Nineteenth-Century Sanitation Reform Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.