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Public Health enquiries

These were a combination of government-inspired and private. The most prominent campaigner was Edwin Chadwick (of the Poor Law), a hard-working civil servant who was a Benthamite. Chadwick believed in utilitarianism, and ill-health was not useful to society.

Background to the Sanitary Report of 1842

The public health movement was the child of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

Early Investigations


secretary to the Committee set up by Russell's government to administer the education grant.

1834: served as a Poor Law Commissioner
1837: made an inquiry into poverty and ill-health in London, and the connection between them.
1842: helped Chadwick with his Report

a member of the Factory Commission

1839-41: submitted a report on the slums of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel.


secretary to the Poor Law Board at Somerset House


his interest changed to public health. The discoveries and reports of others changed his purpose and emphasis to demands for a public clean-up. He used the Poor Law machinery to gather information.

Statistical surveys were made to analyse the problem and to justify legislation. This began in the 1830s.

1834: Statistical Society of London was set up
1837: Office of the Registrar-General was set up

Evangelicals, philanthropists and humanitarians - surprisingly - were not prominent in the Public Health movement. Public support was necessary, but not forthcoming. As Flinn points out, "To the ladies of polite society, there was nothing appealing about sewers and privies"

In 1838, Dr. Southwood-Smith produced a health report on London in which he showed the direst connection between diseases and bad water supply and in 1842, Chadwick's personal sanitary report to the government was published. This was probably the most outstanding contribution to public health in the early 19th century. His Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain was the product of a massive personal investigation between 1839 and 1842. It stressed the need for massive improvements in public cleanliness, controlled by the government from the centre. The Report stimulated Peel's government into action.

In 1844 and 1845 two government reports on health in towns proved the points made by Chadwick. For example, these reports showed bad sanitation causing bad health so that the death rate in some towns (e.g. Macclesfield) was 43 per 1,000, and that the average age of death was 24. In 1847 there was another serious outbreak of cholera. This, together with the evidence from the various reports, drove the Whig government under Lord John Russell to pass the1848 Public Health Act. A Central Board of Health was created and Dr. Smith, Chadwick and Shaftesbury were put in charge of it. They had power to create local Boards, but their main function was advisory. It was only a partial answer to a vast problem and virtually all initiative was left at the local level, but at least a step had been made in the right direction. Government was accepting responsibilities beyond its normal scope of action. It set a useful precedent for the future. Henceforward more positive action came.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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