Health Problems in Industrial Towns (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Health Problems in Industrial Towns

Q1: What health problems did Edwin Chadwick identify in his reports published in 1842 and 1843?

A1: In his report, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, published in 1842, Chadwick claimed that slum housing, inefficient sewage and impure water supplies in industrial towns were causing the unnecessary deaths of about 60,000 people every year. The following year, Chadwick identified another health hazard. In Internment in Towns, he argued that the tradition of keeping dead bodies in the homes until the funeral took place was responsible for the spread of infectious diseases.

Q2: Study sources 1, 3, 4, 7, 9, 11 and 12. (a) Why were dunghills more of a problem in the summer than the winter? (b) Explain why dunghills were responsible for a considerable amount of disease. (c) Give reasons why many British streets had dunghills in the first-half of the 19th century. Which one of these reasons is the most important?

A2: (a) The warmer weather in the summer increased the bad smell of the dunghills. (b) Dunghills were full of germs that caused disease. Source 1 shows children playing in the dunghill while a woman searches for objects that she might find useful. This contact with dunghills often resulted in people becoming ill. Disease was also spread by flies that took germs from the dunghill and left them on food in the houses. (c) Human waste was piled up in the street because most houses did not have pipes to take the sewerage away. Every so often, this waste was taken away by nightmen (source 9). As William Thorn points out in source 11, this was then sold to farmers as manure. Although money was made from dunghills, the main reason why they existed was the lack of sewerage pipes.

Q3: Study source 6. What does it tell us about industrial towns and public health? Explain why change is not always the same as progress.

A3: In his 1842 report, Edwin Chadwick compared the average age of deaths in different areas of Britain. His figures show that people were more likely to die at an earlier age in industrial towns (Bolton, Liverpool and Manchester) than in rural areas. There was also a great difference between the average age of death in different social groups living in the same area. Chadwick claimed that some aspects of industrial life, like polluted air, affected all the people
that lived in the area. However, some things such as contaminated water supplies, mainly affected the poor.
Some historians have used this information to argue that change is not the same as progress. In the 19th century, large numbers of people moved from villages to industrial towns. As a result, the average age of death went down and was therefore an example of regression rather than progress.

Q4: Study sources 5 and 13. (a) Why were back-to-back terraced houses cheap to build? (b) Why has a ditch been dug between the two rows of houses? (c) Give two reasons why houses were often built close to rivers and canals?

A4: (a) Back-to-back terraced houses were cheap to build as this design ensured that the houses shared as many walls as possible. This saved space and materials. (b) The ditch allowed the sewerage to run away from the houses. (c) Dr. Robertson points out that factories were usually built on the banks of rivers and canals. As the houses were built close to the factories (so that the workers did not have to travel very far to work) they were also close to the rivers and canals. This also provided the workers with a convenient water supply.

Q5: Read source 13. Why does the author believe that some historians have been too critical of Edwin Chadwick?

A5: R. A. Lewis argues that Chadwick's ideas on public health created a great deal of hostility. His opponents often resorted to attacking Chadwick's character as well as his ideas. This has resulted in a lot of sources that are critical of Chadwick. Lewis believes that some historians have treated these sources as being accurate rather than part of a propaganda campaign. As a result, Lewis believes that historians have often provided an unfavourable impression of Edwin Chadwick's character.