Did London Times Editorialize Against Being ‘Bullied into Health’ in 1800s?
An 1854 London Times editorial said: “We’d rather take our chances with cholera and the rest than have our health whitewashed, our pet dung heaps cleared away, our thatched roof slated for slate, all at the orders of some kind of medical bomber.” ”
As if to remind us that the extreme politicization of public health issues is not unique to the 21st century, are excerpts from a 170-year-old London Times editorial speaking out against being run by an “autocratic” government agency ” being “pushed to health” an enthusiastic new audience on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This viral quote consists of a few sentences taken from a long opinion article in the August 1, 1854 issue of The Times on the Public Health Act of 1848 and reforms of public sanitation enacted by Edwin Chadwick, Commissioner of the General Board of Health were removed. in the wake of a major cholera epidemic:
We would rather take our chances with cholera and co. than allow ourselves to be pressured into health. There is nothing a man hates so much as being cleaned against his will, or having his floors swept, his walls whitewashed, his pet dung heaps cleared away, or that thatched roof forced to give way to slate, all at the command of some sort of sanitary ware bombailiff.
As the excerpt suggests, the Times was not a fan of the Public Health Act, public sanitation reforms, or Chadwick. Its editors took the position that the central government had nothing to do with “bullying” the public into health (note that the word “bombailiff” or “bumbailiff” was a derisive term for someone who hunts down and apprehends debtors ).
Here is a longer excerpt from the 1854 editorial celebrating the dissolution and reconstitution of the Board of Health (Chadwick was to be replaced):
If there is such a thing as political certainty among us, it is that there can be nothing autocratic in this country. British nature abhors absolute power, be it in the form of a sovereign, bishop, assembly, chamber, board or even parliament. The health department fell. After six years of erratic growth, oscillating between over-progressive developments and sudden inhibitions, it finally withered like an exotic unsuitable for this soil or climate. We all claim the privilege of changing doctors, throwing away their medicine when we’re feeling full, or forgoing it altogether when we’re feeling reasonably well. The nation, which is just the sum of all of us, is just as unwilling to endure a medical tyrant. Esculapius and Chiron, in the form of Mr. Chadwick and Dr. Southwood Smith, have been deposed, and we’d rather take the risk of catching cholera and the rest than get well. Lord Seymour has freed us from this new and strange reign. He is the Wilhelm Tell who overthrew Sanitary Gesler. The operation consisted of a haunting and humorous board story. His office was twofold – introducing sanitation measures and enforcing the Public Health Act. In the execution of the latter difficult and delicate trust the ruling genius was unfortunately too simple. Inspectors everywhere, who should have done their “spirits” as gently as possible, were arbitrary, abusive and expensive. They entered houses and manufactures as an improving English landowner would enter an Irish cottage, and insisted on changes revolting against the habits or pride of the lords and occupants. There’s nothing a man hates like being cleaned against his will, or having his floors swept, his walls whitewashed, his pet manure piles cleared away, or thatched roof being forced to give way to slate, all at the orders of some sort of plumbing bomb master .
Chadwick was the author of a massive, self-funded study published in 1842 entitled Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Laboring Population of Great Britain. According to a profile of Chadwick on the website of The Health Foundation, a private UK health reform organization, he had been pushing for nationwide sanitation infrastructure updates:
Chadwick found that there is a link between poor living standards and the spread and growth of disease. A key proponent of sanitation reform, he recommended that the government intervene by providing clean water, improving drainage systems, and allowing local governments to clear homes and streets of trash.
To spur government action, Chadwick argued that the poor conditions of impoverished and ailing workers prevented them from working efficiently.
The article cites the Times editorial as evidence of “the public’s reluctance to engage in a high level of intervention in public health matters.” In addition, “Chadwick’s challenging personality and strong support for centralized administration and government intervention made him many enemies in Parliament.”
There was also general consensus that the Public Health Act and the Board of Health had largely failed in their mission to bring about positive change, although not everyone agreed that this was because the plan relied too heavily on centralized power. According to the British Parliament website today, the main limitation was that it was not central enough:
The law established a central health authority, but it had limited powers and no money. Those wards which had already formed a corporation, such as Sunderland, were to take responsibility for drainage, water supply, nuisance clearance and paving. Loans could be granted for public health infrastructure, which were repaid from the installments. Where the mortality rate was above 23 per 1000, local health departments had to be set up.
The main limitation of the law was that it provided a framework that could be used by local authorities but did not enforce any action.
With the subsequent passage of the Public Health Act 1875, Parliament attempted to correct the mistakes of earlier legislation, in part by making local councils responsible for health and sanitation.
Bum Bailiffs (Grose 1811 Dictionary). https://words.fromoldbooks.org/Grose-VulgarTongue/b/bum-bailiff.html. Retrieved January 11, 2023.
“The Times editorial.” The Times, August 1, 1854, p. 8. newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/116195658/the-times/.
“Report on the Sanitary Conditions of Working People in Great Britain.” Policy Navigator, https://navigator.health.org.uk/theme/report-sanitary-conditions-labouring-population-great-britain. Retrieved January 11, 2023.
“The Public Health Act 1848.” Parliament.Uk, https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/towncountry/towns/tyne-and-wear-case-study/about-the-group/public-administration/the-1848- health law/.
“The Public Health Act.” Milford History, https://www.milfordhistory.org.uk/content/local-history/history/healthcare/public-health-act. Retrieved January 11, 2023.