A short essay describing the level of hygiene which the Victorian working classes experienced, discussing the reasons for health measures being so poor.
When people discuss the Victorian era, they talk about the British Empire, Queen Victoria and the many inventions spawned during the Industrial Revolution. But another subject frequently mentioned is public health, or rather the lack of it. The Victorian poor famously lived in poverty, hunger and filth. Families were squeezed into disease ridden terraces where clean water and personal space were too costly a privilege. Many died of hunger and disease in yards which were constantly flooded with stinking water. Many have often wondered how urban life could possibly have become such a nightmare, and why it took so long for any serious effort to be made in order to repair the situation. The answer is simple: Nobody who mattered cared, and nobody who cared mattered.
The problem began early in the 1800s, when the Industrial Revolution forced changes to the way that people lived and worked: Instead of local trade and agriculture, industry and technology had become the focus of employment. A large portion of the less wealthy population drifted from farms and villages into the rapidly expanding cities. Fitting them all in would require the building firms to put together their finest brains to come up with a then-modern miracle of compact design and low-cost construction. But why waste all that time, money and effort trying to accommodate a bunch of peasants who, after all, did not really matter. Surely it would be far easier to just pack them all into whatever took the least money to put up, regardless of whether or not the resulting lifestyles were actually suitable for the lowly families who were forced to endure them. The outcome of this decision was that every working class house in the big cities was a cramped, under-equipped and poorly constructed wreck. Living in a confined and unsanitary area such as this was perfect for attracting filth, pestilence and an early pauper’s grave.
The main issue with living in a yard such as this was what to do with household waste. With no sewers, recycling or even dumping ground, rainwater, industrial by-products, faeces and probably even dead animals (or children) were able to accumulate over time, leading to numerous outbreaks of disease and infection form contaminated food and water sources. Again, the reason for this was that in the eyes of the landlords and town councils, poor labourers did not matter. As a result, duties such as repairing houses, supplying clean water and extracting the waste from local cesspits were often neglected, with authorities electing to spend the money on themselves instead (Obviously, the councils and governments of today would never delay answering people’s urgent needs, use tax money to buy goods for themselves, or commission housing on unsafe land.). This is perhaps the strongest factor in the health plunge: the poor had no real access to any sort of medical aid and, as a result, lived in a world of sickness.
There were many different ways in which the Victorian underworld could kill you. You could die of Cholera; a bacterial infection of the small intestine which could turn your skin blue while causing intense vomiting and diarrhoea. There was also tuberculosis, which attacks the lungs as and causes victims to cough up blood, as well as typhoid (which, if untreated can ultimately cause a haemorrhaging of the intestines) and scarlet fever (causing a large rash, peeling skin, and swelling of the tonsils). Throughout the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands died from numerous outbreaks of these illnesses. The constant threat of sickness was largely due to a lack of knowledge about the spreading of disease. It has taken centuries for scientists and doctors to learn (and society to accept) that illnesses were spread by viruses and bacteria rather than foul odours or the Wrath of God. Even when the development of medicines had begun, there was still virtually no chance of the message getting through to those who needed help. Yet again, making the necessary changes would be too expensive and nobody wanted to cough up for the schemes because the worst affected were the poor, and the poor didn't matter.
In conclusion: The catastrophic waves of disease in Victorian towns were brought about because no serious measures were taken to prevent them. During this era, the rich had no sympathy for the lower classes, and did not care about their heath at all. This led to decades of neglect and suffering for the miners, factory workers, and child labourers at the time, who were simply to suffer alone in a world which, retrospectively, seems almost purposefully designed to kill the unwashed masses.
To summarise, this is my opinion of why health in Victorian times was so bad:
Life costs, and peasants weren’t worth paying for!
Originally written June 2011 by Robin Taylor. No grade, but positive feedback.