Unhealthy and disease-ridden living conditions in towns, particularly in the rapidly growing industrial areas, were a constant concern of Victorian legislators.
In 1846 Parliament began defining what constituted unfit conditions for living accommodation in the first of several Nuisances Removal Acts. The Public Health Act, passed two years later, marked the first acceptance by the government of its responsibility for the health of the population. But it was not until the cholera epidemics of the 1860s that there emerged a much fuller understanding that the problem of public health was linked to poor living conditions.
A turning point was reached with the Public Health Acts of 1872 and 1875 which formed the basis for future advances. Sanitary authorities were appointed for the whole country, and medical officers and inspectors were appointed for each town or district. All new residential accommodation was to have running water and proper drainage, and local authorities were compelled to maintain sewers.
In 1875, the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Act gave local authorities powers to buy up, clear and redevelop slum areas, as well as requiring them to re-house inhabitants. Birmingham was the first city to avail itself of the government loan facilities set up by the Act. A similar Act of 1890 greatly extended these provisions and by 1904 some 80 towns had borrowed £4.5 million.
By 1914, however, it was believed that between two and three million people still lived in slum housing.