Thursday, 18 November 2010

Organising towns

History, as A.J.P. Taylor reminded us, gets ‘thicker’ as it approaches modern times

There are more people, more events, and more is written about them. [1]

Social history gets particularly ‘thick’ because more attention is paid to the lives of ordinary people, more of them were literate and more join the debate. There is a flood of evidence for urban conditions in this period: reports, Blue Books, surveys, memoranda, diaries, books.[2] So what were urban conditions like in the 1830s? In what ways did those conditions change in the next eighty years and why?[3]

Although Dale Porter[4], like Anthony Wohl and other social historians, paints a grim picture of London’s environmental contamination, absence of adequate sanitation, and lack of viable solutions to problems caused by human, animal, and industrial waste, following Olson, he also asks the pointed question, how filthy was London actually? Cleanliness is in the eye of the beholder, and there is a difference between the dismal levels of sanitation and public health that historians perceive in hindsight and how most contemporaries perceived them.

Public health 1

A Court For King Cholera. One of Punch’s most famous images of the Nineteenth-century slum, drawn by John Leech, and published in 1852.

Late Georgian London was generally considered clean and healthy by most people. Olsen cited evidence that visitors to London before 1830 were quite pleased by the healthy climate and sanitation of the capital.[5] He speculated that London’s early Victorian reputation for filthiness stemmed most directly from the totally unexpected and shockingly swift cholera epidemic of 1832. This threw the medical profession into a panic, for no one could explain what cholera was, let alone how to prevent it. Its horrifying symptoms and devastating mortality led the public and the media to over-dramatise its actual impact. Although cholera returned in 1848, in 1853, and in 1866, each time prompting cries for pollution control it actually killed fewer people than probably any other epidemic infection. John Snow’s famous demonstration of the waterborne nature of the disease was not accepted until after the last of these epidemics.[6] In other words, like the development of ideas of Victorian ideas of the public interest and pollution, both so crucial in late-nineteenth-century conceptions of class, sexuality, gender, and the effects of literature and the arts, the filth of London proves part verifiable fact and part a cultural response to the practical problem of cholera.

By the 1830s, the administrative and electoral map of Britain was at odds with its demographic and economic structures. The antiquated legal structure of local government created three major sets of problems for urban government. First, urban status was often unrelated to contemporary size and function. Major cities, such as Manchester and the east Lancashire cotton towns and the Black Country industrial centres, were without formal status. Manchester and Birmingham, for example, were unincorporated in the eighteenth century and, in theory, controlled by the county authorities. [7] Although they gained control over their own affairs through local Improvement Acts the system did not lend itself to effective local government. Unincorporated industrial towns had no direct representation in Parliament and found it difficult to petition for change. In contrast, many decayed towns had parliamentary representation, for example the rotten borough of Old Sarum, or had a handful of inhabitants in the ‘pocket’ of aristocratic landowners and retained borough status. London‘s metropolitan area of some eight-mile radius from St Paul’s had a population of 1.75 million in 1831 but lacked a coherent overall administrative structure.

Even where urban administrations were in place in large towns, as in incorporated boroughs as at Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle and Kingston upon Hull, their urban built-up areas were often tightly restricted in terms of continuing expansion. Incorporated towns also varied greatly in the way in which local government was organised. ‘Closed’ corporations such as Leeds, Liverpool, Coventry, Bath and Leicester were often run by a small oligarchy appointed for life. This led to the third problem. What effective control was there of a range of physical, environmental, health, economic and social issues that often affected areas outside existing corporation boundaries? Thus, although London‘s parish vestries sought to provide better sanitation and health their efforts lacked integration. Despite the work of Improvement Commissioners in larger English cities, there were severe limitations to the range of their activities. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that local government was slow to respond to the increasingly serious problems of urban life until after 1835.[8]

Between the 1830s and 1890s, urban and local government was restructured twice and there was significant parliamentary legislation on specific urban problems, together with a restructuring of the franchise and of parliamentary and civic representation. [9] Parliamentary franchise was widened in 1832, 1867 and 1884-1885 creating a more equal relationship between parliamentary representation and property ownership and population size and increased the urban voice in national affairs. The Municipal Corporations Act 1835, and parallel legislation in Scotland in 1833 and 1834, laid the basis for municipal planning and control over a wide range of issues and recognised the true administrative map of urban Britain by giving full urban status to many unincorporated towns.[10] Some, such as Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield, were already very large; others such as Bradford, Bolton, Huddersfield, Wolverhampton and Brighton were growing rapidly. They also allowed the incorporation of adjacent townships over which urban development had spread, as reflected in the considerable boundary extensions of Liverpool and Leeds and of Glasgow in the 1830s. The 1835 Act did not solve the problem of integrating urban government. Intervention through bye-laws in key issues such as health and sanitation, housing, public amenities, poverty was either piecemeal or, as in the case of the Poor Law and the provision of compulsory state education (made over to local government in 1919 and 1902 respectively) was reserved for central government. When new administrative divisions were established they were often out of tune with the times. For example, the reformed Poor Law of 1834 created a framework of 624 Unions focused on old market towns and regional centres, a pre-industrial pattern of functional regionalism that had to be constantly adjusted to meet changing population distribution. By the 1860s, there was a growing recognition that urban administration needed to be more coherent if it was to implement legislation on health, housing and sanitation. In 1855, the Metropolitan Management Act, following the Royal Commission of 1854 attempted to create an integrated government for London by reorganising the previously haphazard structure into a Metropolitan Board to control sewage, highways, lighting and health in London’s 36 Registration Districts with an 1861 population of 2.8 million. [11]

Elsewhere, despite the addition of 554 new urban areas between 1848 and 1868 in England and Wales, confusion remained. A Royal Commission to investigate local government was set up in 1869 and its Second Report began the transition to the Acts of 1888 and 1894 that established the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century framework of local government. The Public Health Act 1872 created an administrative framework of Urban and Rural Sanitary Districts under the Local Government Board set up the previous year. The Local Government Act 1875 and the Municipal Corporations Acts 1882 defined the principles and functions of a new system of urban administration. However, the Commissioners of the Board set up under the Local Government Boundaries Act 1887 and the decisions made under the Local Government Acts of 1888 and 1894 determined its geography. These Acts recognised that the needs of large towns could best be met by integrating all the functions of local government within all-purpose administrations of 63 Counties and 61 County Boroughs. London became an Administrative County incorporating its 41 Metropolitan Board Areas. In 1894, the remaining urban areas were consolidated into Municipal Boroughs and Urban Districts each with a range of powers but subordinate to their Administrative Counties for education, police and fire and some other services.


[1] Taylor, A.J.P., English History 1914-1945, (Oxford University Press), 1965, page 729.

[2] On  urban  conditions and the problems of public health  see  Wohl, A.S., Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain, (Methuen), 1985 and  his The  eternal slum: housing and social policy  in  Victorian London, (Edward Arnold), 1986. Walvin, J., English Urban Life 1776-1851, (Hutchinson), 1984 is an excellent, readable study on the early years of the period. Fraser, D., (ed.), Municipal reform and the Industrial city, (Leicester University Press), 1982 contains useful case studies.  Porter, R., Disease, Medicine and Society in England 1550-1860, (Macmillan), 2nd. ed., 1993 contains some useful ideas in its final chapters. Mort, Frank, Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England since 1830, (Routledge), 1987, 2nd ed., (Routledge), 1999 examines the impact of disease on perceptions of women. Smith, F.B., The People’s Health 1830-1910, (Croom Helm), 1979 is a valuable study of social problems and the limited resources of nineteenth century medicine.

[3] Luckin, Bill, ‘Pollution in the city’, in ibid, Daunton, Martin J., (ed.), The Cambridge urban history of Britain, Vol. 3: 1840-1950, pp. 207-228.

[4] Porter, Dale H., The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London, (University of Akron Press), 1998.

[5] Olsen, D.J., The growth of Victorian London, (Batsford), 1976, pp. 330-331.

[6] Snow, John, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, (John Churchill), 1855. See also, Hempel, Sandra, The Medical Detective: John Snow, Cholera and the Mystery of the Broad Street Pump, (Granta), 2007 and Vinten-Johansen, Peter, Brody, Howard, Paneth, Nigel and Rachman, Stephen, Cholera, Chloroform and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow, (Oxford University Press), 2003.

[7] There was an important distinction between incorporated and unincorporated towns. Incorporated towns or boroughs had received charters, often in the Middle Ages, which gave them certain rights. In particular they were run by elected corporations. Unincorporated towns were still run by the parish or by the old feudal leet courts.

[8] Hennock, E.P., ‘Urban Sanitary Reform a Generation before Chadwick?’, Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 10, (1), (1957), pp. 113-120 provides a useful discussion of local government sanitary initiatives in the early-nineteenth century.

[9] Davis, John, ‘Central government and the towns’ and Doyle, Barry M., ‘The changing functions of urban government: councillors, officials and pressure groups’, in ibid, Daunton, Martin J., (ed.), The Cambridge urban history of Britain, Vol. 3: 1840-1950, pp. 261-286, 287-314.

[10] Finlayson, Geoffrey, ‘The Municipal Corporation Commission and Report, 1833-5’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol. 36, (1963), pp. 36-52 and ‘The politics of municipal reform, 1835’, English Historical Review, Vol. 81, (1966), pp. 673-692.

[11] Owen, David, The government of Victorian London 1855-1889: the Metropolitan Board of Works, the vestries, and the City Corporation, (Harvard University Press), 1982.

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