Halloween may traditionally be considered to be the time of the year when the veil between the physical and non-physical worlds is thinnest, but in the mid-nineteenth century that veil often seemed permeable. As Britain struggled to balance its desire to exploit the advantages of the industrial revolution with its ability to cope with the effects of such immense socio-economic upheaval, unearthly forms of abject misery became a troubling by-product of Victorian progress.
During this period, government health policy was implemented at a national level. This led some of those experiencing or witnessing the worst of times (frequently the result of the poor sanitation associated with overcrowded and often wretched living conditions), and who believed that they could be better times, to ask those in power for assistance. The response often came in the form of a public inquiry, conducted ‘on the spot’ by a Superintending Inspector sent by the government.
The inspector would look into the sewerage, drainage, supply of water, state of burial grounds and other matters relating to the sanitary condition of the borough or parish in question, before submitting his recommendations for improvement to the Home Secretary. As a result, we have inherited a series of records that captures the response of not just the nation, but of the city, town, village and the individual to the realities of health, contagious disease and sanitation provision during the nineteenth century.
That record series is MH 13: General Board of Health, 1848-1858 and Home Office, Local Government Act Office, 1858-1871. The records contain correspondence relating to the provision and administration of public health, sanitation and other services under the several Public Health and Local Government Acts passed between 1848 and 1871.
Exploding coffins and abandoned corpses
Much of the disorder, squalor and decay that is documented within MH 13 reminds me of the world so powerfully depicted by the great urban novelist and social commentator of the day, Charles Dickens. In fact, Dickens’ younger brother, Alfred, was one of the Consulting Engineers employed by the General Board of Health as a Superintending Inspector. His handwritten reports can be found within a number of the volumes of MH 13. In 1857, for example, Dickens was sent to report upon the sanitary condition of Glossop in Derbyshire, where, at the back of six ‘decent cottages, moderately well kept’, he found an open cesspool ‘filled with refuse of a very foul description, in which are floating heaps of corruption’. Among the ‘putrefying masses’ Dickens reports that he counted ‘no less than five bodies’ (MH 13/78/13).