Life & Death in the 19th Century

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In 21st century Britain, we perhaps take the benefits of clean water supplies, safe sewage disposal, protection from life-threatening diseases by vaccination and other aspects of public health for granted. Geoffrey Culshaw looks back to the very different environment our forebears endured in the 19th century, at the battle to bring about changes and at some of the legislation that laid the foundation of the benefits we reap today.

Most family historians will have noticed the relatively short life expectancy that was part of the everyday experience of our ancestors. There were many aspects to the twin topics of mortality and life expectancy, but a couple of facts may serve to illustrate the situation in days gone by. According to Professor Michael Anderson, anybody born in England and Wales in the 1770s had a 12 per cent chance that both their parents would have died by the time they reached age 25; broadly speaking, the same situation pertained a century later. Infant mortality in England and Wales peaked in the 1890s at a tremendously high rate of approximately 150 deaths per 1000 births. These statistics demonstrate that, for both the adults and children that family historians study, the world was a dangerous place!

The situation today is, of course, much improved. Anderson showed that people who were born in 1946 had a one per cent chance that both their parents would have died by the time they reached age 25, whilst in the 1970s the infant mortality rate had fallen to under 20 deaths per 1000 births.

However, the overall mortality statistics concealed some very significant variations; rates differed in different social classes, and in urban areas and the countryside. The high rates of mortality affected every aspect of our ancestors’ family life, and the way in which they viewed their world. Let’s take a look at some of the most frequent causes of death, and some of the social changes that brought about the improvement in death rates.

Squalor & disease
The urbanisation that accompanied the industrialisation of England meant that 19th century towns and cities were breeding grounds for disease. The problems were many and various.

Burial grounds were overloaded with human remains. Many of them had been in use for centuries and graves were commonly recycled, one body being buried upon another. It was not unusual for bones to be visible, projecting from the ground. This created at best an unwholesome atmosphere, and at worst a health risk.

Arrangements for the disposal of human waste were at best rudimentary. Tales abound of towns where the streets were, effectively, open sewers, and in these circumstances the risk to public health appears obvious.

Census returns from the 19th century offer us a good opportunity to understand the overcrowded conditions in which our forebears lived. London censuses often show large families living in a couple of rooms, with several families to each house. These circumstances were repeated in other towns and cities, and were tailor made for the spread of disease.

Smallpox had been a threat to the people of England for many centuries, but because people were living in such crowded circumstances it became a far greater problem 19th century, when there were a number of smallpox epidemics. The worst of these was in 1871, when 50,000 people died as a result of the disease in Britain and Ireland. People who were lucky enough to survive smallpox were often permanently disfigured by the pitted marks that it left on their skin. In some cases it caused blindness.

Cholera, Typhus and diarrhoea were the cause of great misery and very large numbers of deaths in Victorian Britain. Many cases of infant mortality were caused by diarrhoea. These water-borne diseases flourished in the insanitary conditions that prevailed at the time. The Times newspaper of 20 August 1850 reported on a fairly typical situation in Barnard Castle, Yorkshire:

There is one particular house in Galgate notorious for its unhealthiness. Whenever typhus is in town it prevails in this house. In three years there have been nine deaths in four rooms. There is always an accumulation of filth in the cellar which the owners are in the habit of removing, from time to time, in palls. In this house there occurred three cases of cholera, all of which proved fatal, within 24 hours.

Cholera originated in India, but arrived in Sunderland in the autumn of 1831 and London in February 1832, having first swept across Europe. This first epidemic is believed to have killed some 7,000 people in London, and the disease struck the capital again in 1839 and 1849. The Times newspaper report of 20 August 1850, already referred to, reported figures from the Registrar General, which stated that in 1849 the number of deaths from Cholera in England and Wales was 53,293 (the figure for diarrhoea was 18,887). It cited serious outbreaks of the disease in London, Edinburgh, Clitheroe, Nantwich, Wolverhampton and Penzance.

So what was done to tackle these problems? The appalling circumstances in which our forefathers lived were slowly improved by a combination of scientific advance and legislation.

The Burial Acts of 1852 and 1853, addressed the problem of overcrowded burial grounds in urban areas. Local authorities were empowered to set up and run public cemeteries, and thus reduce the numbers of people buried in churchyards. The cemeteries were administered by burial boards, the members of which were elected by the vestries. The 1852 Act applied only to London, but the 1853 Act extended its provisions to the rest of the country. Legislation was consolidated in 1857. Some private cemeteries had been set up prior to this legislation, so the concept of burial in a cemetery, rather than a churchyard, was not completely new. However, after the Burial Acts, the number of churchyard interments fell very markedly, a useful thought to bear in mind when you are looking for those missing ‘despatches’. In March 1885, the first official cremation within the UK was carried out at Woking.

The Sanitary Reform Movement was started in the 1830s by a group of well intentioned philanthropists, parliamentarians and other like minded people. It aimed to improve the environment in our towns and cities by improving both the sanitary conditions and the administration of urban areas. In 1842 this organisation produced the ground breaking Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population in Great Britain , written by Edwin Chadwick. This report, based on empirical observation, highlighted the insanitary circumstances in which our ancestors lived, and advocated preventative measures to deal with the problems.

There was much opposition to sanitary reform, particularly from people who believed that its centrally imposed nature presented a threat to local autonomy, but in 1848 a Public Health Act reached the statute book. Seemingly using the Poor Law Board as a model, this legislation set up a central board of health to oversee action across the land. This board was empowered to form local boards of health to implement improvements to environmental facilities – sewage systems, water supply, street cleaning and the like.

Apart from the factors mentioned above, there were other causes of opposition to the Public Health Act. Some of this was financial in nature – people being offended by the fact that the changes resulting from the Public Health Act were funded by the payment of a local rate. Further opposition came from members of the medical profession, many of whom who saw the emphasis on prevention of disease as a diminishment of their interests, which lay in the cure of disease.

The second Public Health Act, in 1872, created urban sanitary authorities to replace the boards of health. These new authorities appointed local medical officers of health and inspectors of nuisances, and thereby set up a reporting structure to enhance the detection of health and sanitary problems. The reports written by these officials are often accessible in local archives, and can make fascinating reading. Ministry of Health reports may document individual cases of treatment, and frequently name names. They give a good insight into the conditions in which your forebears lived, and the treatments they may have received.

The third Public Health Act in 1875 widened the effect of the previous acts, granting extra enforcement powers to the sanitary authorities.

These three Public Health Acts did not provide the solutions to all the sources of disease that were a daily blight on our ancestors’ lives, but they undoubtedly had a positive impact.

The awful state of London’s sewers was addressed by the capital’s Metropolitan Board of Works, which was set up in 1855. Probably the best known actor on this body was Joseph Bazalgette, its chief engineer, who designed and oversaw the complete reconstruction of London’s sewers. This amazing achievement resulted in sewage being discharged into the Thames in areas of low population, lying considerably downstream from the outfalls of the old system. Outfalls had previously been located in places where the river passed through heavily populated areas of London, resulting in pollution of Londoners’ water supply, and noxious smells.

In the late 18th century an English doctor, Edward Jenner, discovered that if humans were inoculated with cowpox, a bovine disease, they became protected against smallpox. However, it was 1840 before vaccination became freely available for the UK population, and 1853 before it became compulsory for infants under three months. A further Vaccination Act passed by Parliament in 1867 made it a criminal offence to deny a child vaccination up to the age of 14 years, but the legislation to impose vaccination really only gained teeth in the 1870s.

The Government responded to the 1870 smallpox epidemic by passing a further Vaccination Act in 1871, requiring vaccination officers to be appointed by the poor law boards of guardians to enforce vaccination of infants. Parents who failed to have their infants vaccinated could be fined as much as £1 5s 0d – about £700 today (based on an average earnings index). A further Vaccination Act in 1873 tightened up the law still further, making vaccination compulsory.

Vaccination officers recorded births and deaths of infants in their area in special registers, which enabled them to keep track of which infants had been vaccinated, and track down those who had not. These records are most likely be found with the poor law union records in county records offices. There was much opposition to compulsory vaccination, and much avoidance. The reasons for opposition were varied. For example, some people feared that vaccination with cowpox was more likely to cause smallpox than prevent it. Other people opposed vaccination on religious grounds, believing that the use of cowpox to treat humans was unnatural and against God’s will. Other people simply resented interference by central government in local affairs. This opposition was never fully overcome, and eventually a further Vaccination Act in 1898 removed the compulsion. Notwithstanding this, over a period of time vaccination played a significant part in the fight against smallpox. The disease has now been eradicated world-wide.

These are just a few brief examples of the ways in which the quality of life and health of our ancestors began to be improved by the combined effect of scientific advance and legislation. It is useful for family historians to spend some of their time learning about the everyday lives of their forebears, the ways in which their lives differed from ours, and the reasons for that difference. By doing this we can gain a deeper understanding of our ancestors, enabling us to engage with them more fully!

Geoff Culshaw

This article was published in Family Tree Magazine, August 2009 issue, pp 32-34 (ABM Publishing)

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  • This page was last updated on Saturday July 2nd, 2011.