The 1848 Public Health Act

The 1848 Public Health Act was the first step on the road to improved public health.  One of the individuals who played an important role in its creation was Edwin Chadwick, a social reformer.

Edwin Chadwick was one of the architects of the 1834 Poor Law, which was based on the principle that making the provision of poor relief so unpleasant would put off all but the most desperate.   Whilst working as secretary to the Poor Law Commissioners he investigated the issue of sanitation amongst the poor.  In 1842 he published ‘The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain’, paying the costs of publication himself as the Poor Law Commission did not want to be associated with the report. 

Chadwick’s argument was economic, as he was convinced that if the health of the poor were improved, it would result in less people seeking poor relief; much poor relief was given to the families of men who had died from infectious diseases.  Money spent on improving public health was therefore cost effective, as it would save money in the long term.

He considered that the most important steps to improve the health of the public were:
• improved drainage and provision of sewers
• the removal of all refuse from houses, streets and roads
• the provision of clean drinking water
• the appointment of a medical officer for each town

After much campaigning by the Health of Towns Association, and another severe outbreak of cholera in 1848, the government was forced to act, and the Public Health Act of 1848 was passed.  The Act as it was passed was not perfect but was an important step forward.  

The Act established a Central Board of Health, but this had limited powers and no money. Those boroughs that had already formed a Corporation, such as Sunderland, were to assume responsibility for drainage, water supplies, removal of nuisances and paving.  Loans could be made for public health infrastructure which were paid back from the rates.  Where the death rate was above 23 per 1000, local Boards of Health had to be set up.

The main limitation of the Act was that it provided a framework that could be used by local authorities, but did not compel action.  Sunderland was one of the towns which was keen to use the new powers offered by the Act, and the Corporation watched the Bill’s progress through Parliament.  Regular updates appear in the minutes, and an example can be seen above.

Please read on to find out more about how the 1848 Public Health Act was used in Sunderland.