Medicine through time

Medicine through time - content, activities and blog for teachers and learners of medicine through time

Home - Blog - Medicine by period - Medicine by theme - Timelines - Revision Activities - Teachers Resources - Links - Dummies Guide to Medicine - Audio-Visual Materials - Interactive Scheme of Work - Recommended Books

Site Search




Medical problems in the 19th Century

Learning outcomes: To identify the main health problems in the period c1750–1900 and to link these to urbanisation and industrialisation.

Read through the following sources.

1) Identify what you think the main health problems in towns were at the time. Write what you think the biggest problem(s) were on this page.

2) What do you think the main causes of these problems were?

Source 1

The city of London, within the walls, occupies a space of only 370 acres, and is but the hundred and fortieth part of the extent covered by the whole metropolis. Nevertheless, it is the parent of a mass of united and far spreading tenements, stretching from Hammersmith to Blackwell, from Holloway to Camberwell.

By the last census return (1841) the metropolis covered an extent of nearly 45,000 acres, and contained upwards of two hundred and sixty thousand houses, occupied by one million eight hundred and twenty thousand souls, constituting not only the densest, but the busiest hive, the most wondrous workshop, and the richest bank in the world. A strange incongruous chaos of wealth and want - of ambition and despair - of the brightest charity and the darkest crime, where there is more feasting and more starvation, than on any other spot on earth - and all grouped round the one giant centre, the huge black dome, with its ball of gold looming through the smoke and marking out the capital, no matter from what quarter the traveller may come.

In the hope of obtaining a bird's-eye view of the port, I went up to the Golden Gallery that is immediately below the ball of St. Paul's. It was noon, and an exquisitely bright and clear spring day; but the view was smudgy and smeared with smoke. Clumps of building and snatches of parks looked through the clouds like dim islands rising out of the sea of smoke. It was impossible to tell where the sky ended and the city began; and as you peered into the thick haze you could, after a time, make out the dusky figures of tall factory chimneys plumed with black smoke; while spires and turrets seemed to hang midway between you and the earth, as if poised in the thick grey air. Morning Chronicle (19th October 1849)

Source 2

Thomas Heath, a weaver of 8 Pedley Street, Spitalfields, gave me a detailed account of all his earnings for 430 weeks. The sum of the gross earnings for 430 weeks is £322 3s. 4d., being about 15s. a week. He estimates his weaving expenses at 4s., which would 11s. net wages. He states his wife's earnings at about 3s. a week. He gives the following remarkable evidence:

"Have you any children?"

"No; I had two, but they are both dead, thanks to be God!"

"Do you express satisfaction at the death of your children?"

I do! I thank God for it. I am relieved from the burden of maintaining them, and they, poor dear creatures, are relieved from the troubles of the mortal life." Morning Chronicle (23rd October 1849)

Source 3

In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. This was harsh legislation which said, in effect, that if people were poor, it was entirely their own fault.
The only cure was for them to be put in workhouses and treated badly. It was the only form of social security known at the time.
The law also provided for workhouses to be built in every parish, or under the aegis of a union of smaller parishes.
This did not go down very well, particularly with the poor. So they protested. They gathered outside the new court and made their feelings known to the occupants.
Among these were the newly-appointed Poor Law Guardians, and at least one magistrate, a Mr Paley.
As the protest turned ugly, it became necessary to read the Riot Act. This was a legal effort to strengthen the power of civil authorities and in effect it said that if more than a dozen people gathered together, and a magistrate didn’t like it, then he could read the Riot Act to the assembled mob, which would then have an hour to disperse - or suffer the consequences.
The consequences could be severe. Mounted troops charged unarmed civilians at a reformers’ rally on St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in August 1819, trampling, hacking or shooting to death 11 men and women and a child, and injuring about 400 others. Source The Telegraph and Argus.

Source 4

The Babbage Report into conditions in Haworth found:

* That 41.6 per cent of the people born die before attaining the age of six years.
* That the average age at death is 25.8 years,which corresponds with that of some of the most unhealthy of the London districts.
* That 21.7% of the population die without receiving any medical assistance, and that this fact offers great facilities for the commission of crime.
* That the number of privies [lavatories with no drainage] is unusually small, averaging only one to every four-and-a-half-houses.
* That no sewerage exists to carry off the refuse and decomposing matter, and that the exposed cesspools are very offensive and injurious to health.
* That the present water supply is extremely limited in quantity, and that in the summer,much of it is deleterious in quality.
* That the parish churchyard is so full of graves that no more interments be allowed.

Source 5

From a report on Health in Halifax, published in 1901.

Average age at death (male) 36.2

Average age at death (female) 40.1

Death rate for infants under 1, per 1000 births: 128.8

You might want to expand on your research by looking at the evidence on this website, which includes reports on several local towns.


When you have made a note of the problems that you think towns faced and entered your thoughts on the collaborative page, watch this video. When you have watched the video, go to this page and answer the question, "What should the Government do?"


Launch in external player

Video is an external link to BBC Class Clips.

Title: Government and public health 1830-1850

Duration: 04:33

Description: The story of the local and national acts passed following the cholera epidemic. the clip covers acts including banning back-to-backs in Manchester and the 1848 Public Health Act. It goes on to consider the weaknesses of each law and why the richer classes were reluctant to enforce the legislation.







Latest blog and forum posts

On the medicine blog:


Medicine through time   


Want more detailed updates?





GCSE History Resource Website - Crime and Punishment Through Time Site - Schools History Resources for all Key Stages