Last edited 17 Sep 2021

Public Health Act 1875


[edit] Introduction

Passed in August 1875, the Public Health Act 1875 (also called the 1875 Public Health Act) was originally defined as “An Act for consolidating and amending the Acts relating to Public Health in England.” The 1875 Act addressed the shortcomings of the Public Health Act of 1848 (the first law on public health to be passed in the UK), and has been called one of the most important public health advances in the country.

[edit] Sanitation issues prior to the passage of Public Health Acts

Public health became a driving force in the 19th century, with problems of infectious diseases such as typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis and cholera bringing life expectancy in the rapidly expanding industrial towns to below 30 years. The notion that such diseases spread by bad air, expressed as the Miasma theory, persisted well into the second half of the century when germ theory gained acceptance, and epidemiological evidence demonstrated that cholera was waterborne.

The Government’s response, albeit slow, was to organise water supplies, sewerage systems, waste collection and street cleansing.

[edit] Public Health Act 1848

The first attempt to address the sanitation problem was the passage of the Public Health Act of 1848. One of its primary accomplishments was to establish the first General Board of Health in the country.

The purpose of this Central Board was to improve sanitation and living standards in cities, towns and other moderately populated parts of the country. This board was given the authority to oversee sanitation matters, including the supply of water, sewerage, drainage, cleaning, paving and environmental health regulation. It also established local boards of health to monitor conditions in certain districts.

It came about after an 1842 report by a civil servant named Edwin Chadwick which exposed the unhealthy living conditions experienced by people living in poverty. Chadwick had been asked by the Government to investigate these conditions, and his Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population proposed three water-related measures that could help address the problem:

He also suggested the appointment of a legally qualified medical professional to tend to the local population.

When a cholera outbreak began in 1848, the Government was forced to act on Chadwick’s suggestions - which had been ignored and even criticised before the epidemic.

[edit] Sanitation requirements increase

Despite the passage of the 1848 Act, councils were not required to follow its recommendations, and in the early 1850s, another cholera outbreak took place.

The summer of 1858 was known as ‘the Great Stink’ in London as there was a strong smell of untreated waste throughout the city, affecting those at work in the House of Commons. Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, proposed channelling waste through street sewers, into main intercepting sewers. These would transport waste towards the tidal part of the Thames so that it would be swept out to the sea. Bazalgette constructed a network of wide sewer tunnels driven by major pumping stations.

[edit] 1875 Public Health Act

While the sewers improved the sanitation situation in London, other cities and towns continued to disregard the measures recommended in the 1848 Act. This prompted the Government to introduce the 1875 Public Health Act, which was drafted by the Home Secretary Richard Cross and ensured passage by the Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

The 1875 Act introduced a series of new laws to bring about public health improvements throughout the country. In addition to hygiene and sanitation related matters, the laws would address issues associated with river pollution.

Under the 1875 Act, local sanitation authorities (referred to as urban sanitary districts) replaced local boards of health. They were overseen by local government boards (referred to as urban sanitary authorities) that had the power to issue regulations to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. They could also force local authorities to work together to combat the spread of epidemics.

The local authorities were required to ensure that clean water was provided, sewage and rubbish were effectively removed and that safe food was sold. Under this Act, new homes could not be built unless a connection to the main sewerage system was provided. These reforms established a sanitation framework that would influence public health measures for several generations.

[edit] Summary of 1848 v 1875 Acts

The major differences between the 1848 Act and the 1875 Act include:

1848 Act 1875 Act

First UK public health law.

First general board of health.

Board given oversight of water supply, sewerage, drainage, cleaning, paving and environmental health regulations.

Challenged free market actions.

Consolidated public health laws.

Established local authorities as rural and urban authorities.

Replaced local boards of health.

Gave new powers to local authorities.

--Heidi Schwartz

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