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Government Intervention

Health and the People>Improvements in Public Health>Government Intervention

For most of the 19th century people believed in a laissez-faire style of government (the government shouldn’t interfere). But then things began to change…

Edwin Chadwick

Edwin Chadwick was a social reformer. In 1842 he published a report on poverty and health entitled ‘Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain’. The report showed that:

  • Living conditions in towns were worse for people’s health than conditions in the countryside.
  • It suggested that the government should pass laws for proper drainage and sewage systems, funded by local taxes.

1848 Cholera Epidemic

  • A further outbreak of cholera in 1848 killed 53,000 people.

1848 Public Health Act

The combined pressure of Chadwick’s report and the cholera epidemic put pressure on Parliament to pass the 1848 Public Health Act.

The Act was significant because:

  • It was the first step against laissez-faire and towards Government involvement in public health.
  • It set up a Central Board of Health.
  • Allowed any town to set up its own local board of health if the town’s taxpayers agreed.

However, it was limited because it was not compulsory. This meant:

  • Very few towns chose to set up a Local Board of Health.
  • Many that did set up a Local Board of Health did not want to spend money on improving conditions for the poor.

Progress was limited because Chadwick annoyed a lot of people with his aggressive arguments. He was forced to retire in 1854. The Central Board of Health was dismantled in 1858.

The Great Stink & The London Sewers

Other events led to the Government increasingly having to take action to improve the public health of Britain in the latter half of the 19th century. During the summer of 1858 the hot weather meant the river Thames water level dropped in London. Bacteria grew in the low-lying river water, this caused an awful smell that affected large parts of London. To reduce the stink, engineer Joseph Bazalgette was appointed in 1859 to build a new London sewage system.

About 1300 miles of sewers were built, transporting sewage away from London. People at the time did not understand how disease spread, they were merely trying to stop the smells coming from the river Thames. Their actions also stopped the spread of diseases such as cholera by cleaning the drinking water, though this wasn’t their original aim. Pasteur’s germ theory (1861) and the research of Snow (1853) and Chadwick (1842) added to the evidence that cleaning the cities could stop the spread of disease.

The end of laissez-faire

During the second half of the 19th century pressure mounted on the government to improve public health.

  • In 1867, the Second Reform Act was passed. This gave nearly 1 million more men the vote, most of them were industrial workers. Now they had the vote, workers put pressure on the government to listen to concerns about health. For the first time, politicians had to address workers concerns in order to stay in power.
  • Several reformers helped to change attitudes towards health. William Farr was a statistician who recorded causes of death. He used his statistics to press for reforms in areas where death rates were high.

In the 1870s the government finally took action to improve public health.

  • In 1871-72, the government followed the Royal Sanitary Commission’s proposal to form the Local Government Board and divided Britain into ‘sanitary areas’ administered by officers of public health.

1875 Public Health Act

  • Forced councils to appoint health inspectors and sanitary inspectors to make sure that laws on things like clean water supply and hygiene were followed. It also made councils maintain sewage systems and keep their towns and streets clean.
  • The 1875 Public Health Act was more effective than the one passed in 1848 because it was compulsory.

1875 Artisan’s Dwelling Act

  • This allowed local councils to buy slums with poor living conditions and rebuild them in a way that fit the new government backed housing standards.
  • However, few councillors used the Artisan’s Dwelling Act. An exception was Joseph Chamberlain, who became Mayor of Birmingham in 1873. Chamberlain persuaded the city authorities to buy the local gas and water companies to make sure people had good supplies of both.

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