Victorian Social Reform in Britain

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Victorian Social Reform in Britain

When considering the changes brought about in the social policy of Great Britain, in the decades immediately either side of 1900, one must look at the nation `s industrial history. The position as the world` s premier industrial nation had been cemented by the mid nineteenth century, achieved in part, as it was the first nation to industrialise. However, the headlong embrace of laissez- faire capitalism ignored the social infrastructure, and the emigration from the depressed agricultural areas to the industrial areas caused immense strain on the poorly-planned towns and cities. At the dawn of industrialisation, there were those who expressed concern about the health and hygiene of the dense industrial areas, notably Freidrich Engels, whose study of Manchester and London in 1844 collated in "Conditions of The Working Class in England" painted a truly dismal picture of urban squalor and hopelessness.

" Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants. And such a district exists in the heart of the second city of England, the first manufacturing city of the world. If any one wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air - and such air! - he can breathe, how little of civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither." (Engels.F. 1844 p.84 )

The publication, in 1842, of the" Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain" elicited, and perhaps foresaw, the protests of disbelief. Edwin Chadwick was responsible for the report and also invoked the image of the "unknown country" as Henry Mayhew later did to bring to public attention the abysmal conditions with which the labouring poor had to contend. His principal concern appeared to be with "the miasma" emanating from decaying matter "the poisonous exhalations" which were the source of their physical, moral and mental deterioration. At the height of the cholera epidemic, the flushing of the sewers in order to dissipate the miasma, actually aggravated the problem by further contamination of the water supply, in the face of the advice which stated that the disease was spread by germs and infection.

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