Young points out that in the early to middle years of Victoria’s reign “the religious, the economic, and the social codes all combined to emphasize the vital importance of individual effort” (47), and at the same time people of beliefs across the political spectrum remained hostile to any government regulation, which they conceived as a potentially tyrannical infringement of individual liberties. At the same time, people began to realize the powerless of the individual to solve large problems, such as the removal of sewage, that affected daily life. For this reason, Young argues that the Factory Act of 1847 marks the beginning of the legislative process by which “an individualistic society was unobtrusively schooled in the ways of State control” (47).

In addition to introducing some government control over administration of the Poor Law, the Act of 1848 “created a parallel Board of Health in Whitehall with power to create Local Boards and compel them to discharge a great variety of duties, from the regulation of slaughter-houses, to the supply of water and the management of cemeteries” (57). This legislation was admittedly “patchy and cumbrous” since one municipality might adopt the Act and its neighbour not.” In addition, the law placed many limitations on local boards of Health.

When they were allowed to intervene, they must first inquire and then report, and then make a provisional order and then get the order confirmed, and then, most difficult of all, see that it was not evaded by local jobbers, backed by the libertarian Private Enterprise Society. There was not enough staff to go round: the local doctors could not be got to report their wealthy patients for maintaining nuisances: it is not supposed that municipal affairs as a rule engage either the most intelligent or the most disinterested of mankind, and the impact of the irresistible Chadwick on the immovable incuriousness of the small municipal mind could only end in explosions. [57]

In other words, this pioneering legislation achieved far less than might have been expected. The importance of the pioneering act, then, lay in what Young terms the “large opportunities it gave for local initiative and scientific intelligence to work together,’ so that gradually, tentatively, “the filth and horror which had crawled over the early Victorian towns was penned back in its proper lairs.” In addition, this legislation creating local boards of health made “perhaps the first step towards dealing effectively with slums” by recognizing them as slums ”and not as normal phenomena of urban existence” (57).

Principal Acts dealing with Matters of Public Health

Links to Related Material Including Suggestions for Research


Young, G.M. Victorian England: Portrait of an Age. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Last modified 13 June 2018