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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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London's 'Great Stink' and Victorian Urban Planning

By Professor Martin Daunton
Cities on the cheap

'Punch' cartoon depicting 'Dirty Father Thames'
'Punch' cartoon, 1848: Dirty Father Thames 
In the early 19th century, many towns were governed by municipal corporations, usually 'closed' or self-selecting bodies in the hands of one political faction, with little sense of civic responsibility.

Many residents were reluctant to pay taxes to these unaccountable bodies, which therefore had difficulties in investing. Many expanding towns (such as Manchester) lacked even a corporation, and relied on a motley collection of bodies. Not surprisingly, the response to urban growth was weak.

'Health is enormously expensive. Be filthy and be fat.'

Parliament reformed municipal government in 1835, but this did little to help. Corporations were now elected, but the voters were narrow-minded, self-interested owners of small property. In 1855, Charles Dickens imagined an election campaign in the evocatively named town of Cess-cum-Poolton. The candidate rallied the voters:

'Ratepayers, Cess-cum-Poolton! Rally around your vested interests. Health is enormously expensive. Be filthy and be fat. Cesspools and Constitutional Government! Gases and Glory! No insipid water!'

His satire was well directed, for many towns voted for cheap government, with low spending on drains or water supplies. Attempts by the central government to force laggards to act was soon denounced as a despotic interference in local liberties, an attack on 'constitutional government'.

Thus the General Board of Health created by the Public Health Act of 1848 was soon abolished. Other means had to be found of encouraging local authorities and their electors to vote for spending on health and amenities, convincing them that being filthy did not make sense.

Published: 2004-11-04

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