Nineteenth-Century Sanitation Reform Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

Edwin Chadwick
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

Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist (novel) 1838
Bleak House (novel) 1852

Benjamin Disraeli
Sybil, Or, The Two Nations (novel) 1845

Elizabeth Gaskell
Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (novel) 1848

Peter Gaskell
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

Charles Kingsley
Yeast (novel) 1848
Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet (novel) 1850

Henry Mayhew
*London Labor and the London Poor (nonfiction) 1861

John Ruskin
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 Inhuming the Dead in the Midst of the Living (nonfiction) 1838

William Wordsworth
Essay on Epitaphs (essay) 1810

*Many of Mayhew's observations were first printed in the Morning Chronicle in the mid-nineteenth century.

†This essay was reprinted during the sanitation movement in Joseph Snow's Lyra Memorials: Original Epitaphs and Churchyard Thoughts in Verse (1840).

Criticism: Overviews

F. S. Schwarzbach (essay date May 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 11623 words.)

Nancy Aycock Metz (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 6257 words.)

Criticism: Primary Texts

Fraser's Magazine (essay date November 1847)

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...

(The entire section is 2483 words.)

Edinburgh Review (essay date April 1850)

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...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Criticism: Social Context

Christopher Hamlin (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 16633 words.)

Mary Elizabeth Hotz (essay date 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 9623 words.)

Criticism: Public Health In Literature

Karen Sanchez-Eppler (essay date March 1988)

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,

(The entire section is 6460 words.)

Graham Benton (essay date February 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 6018 words.)

David Carroll (essay date 1995)

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,...

(The entire section is 7688 words.)

Tim Fulford and Debbie Lee (essay date spring 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 9998 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 632 words.)