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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
Image of 'death', in a rowing boat
19th-century image of 'Death' - a constant presence in the cities of Victorian Britain 

Cholera epidemics, the 'Great Stink' and miasmas combined to create a death rate in Britain's cities higher than at any time since the Black Death. The Government was forced to face up to the need for an urban planning policy.

Death in the city

The census of 1851 recorded half of the population of Britain as living in towns - the first society in human history to do so. Over the previous 70 years, the population of Britain had risen at an unprecedented rate, passing the levels reached in an earlier period of growth, in the early 14th century, when the population had been decimated by epidemics such as the Black Death.

'... with death from sickness at a level not seen since the Black Death.'

But was there any reason for optimism? The towns offered a better chance of work and higher wages than the countryside, where many families were trapped in dire poverty and seasonal employment. On the other hand, the countryside was healthier. A baby born in a large town with a population of more than 100,000 in the 1820s might expect to live to 35 - in the 1830s, life expectancy was down to a miserable 29.

A comparison between a desperately unhealthy large town and a small market town shows the costs of migrating in search of work and prosperity. In 1851, a boy born in inner Liverpool had a life expectancy of only 26 years, compared with a boy born in the small market town of Okehampton, who could expect to live to 57.

Large towns were thus desperately unhealthy, with death from sickness at a level not seen since the Black Death. New epidemics were stalking the cities - cholera and typhoid were carried by polluted water, typhus was spread by lice, and 'summer diarrhoea' was caused by swarms of flies feeding on horse manure and human waste. The problem was easy to identify and difficult to solve. Too little was invested in the urban environment, in sewers, street paving and cleansing, and in pure water and decent housing.

Published: 2004-11-04

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