Poverty, Public Health and the growth of Government in Britain 1830-75


The population of Britain Doubles

1801 - 1851

Time period studied

1830 - 1875

Temporary Board of health, cholera preparations


In 1831, realising that Cholera was approaching Britain the government sent two medical commissioners to St Peters-burg to asses the situation. The report and general alarm resulted in a temporary board of health being set up.
- It advised local boards of health to be set up, including clergymen, doctors and landowners to report to the central board on the situation.
- Recommended that local boards of health appoint district inspectors, to report on the food, housing, clothing, cleanliness and habits of the poor.
- It issued advice: houses to be whitewashed, infected clothing and furniture fumigated, strict quarantines and fever hospitals set up.

1831-2 -First Cholera Epidemic

1831 - 1832

The First Cholera Epidemic, 32'000 PEOPLE DIE.
Cholera was unknown in Britain before 1831, endemic in India, it was believed to have spread to China then along the trade routes.
The Cholera, more than endemic diseases had an effect upon the public and the legislators that was out of proportion for their statistical importance, this was because of the high percentage of fatalities, the speed at which Cholera could strike and that it struck people of all class.

1832 Report/Investigation - James Kay


"The Moral and physical condition of the working classes employed in the cotton manufacture of Manchester".
- Dr James Kay first discovered the link between dirt and disease.

1832 - The Great Reform Act

  • Disenfranchised 56 boroughs in England and Wales and reduced another 31 to only one MP.
  • Created 67 new constituencies.
  • Broadened the franchise's property qualification in the counties, to include small landowners, tenant farmers and shopkeepers.
  • Created a uniform franchise in the boroughs, giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and some lodgers. Limited change had been achieved, but the majority of working men still could not vote but proved that change was possible.



The Liverpool and Exeter riots were worse than those that happened elsewhere, between 28th May and June eight major street riots occurred. They were protesting against the local medical men, as people believed cholera victims' were not being buried properly and / or being dissected.

1835 - Municipal Corporations act


Created one standard system of bourgh government where aldermen, councillors and mayors were elected and AWNSERABLE to their electors over things like HOUSING and SANITATION. The council had to take responsibility over the local police forces and applied to 176 boroughs.

1837 - Civil Regestration of Births, Marriages and Deaths act.


This act was introduced and the registrar general, William Farr began to collect data. From these statistics trends in movement and population size could be easily gathered.


1838 - Approx. 1848

Chartism was a working class movement, which emerged in 1836 and was most active between 1838 and 1848. The aim of the Chartists was to gain political rights and influence for the working classes.

Chartism got its name from the formal petition, or People’s Charter, that listed the six main aims of the movement. These were:

a vote for all men (over 21)
the secret ballot
no property qualification to become an MP
payment for MPs
electoral districts of equal size
annual elections for Parliament

The movement presented three petitions to Parliament - in 1839, 1842 and 1848 – but each of these was rejected. The last great Chartist petition was collected in 1848 and had, it was claimed, six million signatures. The plan was to deliver it to Parliament after a peaceful mass meeting on Kennington Common in London. The government sent 8,000 soldiers, but only 20,000 Chartists turned up on a cold rainy day. The demonstration was considered a failure and the rejection of this last petition marked the end of Chartism.

Some opponents of the movement feared that Chartists were not just interested in changing the way Parliament was elected, but really wanted to turn society upside down by starting a revolution. They also thought that the Chartists (who said they disapproved of violent protest) were stirring up a wave of riots around the country. For example, Preston in Lancashire was the scene of rioting in 1842.

Support for Chartism peaked at times of economic depression and hunger. There was rioting in Stockport, due to unemployment and near-starvation, and Manchester, where workers protested against wage cuts, wanting "a fair day's pay for a fair day's labour".
Although the Chartist movement ended without achieving its aims, the fear of civil unrest remained. Later in the century, many Chartist ideas were included in the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884.

1838 Report/Investigation - Arnott and Kay


"On the prevalence of certain physical causes of fever in the Metropolis which might be prevented by proper sanitary measures".

1838 Report/Investigation - Southwood Smith


"On some of the physical causes of sickness and mortality to which the poor are particularly exposed and which are capable of removal by sanitary regulations, exemplified in the present condition of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel districts, as ascertained by personal inspection."

1840 - Vaccination act


PERMISSIVE, anybody could be vaccinated for free by poor law vaccinators, made variolation (injection of smallpox material instead of vaccination) illegal.

1848 Report/Investigation - EDWIN CHADWICK


"Report on the Sanitary condition of the Labouring Population of Britain"
- Included questionnaires from 50 towns and STATISTICS from William Farr.
- 10'000 free copies were sent to MPs, 20'000 copies sold to the public.
- Showed that the working classes were drastically more likely to die young in a city.

Chadwick's Recommendations:
- The most important measure is the removal of all refuse from houses, streets and roads.
- The main obstacles to the removal of waste is the expense. Build sewers which will remove waste at a fraction of the cost.
- Better supplies of water are absolutely necessary.

Chadwick's Impact
- Reaction in Parliament ranged from wholehearted acceptance to disbelief and derision.
- A Royal commission into the health of towns was set up to conduct further analysis.
- Chadwick showed the importance of using key statistical data to support findings.
- Chadwick highlighted the problems that restricted improvements in Public health - vested interests and money!
- Major public health legislation was introduced e.g. the introduction of the 1848 Public Health Act.

1846 - Removal of Nuisances and Prevention of Epidemic diseases act


This enabled Justices in petty sessions to prosecute those responsible for 'nuisances'. These were described as "unwholesome houses, accumulation of filth and foul drains and cesspools".

1846 - liverpool Sanitary act


It limited the action to Liverpool but it created a corporation health authority which had the power to appoint an OFFICER FOR HEALTH (the first in Britain), the town was given powers to carry out sewerage, drainage and water supply improvements.

1846 - Bath and Washouses act


Enabled local authorities to use public money to provide baths and washhouses.

1847 - Town Improvements Clauses act


This defined the rights of towns to lay water supplies and drainage schemes to control nuisances.

1848-49 Second Cholera epidemic

1848 - Approx. 1849

The Second Cholera epidemic, 62'000 PEOPLE DIE.

1848 - Public Health Act

  • A general board of health was set up, reporting to parliament, original members, Lord Morpeth, Lord Shaftesbury and EDWIN CHADWICK.
  • Local authorities were empowered to set up local boards of health, could be set up where 10% of rate payers asked or if death rate was more than 23 per 1000.
  • Local boards can appoint medical officer.
  • Local boards to manage sewers and drains, wells and slaughterhouses, burial grounds and recreational areas.
  • Act was PERMISSIVE, and did not apply to Scotland and London.

1851 - Common Lodging and houses act

  • All lodging houses to be registered and inspected by police.
  • Badly drafted RARELY ENFORCED.
  • Empowered local authorities to to dictate number of beds per lodging house. (Reinforced in 1853)

William Farr’s report


“Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England 1848-49” was praised by the Lancet as “one of the most remarkable productions of type and pen in any age or country”. William Farr also commented (not in this report but generally) that “Like an angel of Death it [miasma] has hovered for centuries over London”.

1853-4 - third Cholera epidemic

1853 - 1854

The third Cholera epidemic, 20'000 PEOPLE DIE, John Snow investigates the breackout in Broard Street, Golden Square Soho.

John Snow creates theory

1853 - 1854

John Snow cretes his theory that cholera is waterbourne. Empirical research in Soho culminating in the removal of the handle from the Broard Street pump, Cholera deaths plummet.

1853 - Vaccination act


COMPULSORY, all parents had to have their children vaccinated within 3 months of birth, punishment fine or prison.

Committee for scientific enquiry


John Simon served with Neil Arnott and William Farr on the committee for scientific enquiry into the recent Cholera epidemic; they concluded that miasma and not Snow’s theory had caused the outbreak in Broad street.

John Snow publishes


Publication of "On the mode and Communication of Cholera' by John Snow

1855 - Nuisances removal act


Empowered local authorities to combat overcrowding, as a nuisiance with fines and prosecution.

Metropolitan board of works established


The metropolitan board of works established.

Joseph Bazelgette appointed chief engineer to the MBofW


Joseph Bazelgette appointed chief engineer to the Metropolitan board of works, he draws up plans for a comprehensive sewerage system.

1858 - Local Government Act and Public Health Act


The General board of health abolished, its powers split between Privy council and Local government act office. JOHN SIMON becomes the first medical officer to the medical department of the privy council.



The 'Great Stink', a hor summer turned the river Thames into a stinking sewer.

Bazalgette's project.


Joseph Bazelgette's project gets under way, a system of interconnecting sewers and pumping stations under construction.

Metropolis Local Management Amendment Act


The Metropolitan board of Works given a free hand to establish a sewer system for London.

1860 - Food and Drugs Act


Enabled local authorities to appoint analysts who could investigate food.
- First attempt at legislation to prevent adulteration of food.
- Common to find additives in staple foods, white lead in flour, ground glass in sugar, red lead in coffee etc. New law made inclusion of additives a criminal offence.
- Not very effective and was amended later.

Pasteur publishes


Loius Pasteur publishes his germ theory of disease.

Sewers opened


The Prince of Wales opened Bazelgette's sewerage system.

1866 - Sanitary act


Introduced by JOHN SIMON.
- Local authorities made responsible for the removal of nuisances, government could COMPEL them to act.
- Local authorities could abolish slums,
- They were responsible for the provision of sewers, drainage and street cleaning.
- Set limits on use of cellars for living, defined overcrowding.
- Every town was to appoint sanitary inspectors.

1866-7 - Fourth Cholera Epidemic

1866 - 1867

The Fourth Cholera Epidemic, 14'000 people die.
There was a further epidemic in 1866, by which time Snow had died, and Farr had accepted Snow's explanation. He produced a monograph which showed that mortality was extremely high for people who drew their water from the Old Ford Reservoir in East London. Farr's work was then considered conclusive.

1867 - Vaccination act


Poor Law guardians to control vaccination districts (same areas as parishes), deliver notices for vaccination ect. Also made attempted inoculation of smallpox punishable by a month in prison.

1867 - Reform act


The growth and influence of the chartist movement from 1838 onwards was proof that more parliamentary reform was desired. However the call for universal manhood suffrage was still resisted by parliament and the second reform act passed in 1867 was still based around property qualifications. The 1867 reform act:
- Granted the vote to all householders in the boroughs as well as lodgers who paid £10 a year or more.
- Reduced the property threshold in the counties and gave the vote to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land.
Men in urban areas who met the property qualifications were enfranchised and the act roughly DOUBLED the electorate in England and Wales from one two two million men.

1868 - Artisans Dwelling Act


Gave local councils the power to force a landlord to repair an insanitary house, or the council could pull it down.

1872 - Public Health Act


Ensured that the whole country was covered by sanitary authorities with COMPULSORY duties. Divided England and Wales into health districts each with it's own officer.

1872 - Adulteration of Food, Drink and Drugs Act


This enabled the locsl authorities to order an investigation of specific foodstuffs even if no complaint had been recieved.

1872 - Ballot act


In 1872 the government introduced the Ballot Act which attempted to deal with the problem of electoral malpractice by allowing secret ballots. However, this attempt by Gladstone's government to stop bribery, corruption and intimidation in elections was insufficient although these practices did decline. In areas where there were a lot of voters, the secret ballot certainly made a difference. Also, this Act ensured that voting came to be seen more as a political act rather than as social occasion, the hustings (public meetings where candidates for election met members of the constituents) having been replaced by the polling booth.

1875 - Artisans Dwelling Act


Gave local councils the power to clear whole districts. Because of strong opposition, powers were PERMISSIVE not compulsory.

Robert Koch


Robert Koch was a German Scientist, who continued Pasteur's work, finding links between many diseases and the microbes that caused them.

1875 - Public Health Act


Mandatory act, codifying and consolidating previous acts, it set down what local authorities had to do:
- Ensure decent water supply, drainage and sewer system.
- Nuisances were to be removed.
- Offensive trades regulated.
- Contaminated food found, confiscated and destroyed.
- Causes of infectious diseases to be reported to medical officer who had to deal with it.