Family in a single room.


It’s the turn of the 19th century. The world is on the verge of a new revolution, in just a few years from now people will leave the countryside and farming, some forever. They will flock to cities and towns seeking employment using new industrial machines. In fact, so many people will flock to towns and cities so quickly, that many towns and cities won’t be able to cope. Poverty will be rife, poor housing, poor sewage and poor quality of life will be common, if not the norm. However, this change in life style and scenery will go on to inspire a new revolution: a revolution in medicine, in health: in the space of a few short years ground-breaking discoveries will be made. Scientists and physicians will be met with opposition from all sides, but despite this in 100 years time England will be a healthier and cleaner place to live.


During the Industrial Revolution people flocked to towns and cities seeking work. From 1750 to 1850 the recorded population of England more-than-tripled from 6.25 million to 21 million. The mass of this population was centred in industrial towns and cities such as London and Blackburn.

Overcrowding became a problem very quickly. Employers needed to house their new workers, and with so many in such a small space they sought quick, cheap and dirty housing. Back-to-back housing was erected everywhere. These houses had poor water supplies, little-to-nothing in the way of sewage disposal, and were cramped. Families of eight people would live in a single room – there were few facilities to wash yourself with. These conditions were ideal for disease to spread.


However, politicians didn’t want anything to do with it: they held a laissez-faire attitude. This is because at this time, most working men didn’t have the right to vote. Meanwhile, the upper classes that did have the right to vote weren’t affected by the poverty and other problems that were plaguing most of England’s cities – and because they weren’t affected by these issues, they didn’t want their tax money being spent on them. As a result, any party who pledged to improve public health in the early 19th century would have been committing political suicide!


Inevitably, the poor hygiene and overcrowded conditions led to an epidemic. This time, it was cholera. Cholera was able to kill a person in under 24 hours, and from 1831 to 1832 it killed 21,000 people. It spread quickly, and often whole families were killed in a short space of time. However, nobody understood where cholera came from or how it spread, and consequently weren’t able to do much to prevent it.


Fast-forward 10 years to 1842, and Edwin Chadwick has just published his report into the state of public health in England, with problems and advice from doctors included too. Chadwick was a politician campaigning to improve the quality of public health in England. A noble cause, however Chadwick wasn’t an easy man to get along with, and not well liked by the general population, so his campaign didn’t have a very large effect on public health at all. On the other hand, Chadwick himself lived until he was 90, in a time when the average life expectancy was below 60, so he must have gotten something right, even if nobody bothered to listen to him.

Public Health Act #1

6 years later (1848) the government passes its first Public Health Act, which contains changes that it recommends that councils around England make. Unfortunately, all of these changes were recommendations and not compulsory; so despite what was best for the people, what was best for the budget came first, and most councils did absolutely nothing regarding the public health act.

The same year there was another cholera outbreak. Many thousands of people died and people still didn’t know what caused cholera or how it spread.

John Snow & His Cholera Discovery

We’re now in 1854, and in a relatively short amount of time a massive discovery has been made. John Snow was a doctor, whose surgery on Broad Street was at the centre of a cholera epidemic. Snow studied cases in the area and realised that cholera was spreading through tainted water supplies. Finally, people could start to fight against cholera! On the other hand, although Snow had proof to show that Cholera was spreading through the water, he couldn’t explain how it spread, which could have lead to some opposition and doubt of his ideas.

The Great Stink of 1858

4 years later what could be seen as a catalyst for change occurs in London. A hot summer dredges up sewage from the Thames, and it stinks! The Houses of Parliament are situated right next to The River Thames, and their first reaction was to paint chloride of lime onto the curtains to try and stop the smell. Eventually though, Parliament had to shut for the summer, and MPs ordered that a new, better sewage system be implemented across London – not wanting the events of 1858 to be repeated!

Louis Pasteur & Germ Theory

A few years later in 1861, Louis Pasteur figures out and proves what germs are, and how disease spreads. Although some of his ideas are slow to spread at first (the theory was revolutionary at the time) with a bit of work from Robert Koch his theory proves John Snow’s ideas about cholera correct, and revolutionises medicine.

Public Health Act #2

We’re nearly at the end of the 19th century! It’s 1875 and the government have another go at creating a public health act. This time they make the changes mandatory, and although widespread change finally starts to spread, it takes a while to get there.

To conclude…

And that’s the last major event of the 19th century. During the 100 years, many discoveries have been made, people have a much better understanding of how disease spreads and how to combat it, and slowly quality of life is starting to improve again. Not to mention that working men now had the right to vote, which really helped influence the government to pass laws that were good for the majority of the population (for example: the liberal reforms of 1906). But that’s another story…

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