Manuscripts and Special Collections

Government Action

Slum housing

The Asiatic Cholera of 1831-1832 shocked the public and stirred the government to action. According to the historian Asa Briggs:

The most important link between administration and social legislation was... the Poor Law of 1834... The scope of poor law policy was wide enough to touch many other social questions, and the effective national control of public health was in a sense a by-product of it. Already before 1841 the poor law framework had been adopted for the registration of births, and marriages and deaths (1836), and in 1842, Chadwick's masterpiece, the famous report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes made its appearance. It was followed a year later by the appointment of a Royal Commission on the Health of Towns, which published its conclusions in [1844 and] 1845. National public health reform did not come till 1848, but it was in the period 1841 to 1846 that sanitary evils were exposed, recommendations made, and opinion mobilised.

[Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement, p. 334]

One of the factors for the success in introducing new legislation was the appointment of Royal or Parliamentary Commissions. The First Report of the Royal Commission on the State of Large Towns and Populous District, published in 1844, included a report by Thomas Hawksley on the state of Nottingham. Document 9 is a table of death rates in the town between 1840 and 1843, based on Hawksley's figures.

The Commissions might not have been appointed, or been so numerous or effective, without the energy and dedication of Edwin Chadwick, secretary to the Poor Law Commissioners at Somerset House in London. Nor would they have done their work of enquiry so thoroughly without the active advice and goodwill of local men and experts such as Thomas Hawksley. The commissioners' examination of Hawksley in preparing their reports on the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts (1844-1845) demonstrates equally their diligence and his knowledge of engineering. In his personal report on Nottingham one of the commissioners, J.R. Martin, recorded his gratitude to Hawksley who had conducted him through the poorer parts of the town.

The central registration of births, marriages and deaths since 1836 allowed research to be done into patterns of mortality. William Farr of the General Register Office published his Report on the mortality of cholera in England, 1848-49, in 1852. See Document 10 for a diagram relating to cholera deaths, from this report.

However, the real breakthrough in tackling cholera occurred in 1855, with the publication of John Snow's research into an outbreak in Soho, London, the previous year. Snow was able to prove that a water pump in Broad Street was the common link to all the cases, and that cholera was a bacterial disease carried by water, rather than a disease caused by 'miasma', or bad air. His conclusions relating to Nottingham's 1849 cholera outbreak focused on the town's water supply (see Document 11).

In 1869 yet another Royal Commission, investigating problems of public health, declared that among amenities 'necessary for civilised social life' were good water supplies and proper drainage, the removal of nuisances (including smoke), healthy houses, clean streets, the inspection of food, and adequate burial grounds. The Nottingham Borough Records of this period show that much still remained to be done, but documents in this web site also show that the town had already made considerable strides away from the squalor of the early 19th century, and towards the goal defined by the Royal Commission.


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