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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
Spending on cities

Civic pride - Leeds Town Hall, 1858
Civic pride - Leeds Town Hall, 1858 ©
Matters started to change from about 1860. The conditions of the towns seemed intolerable and a source of danger - being filthy might lead to death for the rich as well as the poor.

The power of small property owners was weakened when more people were granted the vote with the second Reform Act of 1867. Although the outcome varied between towns according to local circumstances, the result could be an alliance between newly enfranchised workers and larger industrialists, who realised that higher public spending would make their cities healthier and more efficient.

'The process of persuasion was crucial to investment in Victorian cities.'

Improvements in the capital market also helped by making it easier for towns to borrow money on favourable terms. From about 1870, there was a massive increase in the level of investment in public health. The most striking example was in Birmingham, where Joseph Chamberlain became mayor, and embarked on a massive programme of spending. By the end of the 19th century cities throughout Britain ceased to be built on the cheap, and by 1900 life in the great cities was just as healthy as in the countryside.

At some point, conditions long accepted with fatalistic resignation become intolerable, a problem in need of urgent action. The process of persuasion was crucial to investment in Victorian cities, to the realisation that conditions should not be accepted and money should be spent.

The sanitary reformers used the literary techniques of Victorian novelists to create a sense of crisis. Edwin Chadwick, the author of the report on the sanitary conditions of British towns, consulted Charles Dickens over how to describe the situation - and Dickens himself obtained graphic accounts of the vile conditions of reeking graveyards from his brother-in-law, Henry Austin, a leading sanitary reformer. The imaginative force of their writings made people aware of the need for action.

Published: 2004-11-04

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