Health reform in Britain came to a head in the distressed years of the 1840s—a time of economic growth, population increase, and the return of cholera. The numbers of peripheral supporters of health reform crusades increased dramatically as a great battle for public health legislation began. During the 1840s drains, baths, and water were constant headline news: the 'conquest of water' was the first lesson for the newly founded sanitarian lobby. The early 1840s were dominated by Edwin Chadwick's famous 1842 Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes, which forced the public to recognize that there truly was an urban crisis. The overcrowded poor, living in hutlike conditions unchanged over the centuries, were grossly deprived of sufficient sources of fresh water, while the rich were polluting the old public watercourses with their overflowing waste. Thanks to the mass production of water-flushed latrines, by the 1840s 'some 250 tons of faecal matter daily found their way into the Thames'; twenty years later that fecal matter could be measured in many thousands of tons.28 As doctor after doctor in the Report described their local slums, and their rivers of sewage, people saw filth with new eyes: they suddenly noticed it everywhere, in the air, water, in the streets, on clothes and skin, in food.
From the time that the Health of Towns Commission sat between 1843 and 1846, and for years after the sanitary reformers' Health of Towns Association was formed in 1844, a physiological picture of poverty emerged which not only deepened public concern but confirmed conditions that charity visitors had seen (and physiological reformers had suspected) for years. It was noted that deprivation had stunted growth as well as scything through the weakest bodies during epidemic attacks—the poor were some 5 inches shorter on average. Far more than the rest of the population, they suffered from multiple disabilities. Many had bent limbs from suffering rickets in a malnourished childhood, and workshop diseases and deformities were normal. Women and girls in particular were thin and small through malnourishment, with small pelvises that made childbirth more difficult and low birth weight inevitable. Because of close proximity to infected persons, open rubbish heaps, common use of all utensils, and above all lack of water, all the old skin diseases were still rife among the poor, who 'quietly suffer the penalties annexed to the want of cleanliness, as disagreeable smells, perpetual irritation with chaps and fissures on the skin, boils, and eruptions of painful, inflamed pustules, the Itch and Prurigo, the Lepra, the dry Tetter, the running Tetter, the Dandriff, and Scald-head'. Physiology had long ago embraced vitalist doctrines of race-theory, heredity, and the diseases of civilization, and reformers could virtuously point to an easily recognizable physical type: the asthenic, the debilitated, the aetiolated poor:
the national habit of body is depreciated. Our people are etiolated; every tenth man is a pauper; every seventy-fourth is a drunkard; three generations of pauperism is producing the Negro type, without its redeeming black or brown, in some parts of Ireland; and no whole family is free from the strumulous or emasculating or morbific taint... It is clear that the national circumstances and manner of life are to blame for this dreadful result...29
Disease, minimal amounts of dry grooming, and unwashed rags and underlinen meant that the bodies of the poorest smelled intensely, with strong animal odours, compared to the washed or scented population. The very poorest were sometimes described by fearful people as 'savages', 'brutes', or 'animals'— traditional terms describing those beyond the boundaries of society, the untouchables, the impure. Now they also became known as the 'great unwashed'.
There had been much discussion about public baths among the mercantile utilitarians in the 1830s;and, following the model of New Lanark, various philanthropic manufacturers had set up workforce baths. Applying the new technology of steam to public baths had become an exciting project for health progressives: 'What if this same engine, whilst it clothes the British labourer with garments as rich and as fine as those worn by the Kings of Tyre and Sidon, should likewise give him what was the next Eastern luxury and refinement—the warm bath!' There was also an unsuccessful attempt by Rational Recreational hygien-ists to legislate for baths in the newly reformed Parliament in 1835, with a bill to promote 'Public Walks, Playgrounds, Baths, and places of healthy recreation and Amusement', with another bill for 'Institutions for the diffusion of literary and scientific information, including Libraries and Museums, with commodious Halls and Places of Public Meeting'. But the two bills were quietly dropped in 1837;hygienic idealism bowed before empiricism, and the statisticians were given their way.30 Chad-wick's Report five years later provided a clearer and more universal focus, with 'cleanliness' identified as the central agent of the civilizing process.
The year 1842 was key for British health reform. It was the starting block not only for Chadwick but also for the public baths movement, both simultaneously moving in different directions. In 1842 Liverpool Corporation opened a municipal laundry or wash-house (with baths attached), which was so successful that they soon opened another one six times the size. Not to be outdone, in 1844 the City of London started a royally patronized Association for Promoting Cleanliness among the People, which quickly built a similarly successful wash-house in a slum called Glass-House Yard, followed by another in Goulston Square. The public baths reformers quickly set up a broad front, led by the reforming wing of the Anglican Church, with powerful speakers in Archdeacon Samuel Wilberforce and the bishop of London, Dr Charles Blomfield—cleanliness was so clearly a 'moral purity' issue. By 1845 the so-called Clean Party was well into its stride, and had set up the Association for the Establishment of Public Baths and Washhouses, which closely supervised the national legislation of 1846-7. The Act simply empowered any parish or borough to build public baths (including vapour baths) if the ratepayers voted in favour, with maximum charges (6d.) and a tiered pricing system (1d. cold bath, 2d. warm bath, children half price) to ensure that they remained poor baths. There were muted objections from commercial baths operators, and some puritanical diehards objected that the baths would be 'gossip shops' and 'sinks of corruption'; but the vote was passed decisively. From then on the Act was left to fend for itself and often had a rough ride at local meetings, as in the London parish of St George's in the East where the Dirty Party met in the pub, while the Clean Party met in the church. But in the end these poor baths proved more difficult to build and operate than foreseen; they lost money in the winter, were overcrowded in the summer, shunned during epidemics, were high-maintenance and dependent on an efficient water company, and rarely made a profit. They were only a real success after a second Act prompted a new wave of building in the 1870s.31
It is difficult to get past the liberal reformer's top-down view of the baths-and-cleanliness movement. The equally dedicated Dirty Party was usually composed of anyone who objected to raising the rates (shopkeepers and small businessmen); or who feared increased overheads (manufacturers); or who believed that the expense would send jobs elsewhere (including Chartists and many others); or those who simply thought that dirt was a necessary sacrifice on the altar of prosperity, the price that had to be paid—'where there was muck there was brass'. With hindsight it is remarkable how much got done at all before the civic-minded 1870s, in the face of widespread political indifference and open hostility.32 It was probably the new Labour vote after the 1832 electoral reforms that tipped the balance towards action. The Baths for the Working Classes movement in Edinburgh, for instance, was started with a petition signed by '2400 working men', many of whom turned up to the inaugural meeting, and seemingly had no objection whatsoever to a shining moral vision of cleanliness. When the surgeon James Simpson referred to temperance, he was received by 'loud and long-continued cheers', while his 'view of... well-built houses, sewers, water in abundance, pure air and light... [and] of better things for the working man's dwelling, produced a strong sensation in the audience'. The chairman, Lord Dunfermline, thought that cleanliness was not only necessary for the comfort, health, and respectability of the people, [but] I look upon it as a necessary preliminary to alliances between the working classes, and those whose province it is to inculcate religious and moral conviction on the people.—(Loud Cheers)...I have no doubt [that] we are about to carry the day—that henceforth we shall have established far more method, far more order, far more cleanliness in the domestic economy of the people.33
The religious feeling does seem to shine through: sobriety, temperance, cleanness, thrift, and respectability were sober old Calvinist virtues. It did not necessarily mean that all the labouring classes shared the same 'soap-ori-fic' cross-class political viewpoint. As one working-class poet warned in a burst of Jacobin satire on the general lack of moral cleanliness in high places, baths and wash-houses were 'but a small instalment due, sir':
... But sure the chap's no silly 'un, Who to cleanliness a railroad planned A washhouse for the million.
Chorus: Ri tooral, looral, looral, loo Ri tooral, looral, lido Sure purity outside and in, Should be a people's pride oh.
But stay—'tis not the vulgar herd Alone who lack a scrubbing,
We've great ones too who want a bath And pretty hard dry-rubbing...
... To scour such knaves, as I have heard— At all observe, no snarl-I-ment— A thumping bath is being built In the New Houses of Parliament.
Ri tooral, looral, etc So let us praise the general scheme,
As a small instalment due, sirs, From wealth and rank to poverty— And hope still more they'll do, sirs.
Chorus: And then we'll own, in bath and park, That to serve your poor neighbour A duty is—and bless the man, Who helps the sons of Labour.
Ri tooral, looral, etc.34
From the 1840s onwards public speakers referred to 'cleanliness' constantly: it became a litany that few members of the public, literate or otherwise, could have avoided, or failed to have learnt. Cleanliness would make everyone happier. It would create a more disciplined workforce and save them from the demon drink. Mental and physical dispositions were linked in a strong moral polarity:
A clean, fresh, and well-ordered house [has] a direct tendency to make the members of a family sober, peaceful, and considerate of the feelings and happiness of each other.. .whereas a filthy, squalid, unwholesome dwelling... tends directly to make every dweller in such a hovel regardless of the feelings and happiness of each other, selfish and sensual. And the connection is obvious between the constant indulgences of appetites and passions of this class, and the formation of habits of idleness, dishonesty, debauchery, and violence.
Cleanliness kept the civilized man safely at home. The 'rosy' view of the beautiful clean home with its beautifully clean contents became the source of a rich 'trope' or type of cleanliness prose in novels and fiction, as well as campaigning journalism, directed at young women and young wives especially:
Who...has contemplated the wide difference in the aspect of everything, where the presiding spirit, the wife, is a votary of Cleanliness, and the state of things where she is not. How ill-favoured the handsomest furniture looks, covered with dust and stains—the most beautiful carpet, by crumbs and shred. On the contrary, the polished oak table, the well-rubbed floor, on which the light of heaven shines through a clear glass; the white hearth, and shining fire-irons; the bright fire, which blushes not for the ashes that lay scattered before it, but smiles because only its own clear face can be seen, render the poorest cabin an earthly paradise...35
This was a neglected and disorderly home—not a poor one. Good housekeeping was rewarded by shining oak tables and glowing Turkey carpets; an overt appeal to the consumer, that eager self-improver, and one which was used constantly by utilitarian reformers promoting 'the engine of Trade'.
Was this article helpful?