrible is it when the children are familiarised with actually immorality." (24)

Thomas Carlyle wrote that England seemed an "enchanted" land that had been "cursed by the gods, flowing with wealth from improved agriculture and industrial invention" but had the terrible problem of poverty that such wealth had brought with it. "To whom, then, is this wealth of England wealth? Who is it that it blesses; makes happier, wiser, beautifuler, in any way better? We have more riches than any Nation ever had before; we have less good of them than any Nation ever had before. Our successful industry is hitherto unsuccessful; a strange success, if we stop here! In the midst of plethoric plenty, the people perish; with gold walls, and full barns, no man feels himself safe or satisfied." (25)

Health Problems in the 19th Century

In 1832, James P. Kay-Shuttleworth, a doctor in Manchester, carried out an investigation into the health of working-class people in the city. "In Parliament Street there is only one privy for three hundred and eighty inhabitants, which is placed in a narrow passage, whence its effluvia infest the adjacent houses, and must prove a most fertile source of disease. In this street also, cesspools with open grids have been made close to the doors of the houses, in which disgusting refuse accumulates, and whence its noxious effluvia constantly exhale. In Parliament-passage about thirty houses have been erected, merely separated by an extremely narrow passage (a yard and a half wide) from the wall and back door of other houses. These thirty houses have one privy."

Kay-Shuttleworth then went on to speculate that these conditions were the cause of a recent outbreak of cholera: "A more unhealthy spot than Allen's Court it would be difficult to discover, and the physical depression consequent on living in such a situation may be inferred from what ensued on the introduction of cholera here. A match-seller, living in the first story of one of these houses, was seized with cholera, on Sunday, July 22nd: he died on Wednesday, July 25th; and owing to the wilful negligence of his friends, and because the Board of Health had no intimation of the occurrence, he was not buried until Friday afternoon, July 27th. On that day, five other cases of cholera occurred amongst the inhabitants of the court. On the 28th, seven, and on the 29th two. The cases were nearly all fatal." (26)

Thomas Southwood Smith, a doctor working in Bethnal Green in London also argued that there was a link between sanitation and disease: "Into this part of the ditch the privies of all the houses of a street called North Street open; these privies are completely uncovered, and the soil from them is allowed to accumulate in the open ditch. Nothing can be conceived more disgusting than the appearance of this ditch for an extent of from 300 to 400 feet, and the odour of the effluvia from it is at this moment most offensive. Lamb's Fields is the fruitful source of fever to the houses which immediately surround it, and to the small streets which branch off from it. Particular houses were pointed out to me from which entire families have been swept away, and from several of the streets fever is never absent." (27)

1835 Municipal Health Act

One of the consequences of the 1832 Reform Act was the passing of the 1835 Municipal Reform Act. This granted permission for the setting up of 178 town councils. It was also decided that all ratepayers should have a vote in council elections. These councils were also given the power to take over such matters as the town's water supply. For the first time the working-class had a vote in elections but as they had not created their own political party they rarely bothered to vote and local councils refused to take action concerning sanitation. (28)

William Pyne, waterman (1806)
William Pyne, waterman (1806)

In 1837, Parliament passed a Registration Act ordering the registration of all births, marriages and deaths that took place in Britain. Parliament also appointed William Farr to collect and publish these statistics. In his first report for the General Register Office, Farr argued that the evidence indicated that unhealthy living conditions were killing thousands of people every year. (29)

Farr argued that urban growth in the 1820s and 1830s had resulted in insanitation and poor water supplies and was probably responsible for an increase in epidemic and endemic disease. Most houses did not have pipes to take the sewerage away. Human waste was piled up in the street (called dunghills) before being taken away by people called nightmen (because by law it could only be performed after twelve o'clock at night).

A doctor reported what happened in the town of Greenock: "In Market Street is a dunghill... over twelve feet contains a hundred cubic yards of impure filth, collected from all parts of town... A man who deals in dung sells it... the older the filth, the higher the price... The smell in summer is horrible... There are many houses, four stories in height, in the area... in the summer each house swarms with flies; every article of food and drink must be covered, otherwise, if left exposed for a minute, the flies immediately attack it, and it is rendered unfit for use, from the strong taste of the dunghill left by the flies." (30)

Private firms were responsible for cleaning the privies and dunghills. William Thorn worked for a firm that carried out this work and he was asked by a parliamentary committee what happened to it: "We sell it to the farmers, who use it on their land... for turnips, wheat... in fact, for all their produce". (31) Farmers in Surrey claimed that it was only liberal dressings of "London Muck" that made their heavy clays fit for cultivation. (32)

A Court for King Cholera, Punch Magazine (October, 1852)
A Court for King Cholera, Punch Magazine (October, 1852)

Water consumption in towns per head of population remained very low. In most towns the local river, streams or springs, provided people with water to drink. These sources were often contaminated by human waste. The bacteria of certain very lethal infectious diseases, for example, typhoid and cholera, are transmitted through water, it was not only unpleasant to taste but damaging to people's health. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out: "The fetid, muddy waters, stained with a thousand colours by the factories they pass, of one of the streams... wander slowly round this refuge of poverty." (33)

Henry Mayhew was a journalist who carried out an investigation into working-class living conditions: "As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow - indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink. As we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women, built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it, and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it seemed, by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble. And yet, as we stood doubting the fearful statement, we saw a little child, from one of the galleries opposite, lower a tin can with a rope to fill a large bucket that stood beside her. In each of the balconies that hung over the stream the self-same tub was to be seen in which the inhabitants put the mucky liquid to stand, so that they may, after it has rested for a day or two, skim the fluid from the solid particles of filth, pollution, and disease. As the little thing dangled her tin cup as gently as possible into the stream, a bucket of night-soil was poured down from the next gallery." (34)

Poor Law Commission

In 1833 Earl Charles Grey, the Prime Minister, set up a Poor Law Commission to examine the working of the poor Law system in Britain. In their report published in 1834, the Commission made several recommendations to Parliament. As a result, the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. The act stated that: (a) no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse; (b) conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help; (c) workhouses were to be built in every parish or, if parishes were too small, in unions of parishes; (d) ratepayers in each parish or union had to elect a Board of Guardians to supervise the workhouse, to collect the Poor Rate and to send reports to the Central Poor Law Commission; (e) the three man Central Poor Law Commission would be appointed by the government and would be responsible for supervising the Amendment Act throughout the country. (35)

Thomas Attwood argued that workhouses would become "prisons from the purpose of terrifying applicants from seeking relief". Daniel O'Connell, said that as an Irishman, he would not say much, but he objected to the bill on the grounds that it "did away with personal feelings and connections." William Cobbett warned the legislators in the House of Commons that "they were about to dissolve the bonds of society" and to pass the law would be "a violation of the contract upon which all the real property of the kingdom was held". Cobbett particularly objected to the separation of families, and to workhouse inmates being forced to wear badges or distinctive clothing. (36)

In 1838 the Poor Law Commission became concerned that a high proportion of all poverty had its origins in disease and premature death. Men were unable to work as a result of long-term health problems. A significant proportion of these men died and the Poor Law Guardians were faced with the expense of maintaining the widow and the orphans. The Commission decided to ask three experienced doctors, James P. Kay-Shuttleworth, Thomas Southwood Smith and Neil Arnott, to investigate and report on the sanitary condition of some districts in London. (37)

On receiving details of the doctor's investigation, the Poor Law Commission sent a letter to the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, suggesting that if the government spent money on improving sanitation it would reduce the cost of looking after the poor: "In general, all epidemics and all infectious diseases are attended with charges immediate and ultimate on the poor-rates. Labourers are suddenly thrown by infectious disease into a state of destitution for which immediate relief must be given: in the case of death the widow and the children are thrown as paupers on the parish. The amount of burdens thus produced is frequently so great, as to render it good economy on the part of the administrators of the poor laws to incur the charges for preventing the evils, where they are ascribable to physical causes, which there are no other means of removing." (38)

Edwin Chadwick

Debates in the House of Lords took place on this issue but it was several years before the government decided to order a full-scale enquiry into the health of British people. The person put in charge of this enquiry was Edwin Chadwick. He was a lawyer but as a member of the Unilitarian Society he had met some of the most progressive political figures in Britain, including Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill and Francis Place. (39)

Chadwick's report, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, was published in 1842. He argued that slum housing, inefficient sewerage and impure water supplies in industrial towns were causing the unnecessary deaths of about 60,000 people every year: "Of the 43,000 cases of widowhood, and 112,000 cases of orphanage relieved from the poor rates in England and Wales, it appears that the greatest proportion of the deaths of heads of families occurred from... removable causes... The expense of public drainage, of supplies of water laid on in houses, and the removal of all refuse... would be a financial gain.. as it would reduce the cast of sickness and premature death." (40)

Gustave Dore, London (1872)
Nightmen removing sewage in London (1849)

Chadwick was a disciple of Jeremy Bentham who questioned the value of all institutions and customs by the test of whether they contributed to the "greatest happiness of the greatest number". (41) Chadwick claimed that middle-class people lived longer and healthier lives because they could afford to pay to have their sewage removed and to have fresh water piped into their homes. For example, he showed the average age of death for the professional class in Liverpool was 35, whereas it was only 15 for the working-classes. (42)

Chadwick criticised the private companies that removed sewage and supplied fresh water, arguing that these services should be supplied by public organisations. He pointed out that private companies were only willing to supply these services to those people who could afford them, whereas public organisations could make sure everybody received these services. He argued that the "cost of removing sewage would be reduced to a fraction by carrying it away by suspension in water". The government therefore needed to provide a "supply of piped water, and an entirely new system of sewers, using circular, glazed clay pipes of relatively small bore instead of the old, square, brick tunnels". (43)

However, there were some influential and powerful people who were opposed to Edwin Chadwick's ideas. These included the owners of private companies who in the past had made very large profits from supplying fresh water to middle-class districts in Britain's towns and cities. Opposition also came from prosperous householders who were already paying for these services and were worried that Chadwick's proposals would mean them paying higher taxes. The historian, A. L. Morton, claims that his proposed reforms made him "the most detested man in England." (44)

George Scharf, Laying a Water-Main in Tottenham Court Road (1834)
George Scharf, Laying a Water-Main in Tottenham Court Road (1834)

When the government refused to take action, Chadwick set up his own company to provide sewage disposal and fresh water to the people of Britain. He planned to introduce the "arterial-venous system". The system involved one pipe taking the sewage from the towns to the countryside where it would be sold to farmers as manure. At the same time, another pipe would take fresh water from the countryside to the large populations living in the towns.

Chadwick calculated that it would be possible for people to have their sewage taken away and receive clean piped water for less than 2d. a week. However, Chadwick launched the Towns Improvement Company during the railway boom. Most people preferred to invest their money in railway companies. Without the necessary start-up capital, Chadwick was forced to abandon his plan. (45)

Nottingham became one of the first towns in Britain to pipe fresh water into all homes. Thomas Hawksley was appointed as chief enginner and in 1844 he was interviewed by a Parliamentary Committee about his work: "Before the supply was laid on in the houses water was sold chiefly to the labouring-classes by carriers at the rate of one farthing a bucket; and if the water had to be carried any distance up a court a halfpenny a bucket was, in some instances, charged. In general it was sold at about three gallons for a farthing. But the Company now delivers to all the town 76,000 gallons for £1; in other words, carries into every house 79 gallons for a farthing, and delivers water night and day, at every instant of time that it is wanted, at a charge 26 times less than the old delivery by hand." (46)

Public Health Reforms

In 1847 the British government proposed a Public Health Bill that was based on some of Edwin Chadwick's recommendations. There were still a large number of MPs who were strong supporters of what was known as laissez-faire. This was a belief that government should not interfere in the free market. They argued that it was up to individuals to decide on what goods or services they wanted to buy. These included spending on such things as sewage removal and water supplies. George Hudson, the Conservative Party MP, stated in the House of Commons: "The people want to be left to manage their own affairs; they do not want Parliament... interfering in everybody's business." (47)

Supporters of Chadwick argued that many people were not well-informed enough to make good decisions on these matters. Other MPs pointed out that many people could not afford the cost of these services and therefore needed the help of the government. The Health of Towns Association, an organisation formed by doctors, began a propaganda campaign in favour of reform and encouraged people to sign a petition in favour of the Public Health Bill. In June 1847, the association sent Parliament a petition that contained over 32,000 signatures. However, this was not enough to persuade Parliament, and in July the bill was defeated. (48)

Gustave Dore, London (1872)
Gustave Dore, London (1872)

A few weeks later news reached Britain of an outbreak of cholera in Egypt. The disease gradually spread west, and by early 1848 it had arrived in Europe. The previous outbreak of cholera in Britain in 1831, had resulted in the deaths of over 16,000 people. In his report, published in 1842, Chadwick had pointed out that nearly all these deaths had occurred in those areas with impure water supplies and inefficient sewage removal systems. Faced with the possibility of a cholera epidemic, the government decided to try again. This new bill involved the setting up of a Board of Health Act, that had the power to advise and assist towns which wanted to improve public sanitation. (49)

In an attempt to persuade the supporters of laissez-faire to agree to a Public Health Act, the government made several changes to the bill introduced in 1847. For example, local boards of health could only be established when more than one-tenth of the ratepayers agreed to it or if the death-rate was higher than 23 per 1000. Chadwick was disappointed by the changes that had taken place, but he agreed to become one of the three members of the central Board of Health when the act was passed in the summer of 1848. However, the act was passed too late to stop the outbreak of cholera that arrived in Britain that September. In the next few months, cholera killed 80,000 people. Once again, it was mainly the people living in the industrial slums who caught the disease. (50)

By 1853 over 160 towns and cities had set up local boards of health. Some of these boards did extremely good work and were able to introduce important reforms. Thomas Hawksley, for example, after his success in Nottingham, was appointed to many major water supply projects across England, including schemes for Liverpool, Sheffield, Leicester, Leeds, Derby, Oxford, Cambridge, Sunderland, Lincoln, Darlington, Wakefield and Northampton. (51)

In other towns, supporters of laissez-faire were able to prevent action being taken. Most MPs remained unhappy about government involvement in the free market. As Michael Flinn, the author of Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) pointed out "the opponents of sanitary reform, who wanted to have an end to all state interference in this field, led to the final disbandment of the Board in 1858. (52)

In 1865-66 there was another cholera epidemic which resulted in the deaths of 20,000 people. The government responded by setting up another enquiry into public health. As a result of this report, further reforms were introduced. In 1871 a new government department was formed to look after public health. The following year, a law was passed that divided the country into Sanitary Authorities. Each authority had to appoint a sanitary inspector and a medical officer of health who had the responsibility of improving the region's public health. These measures were confirmed in the 1875 Public Health Act. (53)

Trade Unions

It was argued that the best way that working-class people could improve the quality of life was through the trade union movement. Karl Marx pointed out: "The value of labour-power constitutes the conscious and explicit foundation of the trade unions, whose importance for the... working class can scarcely be overestimated. The trade unions aim at nothing less than to prevent the reduction of wages below the level that is traditionally maintained in the various branches of industry. That is to say, they wish to prevent the price of labour-power from falling below its value." (54)

However, as he pointed out, the authorities had always tried to keep trade unions under control. In 1799 and 1780 William Pitt, the Prime Minister, decided to take action against political agitation among industrial workers. Combination Laws was passed making it illegal for workers to join together to press their employers for shorter hours or higher wages. As a result trade unions were thus effectively made illegal.

The legislation remained in force until they were repealed in 1824. This was followed by an outbreak of strikes and as a result and further legislation was passed. The 1825 Combination Act narrowly defined the rights of trade unions as meeting to bargain over wages and conditions. Anything outside these limits was liable to prosecution as criminal conspiracy in restraint of trade. Trade unionists were not allowed to "molest", "obstruct", or intimidate" others. This law worried trade unionists as everything depended on how judges interpreted vague words like obstruct and intimidate. (55)

Robert Owen, Britain's leading socialist, argued that the only way to defeat the government on this issue was the establishment of a single body of trade unionists in Britain. In October 1833 he wrote that "national arrangements shall be formed to include all the working classes in the great organisation". (56)

The first meeting of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union (GNCTU) took place on 13th February, 1834. Within a few weeks the organisation had gained over 1,500,000 members. James Morrison, the editor of Pioneer, the official paper of the GNCTU, wrote: "our little snowballs have all been rolled together and formed into a mighty avalanche". (57)

Owen hoped it would be possible to use the GNCTU to peacefully supplant capitalism. A. L. Morton, the author of A People's History of England (1938) argues that once the GNCTU "had been formed, strikes broke out everywhere, making demands on its resources that it had no means of meeting and at the same time scaring the government into a belief that the revolution was at hand." The government decided to fight back and six farm labourers at Tolpuddle were charged with administering illegal oaths and sentenced to transportation. Over 100,000 people demonstrated against this verdict in London but it was unable to stop the men being sent to Australia. The decline of the GNCTU was as rapid as the growth and in August 1834 it was closed down. (58)

International Workingmen's Association

Karl Marx received several letters urging him to establish an international socialist movement. He replied to one letter that "since 1852 I had not been associated with any association and was firmly convinced that my theoretical studies were of greater use to the working class than my meddling with associations which had now had their day on the Continent." In another letter he told Ferdinand Freiligrath that "whereas you are a poet, I am a critic and for me the experiences of 1849-1852 were quite enough." (59)

Marx's friend, George Julian Harney, was a great believer in internationalism. "People are beginning to understand that foreign as well as domestic questions do affect them... that the success of Republicanism in France would be the doom of Tyranny in every other land; and the triumph of England's democratic Charter would be the salvation of the millions throughout Europe." (60)

Britain experienced an economic boom in the late 1840s and early 1850s and there was a decline in the activity of working-class organizations such as the Chartists. This changed with the economic crisis that started in 1857. Over the next two years there were strikes for higher wages and shorter hours. In 1859 attempts were made to join forces with workers in France. (61)

The historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed out that the reasons for this new trend was "a curious amalgam of political and industrial action, of various kinds of radicalism from the democratic to the anarchist, of class struggles, class alliances and government or capitalist concessions... but above all it was international, not merely because, like the revival of liberalism, it occured simultaneously in various countries, but because it was inseparable from the international solidarity of the working classes." (62)

A group of trade unionists that became known collectively as the "junta" urged the establishment of an international organisation. This included Robert Applegarth, William Allan, George Odger and Johann Eccarius. "The aim of the Junta was to satisfy the new demands which were being voiced by the workers as an outcome of the economic crisis and the strike movement. They hoped to broaden the narrow outlook of British trade unionism, and to induce the unions to participate in the political struggle". (63)

On September 28, 1864, an international meeting for the reception of the French delegates took place in St. Martin’s Hall in London. The meeting was organised by George Howell and attended by a wide array of European radicals, including Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Louis Auguste Blanqui. The historian Edward Spencer Beesly was in the chair and he advocated "a union of the workers of the world for the realisation of justice on earth". (64)

In his speech to the 2,000 people in the audience, Beesly "pilloried the violent proceedings of the governments and referred to their flagrant breaches of international law. As an internationalist he showed the same energy in denouncing the crimes of all the governments, Russian, French, and British, alike. He summoned the workers to the struggle against the prejudices of patriotism, and advocated a union of the toilers of all lands for the realisation of justice on earth." (65)

The new organisation was called the International Workingmen's Association. Karl Marx attended the meeting and he was asked to become a member of the General Council that consisted of two Germans, two Italians, three Frenchmen and twenty-seven Englishmen (eleven of them from the building trade). Marx was proposed as President but as he later explained: "I declared that under no circumstances could I accept such a thing, and proposed Odger in my turn, who was then in fact re-elected, although some people voted for me despite my declaration." (66)

The General Council met for the first time on 5th October. George Odger was elected as President and William Cremer as Secretary. After "a very long and animated discussion" the Council could not agree on a programme. Johann Eccarius privately told Marx: "You absolutely must impress the stamp of your terse yet pregnant style upon the first-born child of the European workmen's organisation". (67)

Karl Marx agreed to outline the purpose of the organization. The General Rules of the International Workingmen's Association was published in October 1864. Marx's introduction pointed out what they hoped to achieve: "That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves, that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule... That the emancipation of labor is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists, and depending for its solution on the concurrence, practical and theoretical, of the most advanced countries." (68)

Friedrich Engels also joined the General Council but refused to to accept the office of treasurer: "Citizen Engels objected that none but working men ought to be appointed to have anything to do with the finances". Marx was asked to draw up the fundamental documents of the new organisation. He admitted that "It was very difficult to manage things in such a way that our views could secure expression in a form acceptable to the Labour movement in its present mood. A few weeks hence these British Labour leaders will he hobnobbing with Bright and Cobden at meetings to demand an extension of the franchise. It will take time before the reawakened movement will allow us to speak with the old boldness." (69)

The Reform League

On 23rd February, 1865, George Odger, Benjamin Lucraft, George Howell, William Allan, Johann Eccarius, William Cremer and several other members of the International Workingmen's Association established the Reform League, an organisation to campaign for one man, one vote. Karl Marx told Friedrich Engels "The International Association has managed so to constitute the majority on the committee to set up the new Reform League that the whole leadership is in our hands". (70)

The Reform League received financial and political support from middle-class radicals such as Peter Alfred Taylor, John Bright, Charles Bradlaugh, John Stuart Mill, Henry Fawcett, Titus Salt, Thomas Perronet Thompson, Samuel Morley and Wilfrid Lawson. Taylor was appointed vice-president and often spoke at public meetings. (71)

Bradlaugh, one of the greatest orators during this period, often appeared at meetings. Henry Snell commented: "Bradlaugh was already speaking when I arrived, and I remember, as clearly as though it were only yesterday, the immediate and compelling impression made upon me by that extraordinary man. I have never been so influenced by a human personality as I was by Charles Bradlaugh. The commanding strength, the massive head, the imposing stature, and the ringing eloquence of the man... I have seen strong men, under the storm of his passion, rise from their seats, and sometimes weep with emotion." (72)

On 2nd July 1866 the Reform League organised "a great street procession and meeting, 30,000 strong, in support of the popular demand for household suffrage... the London press for days after the procession had marched through the principal streets of the fashionable West End, teemed with half-frightened references to its military aspects, good marching, admirable order, well closed column and complete discipline." (73)

Drawing of Charles Bradlaugh beingevicted from the House of Commons in 1880
Reform League demonstration in Hyde Park, Illustrated London News (23rd July 1866)

William Gladstone, the new leader of the Liberal Party, made it clear that he was in favour of increasing the number of people who could vote. Although the Conservative Party had opposed previous attempts to introduce parliamentary reform, they knew that if the Liberals returned to power, Gladstone was certain to try again. Gladstone was so popular that cheering crowds used to assemble outside his house. (74)

Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the House of Commons, argued that the Conservatives were in danger of being seen as an anti-reform party. In 1867 Disraeli proposed a new Reform Act. Lord Cranborne (later Lord Salisbury) resigned in protest against this extension of democracy. However, as he explained this had nothing to do with democracy: "We do not live - and I trust it will never be the fate of this country to live - under a democracy." (75)

Odger and other Reform League members had campaigned for adult suffrage but the government's proposals imposed strict restrictions on who could vote. At one meeting Odger declared that "nothing short of manhood suffrage would satisfy the working people". He went onto argue the vote would "prevent the labourer working for eight shillings a week." (76)

1867 Reform Act

In the House of Commons, Disraeli's proposals were supported by Gladstone and his followers and the measure was passed. The 1867 Reform Act gave the vote to every male adult householder living in a borough constituency. Male lodgers paying £10 for unfurnished rooms were also granted the vote. This gave the vote to about 1,500,000 men. The Reform Act also dealt with constituencies and boroughs with less than 10,000 inhabitants lost one of their MPs. The forty-five seats left available were distributed by: (i) giving fifteen to towns which had never had an MP; (ii) giving one extra seat to some larger towns - Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds; (iii) creating a seat for the University of London; (iv) giving twenty-five seats to counties whose population had increased since 1832. (77)

Several leaders of the Reform League unsuccessfully attempted to be elected to the House of Commons. This included George Howell in Aylesbury and William Cremer in Warwick. However, it was George Odger, who made the greatest effort. He attempted to stand at Chelsea in 1868 but failed to win the Liberal Party nomination. The same thing happen in Stafford in 1869 and Bristol 1870. He did stand in Southwark in 1870 but lost to the Conservative Party candidate by 304 votes. (78)

The Spectator reported that he was the first working-class candidate to win more than 4,500 votes: "Nevertheless the result is that, for the first time, a member of the artizan class has polled upwards of 4,500 votes, and a considerably greater number of votes than a most wealthy, respectable, and benevolent member of the middle-class, who, in this borough, had every advantage that local connection could give him. That alone should be a pledge to members of the operative class that if they steadily persevere in their attempts to break down the class-feeling which at present excludes them from the House of Commons, they will soon succeed, and have quite sufficient success to secure to the House of Commons a very adequate infusion of the poorest, but by no means the least acute and energetic, class of the English people." (79)

The novelist, Henry James, was dismissive of Odger's attempts to become a member of the House of Commons: "George Odger... was an English radical agitator, of humble origin, who had distinguished himself by a perverse desire to get into Parliament. He exercised, I believe, the useful profession of shoemaker, and he knocked in vain at the door that opens but to golden keys." (80) However, Paul Foot has argued that Odger showed that it would not be long before working-class candidates would soon be elected to Parliament. (81)

In 1874 General Election, Thomas Burt, secretary of the Northumberland Miners Association (NMA), stood as the Radical Labour candidate for Morpeth. The local Liberal Party agreed not to put up a candidate in Morpeth and Burt easily beat his Conservative opponent (3,332 to 585). Burt joined Alexander Macdonald, another miner, who had been elected as the Lib-Lab MP for Stafford.

The Paris Commune

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War took place on 16th July 1870. It was an attempt by Napoleon III to preserve the Second French Empire against the threat posed by German states of the North German Confederation led by the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The International Workingmen's Association had declared at its conference the previous year that if war broke out a general strike should take place. However, Marx had privately argued that this would end in failure as the "working-class... is not yet sufficiently organised to throw any decisive weight on to the scales". (82)

The Paris section of the IWMA immediately denounced the war. However, in Germany opinion was divided but the majority of socialists considered the war to be a defensive one and in the Reichstag only Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel refused to vote for war credits and spoke vigorously against the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. For this they were charged with treason and imprisoned. (83)

Marx believed that a German victory would help his long-term desire for a socialist revolution. He pointed out to Engels that German workers were better organised and better disciplined than French workers who were greatly influenced by the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: "The French need a drubbing. If the Prussians are victorious then the centralisation of the State power will give help to the centralisation of the working class... The superiority of the Germans over the French in the world arena would mean at the same time the superiority of our theory over Proudhon's and so on." (84)

A few days later Karl Marx issued a statement on behalf of the IWMA. "Whatever turn the impending horrid war may take, the alliance of the working classes of all countries will ultimately kill war. The very fact that while official France and Germany are rushing into a fratricidal feud, the workmen of France and Germany send each other messages of peace and goodwill; this great fact, unparalleled in the history of the past, opens the vista of a brighter future. It proves that in contrast to old society, with its economical miseries and its political delirium, a new society is springing up, whose International rule will be Peace, because its natural ruler will be everywhere the same - Labour! The Pioneer of that new society is the International Working Men's Association." (85)

Peace activists, John Stuart Mill and John Morley, congratulated Marx on his statement and arranged for 30,000 copies of his speech to be printed and distributed. Marx thought the war would provide the opportunity for revolution. He told Engels: "I have been totally unable to sleep for four nights now, on account of the rheumatism and I spend this time in fantasies about Paris, etc." He hoped for a German victory: "I wish this because the definite defeat of Bonaparte is likely to provoke Revolution in France, while the definite defeat of Germany would only protract the present state of things for twenty-years." (86)

In a letter to the American organiser of the IWMA, Friedrich Sorge, Marx made some predictions about the future that included the First World War and the Russian Revolution: "What the Prussian jackasses don't see is that the present war leads just as necessarily to war between Germany and Russia as the war of 1866 led to war between Prussia and France. That is the best result that I expect of it for Germany. Prussianism as such has never existed and cannot exist other than in alliance and in subservience to Russia. And this War No. 2 will act as the mid-wife of the inevitable revolution in Russia." (87)

The war went badly for Napoleon III and he was heavily defeated at the Battle of Sedan. On 4th September, 1870, a republic was proclaimed in Paris. Adolphe Thiers, a former prime minister and an opponent of the war, was elected chief executive of the new French government. (88)

Thiers, now aged 74, appointed a provisional government of conservative views and then travelled to London and attempted to negotiate an alliance with Britain. William Gladstone refused and when he arrived back in Paris on 31st October 1870, he was accused of treason. Felix Pyat, a radical socialist organized demonstrations against Thiers, whom he accused of threatening to sell France to the Germans. (89)

Karl Marx, who had been slow to attack Bismark because of his "pure German patriotism to which both he and Engels were always conspicuously prone" and the International Workingmen's Association issued a statement "protesting against the annexation, denouncing the dynastic ambitions of the Prussian King, and calling upon the French workers to unite with all defenders of democracy against the common Prussian foe." (90)

Marx later pointed out that it was "An absurdity and an anachronism to make military considerations the principle by which the boundaries of nations are to be fixed? If this rule were to prevail, Austria would still be entitled to Venetia and the line of the Minicio, and France to the line of the Rhine, in order to protect Paris, which lies certainly more open to an attack from the northeast than Berlin does from the southwest. If limits are to be fixed by military interests, there will be no end to claims, because every military line is necessarily faulty, and may be improved by annexing some more outlying territory; and, moreover, they can never be fixed finally and fairly, because they always must be imposed by the conqueror upon the conquered, and consequently carry within them the seed of fresh wars." (91)

In March 1871, the government made an attempt to disarm the Paris National Guard, a volunteer citizen force which showed signs of radical sympathies. It refused to give up its arms, declared its autonomy, deposed the officials of the provisional government, and elected a revolutionary committee of the people as the true government of France. Adolphe Thiers now fled to Versailles. Governments all over Europe were concerned by what was happening in Europe. The Times reported complained against "this dangerous sentiment of the Democracy, this conspiracy against civilisation in its so-called capital". (92)

The new government called itself the Paris Commune and attempted to run the city. Isaiah Berlin argues the committee was a mixture of different political opinions but did include the followers of Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Louis Auguste Blanqui. The Communards had difficulty keeping control of the national guard and 28th March, on the day of the election, General Jacques Leon Clément-Thomas and General Claude Lecomte were murdered. Doctor Guyon, who examined the bodies shortly afterwards, found forty balls in the body of Clément-Thomas and nine balls in the back of Lecomte.

Adolphe Thiers now based in Versailles urged Parisians to abstain from voting. When the voting was finished, 233,000 Parisians had voted, out of 485,000 registered voters. In upper-class neighborhoods many refused to take part in the election with over 70 per cent refusing to vote. But in the working-class neighborhoods, turnout was high. Of the ninety-two Communards elected by popular suffrage, seventeen were members of the IWMA. It was agreed that Marx should draft an "Address to the People of Paris" but he was suffering from bronchitis and liver trouble and was unable to carry out the work. (93)

The Communards had difficulty keeping control of the national guard and on the day of the election, General Jacques Leon Clément-Thomas and General Claude Lecomte , two men blamed for being severe disciplinarians, were murdered. Doctor Guyon, who examined the bodies shortly afterwards, found forty balls in the body of Clément-Thomas and nine balls in the back of Lecomte. (94)

At the first meeting of the Commune, the members adopted several proposals, including an honorary presidency for Louis Auguste Blanqui; the abolition of the death penalty; the abolition of military conscription; a proposal to send delegates to other cities to help launch communes there. It was also stated that no military force other than the National Guard, made up of male citizens, could be formed or introduced into the capital. School children in the city were provided with free clothing and food. David McLellan suggests that the actual measures passed by the commune were reformist rather than revolutionary, with no attack on private property: employers were forbidden on the penalty of fines to reduce wages... and all abandoned businesses were transferred to co-operative associations." (95)

Karl Marx believed the actions of the Communards were revolutionary: "Having once got rid of the standing army and the police – the physical force elements of the old government – the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression... by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles. The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it." (96)

Although only males were allowed to vote in the elections, several women were involved in the Paris Commune. Nathalie Lemel and Élisabeth Dmitrieff, created the Women's Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded. The group demanded gender and wage equality, the right of divorce for women, the right to secular education, and professional education for girls. Anne Jaclard and Victoire Léodile Béra founded the newspaper Paris Commune and Louise Michel, established a female battalion of the National Guard. (97)

The Committee was given extensive powers to hunt down and imprison enemies of the Commune. Led by Raoul Rigault, it began to make several arrests, usually on suspicion of treason. Those arrested included Georges Darboy, the Archbishop of Paris, General Edmond-Charles de Martimprey and Abbé Gaspard Deguerry. Rigault attempted to exchange these prisoners for Louis Auguste Blanqui who had been captured by government forces. Despite lengthy negotiations, Adolphe Thiers refused to release him.

On 22nd May 1871, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon and his government troops entered the city. The Committee of Public Safety issued a decree: "To arms! That Paris be bristling with barricades, and that, behind these improvised ramparts, it will hurl again its cry of war, its cry of pride, its cry of defiance, but its cry of victory; because Paris, with its barricades, is undefeatable ...That revolutionary Paris, that Paris of great days, does its duty; the Commune and the Committee of Public Safety will do theirs!" (98)

Karl Marx
A barricade on Place Blanche defended by Louise Michel and a unit of 30 women.

It is estimated that about fifteen to twenty thousand persons, including many women and children, responded to the call of arms. The forces of the Commune were outnumbered five-to-one by Marshal MacMahon's forces. They made their way to Montmartre, where the uprising had begun. The garrison of one barricade, was defended in part by a battalion of about thirty women, including Louise Michel. The soldiers captured 42 guardsmen and several women, took them to the same house on Rue Rosier where generals Clement-Thomas and Lecomte had been executed, and shot them.

Large numbers of the National Guard changed into civilian clothes and fled the city. It is estimated that this left only about 12,000 Communards to defend the barricades. As soon as they were captured they were executed. Raoul Rigaut responded by killing his prisoners, including the Archbishop of Paris and three priests. Soon afterwards Rigaut was captured and executed and the rebellion came to an end soon afterwards on 28th May. As Isaiah Berlin pointed out: "The retribution which the victorious army exacted took the form of mass executions; the white terror, as is common in such cases, far outdid in acts of bestial cruelty the worst excesses of the regime whose misdeeds it had come to end." (99)

According to Marx this is what always happens when the masses attempt to take control of society: "The civilization and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their masters. Then this civilization and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge. Each new crisis in the class struggle between the appropriator and the producer brings out this fact more glaringly... The self-sacrificing heroism with which the population of Paris – men, women, and children – fought for eight days after the entrance of the Versaillese, reflects as much the grandeur of their cause, as the infernal deeds of the soldiery reflect the innate spirit of that civilization, indeed, the great problem of which is how to get rid of the heaps of corpses it made after the battle was over!" (100)

In his best-selling pamphlet, The Civil War in France (1871), Karl Marx admitted that the International Workingmen's Association was heavily involved in the Paris Commune. Jules Favre, the recently reinstated foreign minister in France, asked all European governments to outlaw the IWMA. A French newspaper identified Marx as the "supreme chief" of the conspirators, alleging that he had "organised" the uprising from London. It claimed that the IWMA had seven million members. (101)

Other European governments also urged the punishment of IWMA members. Spain agreed to extradite those involved in the Paris Commune. Giuseppe Mazzini, the leader of the Italian nationalist movement, joined in the calls for the arrest of Marx, who he described as "a man of domineering disposition; jealous of the influence of others; governed by no earnest, philosophical, or religious belief; having, I fear more elements of anger than of love in his nature". (102)

British newspapers also complained about the dangers posed by Karl Marx. The Times warned of the possibility of Marx having an influence on the working-class. It feared that solid English trade unionists who wanted nothing more than "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work" might be corrupted by "strange theories" imported from abroad. (103) Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann that "I have the honour to be this moment the most abused and threatened man in London." (104)

The German ambassador urged Granville Leveson-Gower, the British Foreign Secretary, to treat Marx as a common criminal because of his outrageous "menaces to life and property". After consulting with William Gladstone, the Prime Minister, he replied that "extreme socialist opinions are not believed to have gained any hold upon the working men of this country" and "no practical steps with regard to foreign countries are known to have been taken by the English branch of the Association." (105)

The publication of The Civil War in France (1871) upset several British trade union leaders and George Odger resigned from the General Council of International Workingmen's Association. It has been argued that the passing of the 1867 Reform Act had made the working class less radical. After the Paris Commune, the only areas where the IWMA made progress was in the the strongholds of anarchism: Spain and Italy. (106)

John Snow

Cholera was one of the most fatal diseases in the 19th century. Nausea and dizziness led to violent vomiting and diarrhoea, "with stools turning to a grey liquid until nothing emerged but water and fragments of intestinal membrane... extreme muscular cramps followed, with an insatiable desire for water". It is estimated that 16,000 people died during the 1831-1832 epidemic. (107)

Only working-class people appeared to suffer from cholera. Stories began to circulate that doctors were spreading the disease as an excuse for getting their hands on corpses to dissect. Charles Greville, secretary to the Privy Council, noted in his diary: "The other day a Mr Pope, head of the cholera hospital in Marylebone, came to the Council Office to complain that a patient who was being removed to hospital with his own consent had been taken out of his chair by the mob and carried back, the chair broken, and the bearers and surgeon hardly escaping with their lives... In short, there is no end to the... uproar, violence, and brutal ignorance that have gone on, and this on the part of the lower orders, for whose especial benefit all the precautions are taken." (108)

Rioting broke out all over Britain. Crowds of men, women and children smashed windows at the Toxteth Park Cholera Hospital in Liverpool and pelted members of the local board of health with bricks. On 2nd September 1832, violence erupted in Manchester when a mob Swan Street Hospital, breaking down the gates and fighting a pitched battle with the police. This was as a result of a local man, John Hare, discovering that his grandson's body, who had died of cholera, had been smuggled out of the hospital by a doctor who wanted to dissect it. (109)

John Snow attended sessions at the Newcastle School of Medicine in 1832–3, under John Fife. On completing his apprenticeship he became assistant, first to John Watson, general practitioner in Burnopfield, and then to Joseph Warburton, general practitioner in Pateley Bridge. (110)

During this period Snow read a pamphlet, The Return to Nature or Defence of the Vegetable Regimen (1822) by John Frank Newton. Snow was convinced by Newton's arguments that man's natural sustenance was fruit and vegetables, and thought that flesh-eating a perverse custom that caused "derangement" in the stomach and liver, an "undue impetus" to the brain, disorders of the skin and inflammation of the whole system". He also believed that all drinking water should be distilled, including that used for making tea. Newton also objected to the killing of "poor defenceless animals" and the drinking of alcohol. (111)

As a result of this pamphlet Snow became a vegetarian and joined the temperance movement and made a promise to abstain from all alcohol for life. Snow like many people dealing with problems in working-class communities, believed that alcohol was an aggravation of every social evil. "The economic waste of expenditure on drink lowers the standard of living and reduces a great many families to destitution, who, if their incomes were usefully spent, would enjoy a reasonable degree of comfort. Universal temperance would undoubtedly bring incalculable benefits and blessings." (112)

In 1836 John Snow joined the York Temperance Society and overcoming his shyness he addressed a public meeting on the subject. This was at a time when most people considered alcohol to be "highly beneficial to the health, warming and stimulating to the system, and increasing energy and physical strength... for a medical man to decry its use and refuse to prescribe it was seen at best as eccentric and by some doctors and patients as positively negligent". (113)

John Snow moved to London and enrolled at the School of Medicine in Great Windmill Street School. Six months' surgical practice at Westminster Hospital completed Snow's training and he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in May 1838. Four months later he set up in practice at 54 Frith Street, Soho, and also worked in the out-patient department of Charing Cross Hospital. (114)

In 1847 news reached Britain of an outbreak of cholera in Egypt. The disease gradually spread west, and by early 1848 it had arrived in Europe. The previous outbreak of cholera in Britain in 1831, had resulted in the deaths of over 16,000 people. In his report, published in 1842, Edwin Chadwick had pointed out that nearly all these deaths had occurred in those areas with impure water supplies and inefficient sewage removal systems. Faced with the possibility of a cholera epidemic, the government decided to try again. This new bill involved the setting up of a Board of Health Act, that had the power to advise and assist towns which wanted to improve public sanitation. (115)

In an attempt to persuade the supporters of laissez-faire to agree to a Public Health Act, the government made several changes to the bill introduced in 1847. For example, local boards of health could only be established when more than one-tenth of the ratepayers agreed to it or if the death-rate was higher than 23 per 1000. Chadwick was disappointed by the changes that had taken place, but he agreed to become one of the three members of the central Board of Health when the act was passed in the summer of 1848. (116)

In 1849 cholera killed over 50,000 people. John Snow published On the Mode of Communication of Cholera where he argued against the theory of miasmatism (a belief that diseases are caused by noxious form of air emanating from rotting organic matter). He pointed out the disease affected the intestines not the lungs. Snow suggested the contamination of drinking water as a result of cholera evacuations seeping into wells or running into rivers. (117)

Nightmen removing sewage in London (1849)
Punch Magazine (3rd July, 1858)

Snow became a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1850. John Snow developed a reputation as the city's leading anaesthetist and published several articles on the subject in the London Medical Gazette. (118) In April 1853, Snow gave chloroform to Queen Victoria for the birth of her son, Leopold. She wrote in her journal: "The effect was soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure." (119)

In August 1854 cholera cases began to appear in Soho. Snow investigated all 93 local deaths. He concluded the local water supply had become contaminated, for nearly all the victims used water from the Broad Street pump. At a nearby prison, conditions were far worse, but few deaths. Snow concluded that this was because it had its own well. On 7th September he requested the parish Board of Guardians to disconnect the pump. Sceptical but desperate, they agreed and the handle was removed. After this very few cases were reported. (120)

In 1855, Snow gave his views to a House of Commons Select Committee set up to investigate cholera. Snow argued that cholera was not contagious nor spread by miasmata but was water-borne. He advocated the government invested in massive improvements in drainage and sewage. It has been claimed that his research "played some part in the investment by London and other major British cities in new main drainage and sewage systems." (121)

John Snow had poor health throughout his life and on 10th June 1858, he suffered a stroke. His condition deteriorated and he died on 16th June at his home at 18 Sackville Street, Piccadilly, London. Post-mortem examination showed evidence of old pulmonary tuberculosis and advanced renal disease. (122)



(1) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 356

(2) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 214

(3) E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963) page 297

(4) John G. Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850 (1986) page 96

(5) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 217

(6) Henry Mayhew, London Labour and London Poor (1851) page iii

(7) James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London (1869) page 47

(8) James P. Kay-Shuttleworth, The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes in Manchester (1832) page 42

(9) Alexis de Tocqueville, Journeys to England and Ireland (1835) page 104

(10) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (24th September 1849)

(11) Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) pages 48-49

(12) James Smith, Sanitary Report on Leeds (1845)

(13) The Artisan Magazine (October, 1843)

(14) J. D. Chambers, Modern Nottingham in the Making (1945) page 6

(15) J. R. Martin, Sanitary Report on Nottingham (1845)

(16) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (24th September 1849)

(17) John G. Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850 (1986) pages 87-89

(18) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1842)

(19) Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) page 39

(20) Thomas Carlyle, Characteristics (1831) page 20

(21) Henry Mayhew, London Characters (1874) page 151

(22) Letter to The Times (3rd July, 1849)

(23) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (24th September 1849)

(24) George R. Sims, How the Poor Live (1889) page 14

(25) Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (1843) page 5

(26) Dr. James P. Kay-Shuttleworth, The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes in Manchester (1832) pages 17-20

(27) Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, Account of a Personal Inspection of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel (May, 1838)

(28) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 539

(29) John M. Eyler, William Farr : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(30) Dr. Laurie, report on the living conditions in Greenock (1842)

(31) William Thorn, giving evidence before a parliamentary committee (1844)

(32) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 100

(33) Alexis de Tocqueville, Journeys to England and Ireland (1835) page 104

(34) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (24th September 1849)

(35) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 551

(36) Daniel Green, The Great Cobbett: The Noble Agitator (1983) page 458

(37) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 27

(38) Poor Law Commission, letter to Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary (14th May, 1838)

(39) Peter Mandler, Edwin Chadwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(40) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1842)

(41) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 236

(42) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1842)

(43) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 30

(44) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 341

(45) Peter Mandler, Edwin Chadwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(46) Thomas Hawksley, interviewed by a Parliamentary Committee (15th February, 1844)

(47) George Hudson, speech in the House of Commons (3rd July 1847)

(48) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 31

(49) Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1997) page 411

(50) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (24th September 1849)

(51) Obituary of Thomas Hawksley, The Times (25th September 1893)

(52) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 35

(53) Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1997) page 414

(54) Karl Marx, Das Kapital (1867) page 1069

(55) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) pages 364-365

(56) Robert Owen, Crisis (October 1833)

(57) James Morrison, The Pioneer (22nd February 1834)

(58) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 368

(59) Karl Marx, letter to Ferdinand Freiligrath (29th February, 1860)

(60) George Julian Harney, The Northern Star (19th June, 1847)

(61) Jerrold Seigel, Marx's Fate: The Shape of a Life (1993) page 234

(62) Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (1977) pages 134-135

(63) Yuri Mikhailovich Steklov, History Of The First International (1928) page 36

(64) Martha S. Vogeler, Edward Spencer Beesly : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(65) Yuri Mikhailovich Steklov, History Of The First International (1928) page 45

(66) Karl Marx, letter to Friedrich Engels (26th September, 1866)

(67) David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (1973) page 335

(68) Karl Marx, The General Rules he International Workingmen's Association (October 1864)

(69) Karl Marx, letter to Friedrich Engels (4th November, 1864)

(70) Paul Foot, The Vote (2005) page 135

(71) Alan Ruston, Peter Alfred Taylor : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(72) Henry Snell, Men Movements and Myself (1936) page 31

(73) Richard Josiah Hinton, English Radical Leaders: Brief Biographies of European Public Men (1875) page 340

(74) Roy Jenkins, Gladstone (1995) page 268

(75) Benjamin Disraeli, speech in the House of Commons (18th March, 1867)

(76) Paul Foot, The Vote (2005) page 143

(77) Annette Mayer, The Growth of Democracy in Britain (1999) page 48

(78) F. M. Leventhal, George Odger : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(79) The Spectator (19th February 1870)

(80) Henry James, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine (July 1877)

(81) Paul Foot, The Vote (2005) page 189

(82) Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx (1939) page 191

(83) Francis Wheen, Karl Marx (1999) page 320

(84) David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (1973) page 355

(85) Karl Marx, statement on behalf of the International Workingmen's Association (23rd July 1870)

(86) Karl Marx, letter to Friedrich Engels (17th August, 1870)

(87) Karl Marx, letter to Friedrich Sorge (1st September, 1870)

(88) David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (1973) page 358

(89) René de La Croix de Castries, Monsieur Thiers (1983) pages 320-333

(90) Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx (1939) pages 184 and 185

(91) Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871)

(92) The Times (22nd March, 1871)

(93) Francis Wheen, Karl Marx (1999) page 326

(94) Donny Gluckstein, The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy (2006) page 231

(95) David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (1973) page 358

(96) Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871)

(97) L'Humanité (19 March 2005)

(98) The Committee of Public Safety (22nd May 1871)

(99) Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx (1939) page 187

(100) Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871)

(101) Francis Wheen, Karl Marx (1999) page 331

(102) Giuseppe Mazzini, The Contemporary Review (July, 1872)

(103) The Times (16th April, 1872)

(104) Karl Marx, letter to Ludwig Kugelmann (28th June, 1871)

(105) Francis Wheen, Karl Marx (1999) page 332

(106) David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (1973) page 366

(107) Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1997) page 403

(108) Charles Greville, diary entry (1st April, 1832)

(109) Sandra Hempel, The Medical Detective (2006) page 78

(110) Stephanie J. Snow, John Snow : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(111) John Frank Newton, The Return to Nature or Defence of the Vegetable Regimen (1822)

(112) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934) page 66

(113) Sandra Hempel, The Medical Detective (2006) page 73

(114) Stephanie J. Snow, John Snow : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(115) Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1997) page 411

(116) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 32

(117) John Snow, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (1849)

(118) Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1997) page 412

(119) Queen Victoria, journal entry (7th April, 1853)

(120) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 32

(121) Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1997) page 413

(122) Stephanie J. Snow, John Snow : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)