Nineteenth-Century Sanitation Reform
Nineteenth-Century Sanitation Reform
The dawn of the public health movement as reflected in literature, journalism, and official reports from the mid-nineteenth century, especially 1830 to 1860.
Public health, sewer systems, and graveyard reform were issues that gripped the British nation throughout the nineteenth century, inspiring widespread debate and proposals for action. Dirt, pollution, and disease were oppressive forces for many Londoners and other city dwellers, and the possibility of their eradication—a promise held out by the sanitation reform movement—elicited a strong response.
It is difficult to imagine in the twenty-first century the level of filth the average Victorian confronted on a daily basis, with little more than water and a broom to keep it at bay. The growth of industry and simple population growth resulted in an increase in dirt, and overcrowding itself became a public health issue. Mortality rates soared, especially among the poor, as this environment became an ideal atmosphere for spreading contagious disease. Typhus, cholera, and small pox were decimating entire neighborhoods. This happened as the upper classes and the state were rediscovering Britain's poor, a result of the 1834 Poor Law authored largely by the lawyer Edwin Chadwick. Poor Law doctors began investigating and documenting the living conditions of East End neighborhoods like Whitechapel, Spitalfields, and Bethnal Green, giving middle-class and upper-class English a virtual tour of sections of their capital city that were as foreign and exotic as the remotest colony.
As several later critics have suggested, these texts and others like them provided readers with a sensationalist travel narrative unlike any they had seen. Shock, horror, and powerful curiosity followed, and sanitation became a widespread public concern. The watershed text emerging from official explorations into the environs of the poor was Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes of Great Britain (1842), which compiled the findings of Poor Law doctors throughout England and Wales. As part of his Sanitary Report, Chadwick called for dramatic social improvements and changes to the nation's infrastructure, including improvements in sewer drainage and the water supply, methods for garbage removal, and better ventilation as part of building design. In newspapers and magazines across the country, Chadwick's program for public health was discussed and debated, with many concluding that sanitation reform was the best and only way to address the social ills of the lower classes. More sanitary conditions would not only halt the spread of disease, but even obviate the need for large-scale charity measures as the poor, no longer oppressed by dirt and illness, would be better able to fend for themselves. In short, public health would not only benefit the poor, it might even reduce the number of destitute.
As nonfiction accounts of sanitation reform proliferated, their rhetoric also came to inform fictional representations of poor and working-class lives. Charles Dickens was one of several novelists bringing the realities of Bermondsey, Jacob's Island, and other parts unknown to middle-class and upper-class readers. Some, including Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Kingsley, took parts of the Sanitary Report and incorporated them into their descriptions of the laboring classes and their homes. Dickens drew from personal experience, including tours he had taken with the Poor Law doctor Southwood Smith, who collaborated with Chadwick on sanitation reform issues. His walks with Smith were part of his research for Oliver Twist (1838), which was a powerful critique of England's treatment of its poorest citizens, especially its children. When Dickens re-released Oliver Twist with a new preface in 1850—while the inhabitants of Jacob's Island were still waiting for the promised reforms—he took the opportunity to stress again the primacy of sanitation reform in addressing the predicament of the poor. In Bleak House (1852) Dickens also demonstrates how the problems of disease and contagion are not peculiar to the East End and the lower classes. If the horrors of Oliver Twist would not move middle- and upper-class readers to sympathy, Bleak House might frighten them with the reminder that the diseases allowed to run rampant among the poor would have no scruples about infecting the rich for whom the lower classes often worked.
Pollution, dirt, and disease were damaging and ever present as physical realities, but the power they held as metaphors was also significant to Victorian readers and writers. Several modern scholars have employed the insights of anthropologist Mary Douglas to understand the symbolic weight of dirt and contagion in society, particularly from her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966). Douglas maintained that the concepts of pollution and dirt are central to cultures prizing order and classification: dirt is whatever is rejected by the system, and pollution is whatever confuses the boundaries used for classification. Thus concern for the cleanliness of the poor was a two-edged sword. If the middle and upper classes felt called to care for the less fortunate in Christian charity, they also found the dirt and disease of the East End to be symbolic of the lower classes' otherness. Likewise, when threats of poisonous sewers and small pox infection moved into upper-class London, the danger to health joined simultaneously with a danger to social stability. In both literary texts and nonfiction documents, scholars have observed a clear concern for the maintenance of social order just beneath the surface of the movement for sanitation reform.
Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (nonfiction) 1842
A Supplementary Report on the Results of a Special Inquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns (nonfiction) 1843
Oliver Twist (novel) 1838
Bleak House (novel) 1852
Sybil, Or, The Two Nations (novel) 1845
Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (novel) 1848
The Manufacturing Population of England (nonfiction) 1833
James Phillips Kay (-Shuttleworth)
The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (nonfiction) 1832
Yeast (novel) 1848
Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet (novel) 1850
*London Labor and the London Poor (nonfiction) 1861
The Crown of Wild Olive (lectures) 1866
Fiction, Fair and Foul (literature criticism) 1880-81
George Alfred Walker
Gatherings from Graveyards, Particularly Those of London, with a Concise History of the Modes of Interment among Different Nations from the Earliest Periods, and a Detail of Dangerous and Fatal Results Produced by the Unwise and Revolting Custom of...
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SOURCE: Schwarzbach, F. S. “‘Terra Incognita’—An Image of the City in English Literature, 1820-1855.” Prose Studies 5, no. 1 (May 1982): 62-84.
[In the following essay, Schwarzbach offers an overview of the depiction of London's poor in both nonfiction exposés and novelistic accounts.]
The first half of the nineteenth century saw the transformation of England from an agrarian to an industrial, and from a rural to an urban society. During these fifty years, London's numbers grew from just over a million to nearly three million; in the 1820s alone, half a dozen large English cities increased their population by fifty per cent. This rapid and unprecedented change involved massive social dislocation: since cities were so unhealthy that the increase in the indigenous population was minimal, their growth was mainly the result of the migration of millions of persons from country to town. But also there was dislocation in another sense as society tried to understand the institutions, relations and places of the new England. The city was the locus principus of these changes, the centre of economic activity and of social development and also where the future shape of England was being determined and made manifest. If one were to come to understand the forces remaking England, one first must understand the city.
This was no small enterprise. For, as we shall see, the new cities...
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SOURCE: Metz, Nancy Aycock. “Discovering a World of Suffering: Fiction and the Rhetoric of Sanitary Reform—1840-1860.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 15, no. 1 (1991): 65-81.
[In the following essay, Metz discusses the influence of public health reports on Victorian fiction.]
In the 1840's and 1850's the reports of public health physicians and the subsequent accounts of these reports in the press allowed the middle classes to discover the poor. According to H. J. Dyos, “The facts about the slums that had become merely unpalatable in the twentieth century were often shockingly fresh or simply incredible to those that gathered or digested them in the nineteenth century.”1 “Discovery”—of slums, of preventable disease, of incest and other practices abhorrent to the reigning domestic ideal—was a literal fact of Victorian experience, re-enacted scores of times on streets whose offenses could be measured by the cubic inch of sewer poison or by the number of cholera victims added to the Bills of Mortality. It was simultaneously a figure of rhetoric, an image whose oscillating focus evokes the ambivalence of the mid-Victorian response to the urban underworld, then gyrating to the surface of public consciousness. As much as Victorian novelists absorbed the facts, conditions, and abuses exposed by the sanitary movement, they absorbed the metaphorical content of its reportage. It was, in...
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Criticism: Primary Texts
SOURCE: “The Sanitary Commission, and the Health of the Metropolis.” Fraser's Magazine 36, no. 215 (November 1847): 505-517.
[In the following excerpt, Fraser's Magazine gives its support to the sanitary reform movement under Chadwick. The authors emphasize the importance of sanitary reform to solving many social problems, suggesting that sanitation could take the place of extensive charity efforts for the poor.]
We look forward with much interest, and some impatience, to the appearance of the blue book which is to embody the labours of the new Sanitary Commission. As a general rule, we have little confidence in commissions, unless they contain one man qualified and determined to take the lead. However respectable and intelligent the individual members may be, the inquiry entrusted to them is too apt to degenerate into a series of conversations without aim or point, and the Report to possess too much of that quality which is familiarly known as “milk-and-water.” But the name of Chadwick re-assures us. We call to mind the sanitary reports of 1842 and 1843, and are satisfied. The same vigorous hand which held the pen in Somerset House will guide it in Whitehall. The mysteries of London will be revealed; the secrets of “local self-government” laid open; and that gigantic accident of brick and mortar, the metropolis of England, will be placed before us in all its fantastic proportions....
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SOURCE: “Supply of Water to the Metropolis.” Edinburgh Review 91 (April 1850): 403.
[In the following excerpt, the author argues that sanitation is an issue touching all classes, although Christian charity requires the higher classes to help improve the squalid conditions of the poor.]
The statesman, in the pride of conscious power, while by the magic of his words he bends the assembled Commons to his will, is the prey of an influence subtler than his own. When the strong excitement of the hour has passed away, the unstrung nerves, the feverish pulse, the throbbing head, may warn him, when it is too late, that a heavy vapour from the pestilential courts of Westminster had glided into the presence of the rulers of the land, and had been busy at its appointed work. Even in that rich and glorious chamber where the Queen meets the Peers of England, and where the genius of Barry, prodigal of decoration, has exhausted art in combining all that can enchant the eye and intoxicate the imagination, even there, some spectator more inquisitive and thoughtful than the rest, may have learned that under that very building passes a huge sewer, which is fast becoming an enormous cesspool, and in whose capacious recesses are fermenting the deadly gases, which, when encountered in their intensity, kill with the suddenness of a stroke of lightning, but which more ordinarily float in the atmosphere, visiting the palace...
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SOURCE: Hamlin, Christopher. “A Political Medicine.” In Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800-1854, pp. 52-83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Hamlin provides the context for both Chadwick's Sanitary Report and for the issue of public health reform in general. Hamlin details the slow recognition of social factors that could lead to disease and the assumptions about class that had permitted unsanitary conditions to continue and flourish. At the point when Chadwick introduced his Report, Hamlin observes a tension between public health advocates who critique the fundamental systems of industrial society and those who felt that class differences, even at the level of health and happiness, were part of an unchangeable Providential plan.]
The great social issues of the first half of the nineteenth century—hunger, public order, population, and conditions of work—were stated as issues of health. It is almost inevitable that medical men would have been asked to comment on them, yet as we have seen, the profession made no effort to become public guardians of the people's health. There were good reasons to keep old client-based networks; moreover, medicine was ill-equipped to colonize. It was a crowded and divided profession: physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries (and increasingly those general practitioners qualified as...
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SOURCE: Hotz, Mary Elizabeth. “Down among the Dead: Edwin Chadwick's Burial Reform Discourse in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England.” Victorian Literature and Culture 28, no. 1 (2001): 21-38.
[In the following essay, Hotz interprets the power struggles within the movement for burial reform, including local versus national power and the power of the poor to devise their own funeral practices. Hotz thus sees Chadwick's report on burial reform as an effort to contain that power within the government.]
In 1839, G. A. Walker, a London surgeon, published Gatherings from Graveyards, Particularly Those in London. Three years later Parliament appointed a House of Commons select committee to investigate “the evils arising from the interment of bodies” in large towns and to consider legislation to resolve the problem.1 Walker's study opens with a comprehensive history of the modes of interment among all nations, showing the wisdom of ancient practices that removed the dead from the confines of the living. The second portion of the book describes the pathological state of forty-three metropolitan graveyards in an effort to convince the public of the need for legislative interference by the government to prohibit burials in the vicinity of the living.2 Walker's important work attracted the attention of Parliament and social reformers because of his comprehensive representation of the...
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Criticism: Public Health In Literature
SOURCE: Sanchez-Eppler, Karen. “Decomposing: Wordsworth's Poetry of Epitaph and English Burial Reform.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 42, no. 2 (March 1988): 415-31.
[In the following essay, Sanchez-Eppler links Wordsworth's graveyard poetry and his Essay upon Epitaphs to the movement for burial reform, noting Wordsworth's insistence on recognizing the decay and physical reality of death, in contrast to the reformers' efforts to “sanitize” death literally and emotionally.]
Then did the little Maid reply, “Seven boys and girls are we; Two of us in the church-yard lie, Beneath the church-yard tree.”
“You run about, my little maid, Your limbs they are alive; If two are in the church-yard laid, Then ye are only five.”
—Wordsworth, “We are Seven”
“In our town,” a subscriber wrote to Gentleman's Magazine in 1794, “the venerable remains of the dead ‘hearsed in earth’ have ‘burst their cerements,’ and been exposed to every insult and indignity which the unprotected can experience.”1 Such calls to protect the bodies of the dead were common throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Essays and letters in popular magazines, pamphlets, and even—by the 1820s—whole books decried the overcrowding of graveyards and advocated more gracious, healthful, and, as one writer put it in 1801,...
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SOURCE: Benton, Graham. “‘And Dying Thus around Us Every Day’: Pathology, Ontology, and the Discourse of the Diseased Body. A Study of Illness and Contagion in Bleak House.” Dickens Quarterly 11, no. 2 (February 1994): 69-80.
[In the following essay, Benton examines the correlation between illness and such issues as justice and progress in Dickens' Bleak House. Benton argues that disease functions in unpredictable and contrary ways, defining society and underscoring societal boundaries, but also existing beyond such boundaries and in some cases breaking them down.]
There was a seeming propensity or a wicked inclination in those that were infected to infect others. … Others placed it to the account of the corruption of human nature, who cannot bear to see itself more miserable than others of its own species, and has a kind of involuntary wish that all men were as unhappy or in as bad a condition as itself. Others say it was only a kind of desperation, not knowing or regarding what they did, and consequently unconcerned at the danger or safety, not only of anybody near them, but even of themselves also. And indeed when men are once come to a condition to abandon themselves, and be unconcerned for the safety of themselves, it cannot be so much wondered that they should be careless of the safety of other people.
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SOURCE: Carroll, David. “Pollution, Defilement and the Art of Decomposition.” In Ruskin and Environment: The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Michael Wheeler, pp. 58-75. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Carroll comments on how Ruskin's portrayal of an Eden defiled by humanity reflects his ambivalence about modern life. Carroll employs the insights of anthropologist Mary Douglas on pollution and the sacred while critiquing excerpts from several of Ruskin's nonfictional works.]
Ruskin is one of the great Victorian systematisers in an age of comprehensive, at times eccentric, system-making. From Comte's Cours de Philosophie Positive (1830-42) at one end of the period to Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890-1915) at the other, the multi-volume synthetic philosophies, sociologies and anthropologies poured from the presses. The Victorians were both fascinated and sceptical. George Eliot's description in 1852 of a field-trip with another incurable Victorian synthesiser is typical of their admiration and cheerful disrespect:
I went to Kew yesterday on a scientific expedition with Herbert Spencer, who has all sorts of theories about plants—I should have said a proof-hunting expedition. Of course, if the flowers didn't correspond to the theories, we said, ‘tant...
(The entire section is 7688 words.)
SOURCE: Fulford, Tim, and Debbie Lee. “The Jenneration of Disease: Vaccination, Romanticism, and Revolution.” Studies in Romanticism 39, no. 1 (spring 2000): 139-63.
[In the following essay, Fulford and Lee focus on how the vaccination debate prompted by the small pox research of Edward Jenner resonated with the concerns of Romantic pastoral poetry and, in turn, the class divisions of early nineteenth-century society. In particular, the authors emphasize Jenner's relationship with the rural poet Robert Bloomfield.]
In 1798, Britain was preparing for invasion by French revolutionary armies. To the government and the press it seemed ill-prepared to defend itself. The navy had recently mutinied at Spithead and the Nore, and pro-French radicals were fomenting discontent amongst the laboring classes. Worse still, France was threatening Britain's colonies in the East and West Indies. Faced with the exigencies of national politics and imperial war, the established powers in London found little opportunity to pay attention to what turned out to be the most significant event of that year—the quiet appearance in print of a medical treatise entitled An Inquiry into The Causes and Effects of The Variolae Vaccinae, A Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England … and known by the name of The Cow Pox.1 This revolutionary work by Edward Jenner, a little-known provincial...
(The entire section is 9998 words.)
Benjamin, Bret. “Dirty Politics and Dirty Protest: Resistance and the Trope of Sanitation in Northern Ireland.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 10, no. 1 (July 1999): 63-86.
Investigates how dirt and sanitation have been employed in creating difference between the English and Irish.
Burgan, Mary. “Mapping Contagion in Victorian London: Disease in the East End.” In Victorian Urban Settings: Essays on the Nineteenth-Century City and Its Contexts, edited by Debra N. Mancoff and D. J. Trela, pp. 43-56. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.
Explores the link between topography and disease, and discusses the metaphor of London as a body.
Danahay, Martin A. “Matter Out of Place: The Politics of Pollution in Ruskin and Turner.” CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 21, no. 1 (fall 1991): 61-77.
Maintains that in Ruskin's writing, pollution stands for social and environmental disorder as well as personal turmoil.
DiCicco, Lorraine C. “Garbage: A. R. Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Century.” Papers on Language and Literature 32, no. 2 (spring 1996): 166-88.
Discusses the cultural debate regarding sanitation and garbage at the end of the twentieth century, with some comparison to sanitation...
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