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. (7)
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).
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. His 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.
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". 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.
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".
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.
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 his 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.
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....
It is proved that the present mode of retaining refuse in the house in cesspools and privies is injurious to the health and often extremely dangerous. The process of emptying them by hand labour, and removing the contents by cartage, is very offensive, and often the occasion of serious accidents.
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.
The most unhealthy parts of Leeds are the closed squares of houses which have been erected for working people.... The ashes, garbage, and filth of all kinds are thrown from the doors and windows of the houses upon the surface of the streets and courts... The privies are invariably in a filthy condition, and often remain without the removal of any portion of filth for six months.
Average Age of Death in 1842
In Market Street is a dunghill... over twelve feet high...it 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.
These streets (in Edinburgh) 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.
Nearly all the whole of the labouring population have only one room. The corpse is therefore kept in that room where the people sleep and have their meals... Bodies are almost always kept for a full week, frequently longer... the body often occupies the only bed till they raise money to pay for the coffin.
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 occasions, 2,800 families were visited, of whom 46 per cent occupied but one room each.
Question: For what purpose is the stuff used?
Answer: "We sell it to the farmers, who use it on their land... for turnips, wheat... in fact, for all their produce.
Until well into the nineteenth century it was illegal to connect domestic drains or a privy to the public sewer, and in most houses and streets the privies drained into cesspools, which were, quite literally, holes in the ground from which the liquid refuse seeped into the soil or was pumped into the streets to run off into the sewers, while the solid refuse was cleared out manually, mostly at night, into carts which took it away for sale as agricultural manure. Surrey farmers claimed that it was only liberal dressings of `London muck' that made their heavy clays fit for cultivation.
The factories have sprung up along the watercourses, which are the rivers Irk, Irwell and Medlock, and the Rochdale Canal, and the dwellings of the work-people have kept increasing close to the factories. The interest and convenience of individual manufacturers... has determined the growth of the town and the manner of that growth, while the comfort, health and happiness of the inhabitants have not been considered.
Few men have done so much for their fellow-countrymen as Edwin Chadwick, and received in return so little thanks... Chadwick's reputation suffers from... a hatred of the man and his work, wide-spread in his day, and colouring even now the impressions of him formed by a later generation.
Questions for Students
Question 1: What health problems did Edwin Chadwick identify in his reports published in 1842 and 1843?
Question 2: 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?
Question 3: Study source 6. What does it tell us about industrial towns and public health? Explain why change is not always the same as progress.
Question 4: 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?
Question 5: Read source 13. Why does the author believe that some historians have been too critical of Edwin Chadwick?
A commentary on these questions can be found here.