Early Industrial 1810-1850

The Luddites emerge in December, 1811, in Nottingham, Britain — the same district famous for another champion of the poor, Robin Hood. The Luddite movement is a reaction by mill workers of the Manchester – Leeds industrial region of England to the coming of steam powered machinery, replacing their skilled labor and leaving them jobless and hungry.

According to legend, the mythical figure Ned Ludd (illustration) was a simple minded boy who accidentally broke a “frame” (loom). Others who broke frames deliberately might cover it up by claiming that they were as clumsy as Ludd. But Ned Ludd was also said to be a general on whose orders workers would demand that factory owners shut down steam powered machinery or the frames would be broken.

Parliament proposed that “Frame Breaking” be punishable by death, and on February 27, 1812, Lord Byron addressed the House of Lords to oppose the bill and defend workers who were involved in the Luddite riot. Despite his eloquence, the Frame Breaking Act was passed.

During the short time I recently passed in Nottingham, not twelve hours elapsed without some fresh act of violence; and on that day I left the the county I was informed that forty frames [looms] had been broken the preceding evening, as usual, without resistance and without detection.

Such was the state of that county, and such I have reason to believe it to be at this moment. But whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.

They were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them: their own means of subsistence were cut off, all other employment preoccupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be subject to surprise.

As the sword is the worst argument that can be used, so should it be the last. In this instance it has been the first; but providentially as yet only in the scabbard. The present measure will, indeed, pluck it from the sheath; yet had proper meetings been held in the earlier stages of these riots, had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquility to the country.

The Luddite movement was essentially non-violent, but was marred by violent incidents.  On the night of April 11, two Luddites  were mortally injured  in an attack on Rawfords Mill in Yorkshire.  On April 20, several thousand men attacked the  Burton power loom mill in Lancashire and set the mill owners house on fire. On April 23,  the owner of Rawfords Mill was killed.

June 1812 — Charges are brought against 38 for “administering oaths to weavers pledging them to destroy steam looms.” They were also accused of attending a seditious meeting. At their subsequent trial all thirty-eight were acquitted. However, eight men in Lancashire were sentenced to death and 13 more were transported to Australia for attacks on cotton mills. Fifteen more were executed at York. While there were occasional outbreaks of violence afterwards, but the Luddite movement became part of a general reform movement that would be crushed at the  Perloo Massacre in 1819.

1812 — First gas lights introduced in London by the Gas Light & Coke Co, charterd despite opposition by Boulton & Watt steam manufacturerer. This “town gas” or manufactured gas would be used in every major US and European city, but residual coal tar would remain an environmental problem well into the 21st century.

1812 — February 7 — Birth of Charles Dickens, English writer whose work condemned the worst of conditions and inspired the best in people. Books include Christmas Carol, Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Hard Times, Nicholas Nickleby and others.

1813 — John Snow born March 15, in York, England, Snow would become famous in 1854 as the doctor who broke the Boad Street pump and took direct action against the spread of cholera through polluted drinking water.

1815 – Corn laws passed, placing high protective tariffs on grain (corn) imports into Britain. These raised the price of grain and shored up the fading economic power of the landed gentry. The laws were an example of mercantilism and their repeal is said to be a victory for free trade. However, the 1846 repeal of the corn laws was forced by the Irish Potato Famine. The repeal came too late, and over a million Irish men, women and children died despite a general abundance of food in Europe at the time. “Deadly hatred was sown…” said Charles Gavan Duffy.

1816 — Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly writes Frankenstein.

1816 — Year without a summer — Eruption of Mt. Tambora the year beforehand creates low temperatures throughout the summer in the northern hemisphere. The editor of America’s leading magazine, Hezekiah Niles, says:

“One class of philosophers calls every extraordinary appearance a judgement or a sign; another class views everything as the working of matter and motion. These two sets are at war with each other. The one denounces the other as superstitious or atheistical.”

1816 — First Parliamentary commission to investigate child labor formed by Robert Peel. The practice of sending orphan children to manufacturing centers is curtailed. The Peel committee took evidence from doctors and textile manufacturers, but no evidence was taken from parents or children. The subsequent Factory Act of 1819 set a minimum of 9 years of age for factory work; also, hours were limited, but only for some kinds of textile factories. One key provision of the law was that it applied to all apprentices, and therefore all children and, in effect, could be applied to all workers. “Though the bill was badly mutilated, the weak and feeble Act which emerged was to become the Magna Carta of childhood; thereafter the protection of the children of the poor, first from toil and then from bodily starvation and ignorance, began.” (Donald Hunter, The Diseases of Occupations, London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1955).

1817 — U.S. Secretary of Navy authorized to reserve and protect timber lands producing hardwoods for naval stores.

1818 — Massachusetts bans the hunting of robins and horned larks, both popular foods, as a conservation measure.

1819 — British Parliamentary committee expresses concern that steam engines and furnaces “could work in a manner less prejudicial to public health.”

1819 — John Ruskin born Feb. 8 — Artist, art critic, Oxford Professor and romantic who, even more than Wordworth, detested the industrial revolution. Modern towns, he said, were:

“…little more than laboratories for the distillation into heaven of venomous smokes and smells, mixed with effluvia from decaying animal matter, and infectious miasmata from purulent disease… [Every river was] a common sewer, so that you cannot so much as baptize an English baby but with filth, unless you hold its face out in the rain, and even that falls dirty.”

1820 — Reformer and Parliamentarian Jeremy Bentham writes The Constitutional Code, including proposals for reforming London medical assistance system and water, sewer and public works districts. Many find his proposals for social engineering distastefully autocratic.

1820 — Steven Long expedition to the Rocky mountains. Most of region between Mississippi and the mountains is considered to be uninhabitable at the time.

1820s – Hudson River school of painting puts nature at the center of emerging American culture.

Oct. 13, 1821 — Rudolf (Carl) Virchow born. A German physician, Virchow developed cell theory and fought for improving the public health services. He said:

“Medicine is a social science and politics [is] nothing but medicine on a grand scale — Doctors are the natural advocates of the poor, and social problems are largely within their jurisdiction.”

Louis Pasteur

1822 — Louis Pasteur born Dec. 27 in Dole, France. (d. September 28, 1895) — Pasteur is perhaps the best known scientist of the 19th century. His germ theory of disease is the foundation of modern medicine and public health. Pasteur said:

“Two contrary laws seem to be wrestling with each other nowadays; the one, a law of blood and death, ever imagining new means of destruction and forcing nations to be constantly ready for the battlefield — The other a law of peace, work and health, ever evolving new means of delivering man from the scourges which beset him. The one seeks violent conquests, the other the relief of humanity. The latter places one human life above any victory, while the former would sacrifice hundreds and thousands of lives to the ambition of one. The law of which we are the instrument seeks, even in the midst of carnage, to cure the sanguinary ills of the law of war; the treatment inspired by our antiseptic methods may preserve thousands of soldiers. Which of these two laws will ultimately prevail, God alone knows. But we may assert that French science will have tried, by obeying the law of Humanity, to extend the frontiers of life.” (Another Pasteur link)

1822 — Dec. 4  —  Frances Cobbe birthday.  Cobbe was founder of the Victoria Street Society (1875), which became the British National Anti-Vivisection Society, and later founder of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (1898).

1823 — James Fenimore Cooper writes The Pioneers, which contains the idea that humans should “govern the resources of nature by certain principles in order to conserve them.

1822 — First British humane law, with laws prohibiting dogfighting and cockfighting following in 1835. Rat-fighting was not banned until 1911. There is record of cruelty cases being prosecuted occasionally under other legislation prior to the Martin Act of 1822, including a 1749 case in Gloucester in which two men were convicted of spitefully killing a mare. One man got the death penalty. “Humanity Dick” Martin won passage of the law. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1824 — Farmer’s Guide, published in Providence Rhode Island by Solomon and William Downs, discusses causes and remedies for erosion.

1824 — June 16 — Formation of the London SPCA, which began enforcing the 1822 humane law five years before Sir William Peel formed the first London police force. About 150 convictions were won in 1824, the first year for which records exist. The London SPCA nearly went bankrupt in 1828, but was saved by Lewis Gompertz, inventor of the expanding chuck which makes changing drill bits possible. Gompertz was drummed out in 1832, however, for the alleged offenses of being a Jew and a vegetarian. He went on to found the Animals’ Friend Society, which he headed until 1848. The London SPCA became the Royal SPCA by charter granted by Queen Victoria in 1840. Victoria herself donated money to antivivisection efforts, but the British Charities Commission has recently interpreted antivivisection campaigning to be outside the scope of the charter. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1825 — Completion of Erie Canal opens the Great Lakes region to commerce through the port of New York.

1827 —  Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier writes “Memoir on the Temperature of the Terrestrial Globe and Planetary Spaces” for Annales de chimie et de physique. He proposes the theory that the sun’s heat is partially trapped in the earth’s atmosphere like a giant glass jar — the first scientific reference to global warming.

1827 — John James Audubon magnificent book, Birds of America, is first published in Britain after having been turned down for publication in the US. It is an enormous hit. Original editions are today among the most valuable and rare books in the world.  The book of prints represents an enormous effort in accurate color reproduction.       

1828 — New York passed the first U.S. state anti-cruelty law, followed by Massachusetts in 1835 and Connecticut and Wisconsin in 1838. Every state had an anti-cruelty law by 1913, including Alaska.   (M. Clifton, 2007)

1830 — May 28 — Indian Removal Act signed into law, leading to the forced relocation of Native Americans along the “trail of tears”  to regions west of the Mississippi.  This was an extremely controversial act, even at the time, and accounts of cruelty to Indians were common in newspapers then.

1830 — Thomas Southwood Smith, a British physician, publishes his Treatise on Fever, in which he argued that the poor are impoverished by fever and that fever was preventable. “This book set the agenda for Edwin Chadwick’s later career with the New Poor Law Board, and moved the whole ethos of public health away from the voluntary, philanthropic, individualistic eighteenth-century approach, and into the imperative, community-oriented Victorian mode,.” said historian Anne Hardy

1830 — Saxony adopts a law to prevent cruelty to animals, followed by Prussia (1838), Wurttemberg (1839), and Switzerland (1842). “Pastor Albert Knapp founded the first German animal welfare society in 1837 in Stuttgart; Nuremberg and Dresden followed in 1839, Berlin, Hamburg, and Frankfurt in 1841, Munich in 1842, and Hanover in 1844. In Switzerland, animal protection societies were formed in Berne in 1844, in Balse in 1849, and in Zurich in 1856,” according to Richard Ryder in Animal Revolution. Anti-cruelty societies were also founded in Oslo in 1859, Gothenberg in 1869, and Strangnas in 1870. The Lithuanian SPCA, recently revived after a long suspension during the years of Soviet occupation, was founded in 1873.

1831 — Charles Turner Thackrah, 1795 – 1833, a British physician, publishes The Effects of the Principle Arts, Trades and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living, on Health and Longevity, with Suggestions for the Removal of many of the Agents which produce Disease and Shorten the Duration of Life. The book on occupational health (industrial hygiene) included clinical observations and suggestions for improvements that helped mitigate some of the worst effects of the industrial revolution.

“Many persons who reflect on the subject will be inclined to admit that our employments are in a considerable degree injurious to health; but they believe, or profess to believe, that the evils cannot be counteracted, and urge that an investigation of such evils can produce only pain and discontent. From a reference to fact and observations I reply that in many of our occupations the injurious agents might be immediately removed or diminished. Evils are suferend to exist, even when the means of correction are known and easiy applied. Thoughtlessness or apathy is the only obstacle to success.”

1831 –-House of Commons Factory Commission chaired by Michael Sadler, a member of Parliament and Yorkshire mill owner, began investigating conditions of workers in the textile mills. “Before this Commission there files a long procession of workers — men and women, girls and boys. Stunted, diseased, deformed degraded, they pass across the stage, each with the tale of his wrong life, a living picture of man’s cruelty to man, a pitiless indictment of those rulers who, in their days of unabated power, had abandoned the weak to the rapacity of the strong.” Critics later contended that Sadler’s commission exaggerated the problems for partisan ends, particularly the 10 hour law.

1831 — December 26 — Charles Darwin sets sail on the HMS Beagle, a voyage which inspires Darwin’s work on evolutionary theory, natural selection and the origin of species.

1832 — Arkansas Hot Springs established as a national reservation, setting a precedent for Yellowstone and eventually, a national park system.

George Catlin's painting of Native Americans, 1830s.
George Catlin’s painting of Native Americans, 1830s.

1832 — George Catlin, a U.S. artist and author who focused on the western US,  first proposes the idea of national parks encompassing major areas in which Indians and wild country could both be preserved. In the same decade ornithologist John James Audubon is arousing an interest in wildlife conservation.

1832 — Cholera epidemic strikes New York city, killing 3,000, and sparking interest in public health reform in the US.

1833 — The Poor Laws Commission (Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Operation of the Poor Laws). This led to the Poor Law Amendments of 1834 which created a central administration, work houses and segregation of classes of workers and sexes (including families) in the workhouses. The law specifies that workhouses are to be less accommodating than the lowest paid labor. Meanwhile, a second survey by Poor Laws Commission is begun. This survey, reported in 1838, finds that poverty is linked to disease and poor housing and sanitation.The report says families are engaged in dangerous, unhealthy work for long hours, living in “ill-furnished, uncleanly, ill ventilated” homes, eating “meagre and ilnutritious foods,” and are finally falling the “victims of dissipation.” Members such as Edwin Chadwick, Dr. Neil Arnott and Sir James Phillips Kay-Shuttleworth find conditions in London so bad in this 1838 report that they petition for a full nationwide survey (finally reported in 1842).

1833 — Royal Commission on the Employment of Children in Factories established, leading to the Factory Act, which drastically changes child labor hours and allows the appointment of inspectors and a permanent Factory Inspectorate.

1833, July 19 — Report of the Board of Health in reference to the approach of cholera, Board of Health of Indianapolis

1834, March 24  — William Morris born. A writer and a fierce critic of the industrial revolution, Morris wished he could turn England from the grimy backyard of a workshop into a garden. His epic poem, The Earthly Paradise, begins with an admonition:

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white and clean
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green …
(Quoted in Guha)

1834 — New York bans the use of batteries (scatter guns the size of cannons) in duck hunting, but the ban is repealed the following year.

1834 — Rex v. Medley — London officials bring nuisance charges against a coal – gas manufacturing firm that contaminated the Thames by releasing large amounts of coal tar from the plant. Although other indictments had been brought, Rex v. Medley was one of the first to have been successfully prosecuted.

“Defendants unlawfully and injuriously conveyed great quantities of filthy, noxious, unwholesome and deleterious liquids, matters, scum and refuse into the river Thames, whereby the waters became charged and impregnated with the said liquid and became corrupted and insalubrious and unfit for the use of his Majesty’s subjects … People who supported themselves and their families by catching and selling fish were deprived of their employment and reduced to great poverty and distress; (all) to the common nuisance and grievous injury of his Majesty’s subjects, to the evil example, and against the peace.”

1835 — Ralph Waldo Emerson writes the essay Nature, beginning an American tradition of Transendentalism continued by Thoreau, Fuller, Walt Whitman and others.

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit…

1835 — Alexis de Tocqueville publishes Journey to England and describes the industrial city of Manchester:

“Thirty or forty factories rise on the tops of the hills…six stories (high). The wretched dwellings of the poor are scattered haphazrd around them. Round them stretches land uncultivated but without the charm of rustic nature.,, the fetid, muddy waters stained with a thousand colours by the factories … Look up and all around this place and you will see the huge palaces of industry. you will hear the noise of furnaces, the whistle of steam. These vast structures keep air and light out of the human habitations which they dominate; they envelope them in perpetual fog; here is the slave, there the master; there is the wealth of some, here the poverty of most.”

1837 — John Deere patents steel plow

John Muir

1838,  April 21 —   John Muir born in Dunbar, Scotland.  The 19th century’s leading preservationist and wilderness advocate, Muir also founded the Sierra Club and took a leading role in advocating environmental preservation as an ethical issue, not simply a pragmatic “wise use” to preserve some things for future generations.

1838, Dec. 3  — Octavia Hill  born in London. She was founder of the most influential English society for preservation, the National Trust. As “the first woman environmentalist of significance” (according to Guha), she saw the link between social reform and environmental protection. She pioneered slum improvement, anti-smoke exhibitions and helped protect many areas of London, especially Parliament Hill.

1839 — Tanquerel des Planches publishes study of 1,200 cases of lead poisoning, one of the most complete studies of an occupational disease to date. Workers lead dust or are exposed to fumes are much more affected than those who handle solid lead, he notes.

1839 — Formation of the Scottish SPCA. Circa 1850 the Scottish SPCA produced more than 100 glass photographic plates to teach inspectors how to investigate cruelty and neglect of horses. Long forgotten, the plates were recently rediscovered at the Scottish SPCA headquarters in Balerno. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1840 — Southwood Smith, member of the British Board of Health, formed The Health of Towns Association. A few years later Smith helps reformers in the US by lending support to the Great American Congresses for Hygiene Reform held in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston.

1840 — Louis Rene Villerme publishes the first major study of workers’ health in France, A Description of the Physical and Moral State of Workers Employed in Cotton, Linen, and Silk Mills.

1840 — Frances Trollope’s Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, is published. This popular and sentimental tale helped awaken Britain to the injustices of child labor in the factory system.

“Exactly at the bottom of the hill began a long, closely packed double row of miserable dwellings, crowded to excess by the population drawn together by the neighborhood factories. There was a squalid, untrimmed look about them all … an odor, which seemed compounded of a multitude of villainous smells, all reeking together into one, floated over them… My eye caught the little figures of a multitude of children, made distinctly visible, even by that dim light, by the strong relief in which their dark garments showed themselves against the snow. A few steps farther brought me in full view of the factory gates, and then I perceived considerably above two hundred of these miserable little victims to avarice all huddled together on the ground, and seemingly half buried in the drift that was blown against them. I stood still and gazed upon them — I knew full well what, and how great, was the terror [of severe beating by mill foremen] which had brought them there too soon, and in my heart of hearts I cursed the boasted manufacturing wealth of England, which … gives power, lawless and irresistible, to overwhelm and crush the land it pretends to fructify.”

1842 — Edwin Chadwick writes The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. Report is first scientific inquiry linking high rates of infectious disease and child mortality to grossly unsanitary conditions and polluted drinking water. For every person who died of old age or violence in Britain in the year 1839, the commission reports, eight died of infectious disease. See The Victorian Web for excellent documentation of the public health concerns from this era. Also, Chadwick noted a good deal of resistance to sanitary measures which is documented in the Peel Web, another excellent Victorian era history project on the Web.

1842 — Royal Commission on Employment of Children in the Mines reports “cruel slaving revolting to humanity,” The commission found women and children chained to carts and working 15-hour days. Historian Hodgkinson summed up the commission’s findings: “Brutality, cruelty, debauchery, obscenity and sex.” The subsequent Mines Act of 1842 prohibited all women and boys under age ten from working in the mines. Inspectors were not, at this time, allowed to go underground but they were supposed to inspect the medical condition of the miners.

1842 — English engineers lay out sewer system in Hamburg, Germany, and English system of house by house sewer lines is adopted elsewhere in Europe.

1842 — New York city physician John H. Griscom,, appointed inspector for the Board of Health, begins writing ‘The Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of New York City.” The report is among the first to outline the connection between poverty and disease. It especially condemned landlords who turned basements into “living graves for human beings.” Filth from overused facilities was another cause of disease. Like his predecessors in New York, he argued for the elimination of common nuisances and the worst slums. But he also wanted reform — universal sewer and water systems, regulations on housing cleanliness and density, and replacing politically appointed health wardens with medical experts empowered to make inspections and close down buildings. Griscom’s reforms were politically unacceptable, and he was not reappointed. His report was reissued in 1845. Burrows and Wallace’s book Gotham notes:

“Among Griscom’s many striking departures from conventional bourgeois wisdom was his refusal to blame the poor for their wretched housing. He knew that lack of fresh water and adequate sanitation made it impossible for residents to keep clean and pious homes… On the other hand, he didn’t blame the rich, as the reformers did. Rather he appealed to them to provide decent housing, not just as “a measure of humanity, of justice to the poor,’ but as a matter of self interest. Bad housing meant sick workers, and sick workers meant lower profits, higher relief outlays, and higher taxes… Griscom was convinced that such rational appeals would have weight because the problem seemed to stem from lack of understanding: ‘One half of the world does not know how the other half lives.'”– (Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham, A History of New York City to 1898, Oxford University Press, 1999 , p. 785.)  Reformer Jacob Riis would use the phrase “how the other half lives” for his expose in the Christmas edition of Scribners Magazine in 1889.

1843 — House of Commons Select Committee on the Smoke Nuisance recommends all manufacturers be removed to a distance of 5 to 6 miles from city center.

1843 — Prison reform movement in the United States initiated by Dorothea Dix

1843 — Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes the Cry of the Children:

“For oh” say the children “we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap —
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep
Our knees trumble sorely in the stooping–
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And undernath our heavy eyelids drooping,
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark underground —
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round …

1843 — Scottish Rights of Way Society formed to protect walking areas around the city of Edinburgh.

1844, Aug. 29  — Edward Carpenter born. A former priest and Cambridge fellow took the message of the simple life to heart and founded the Sheffield commune.

1844 — Formation of the New York State Association for the Preservation of Fish & Game, a distant ancestor of the National Wildlife Federation. In 1881 it hosted the massacre of 20,000 passenger pigeons–the last great flock netted in the wild–at a Coney Island fundraiser.

1845 — Friedrick Engels writes The Condition of the Working Class in England

“If anyone wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air — and such air — he can breathe, how little of civilization he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel [to Manchester, England]… The cottages are old, dirty and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts and in part without drains or pavement; masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions; the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia from these, and laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall factory chimneys.”

1845 — Griscom’s New York city sanitary report reissued (see 1842).

1845 — Massachusetts Sanitary Commission formed; survey of Boston slums shows alarmingly high infant and maternal mortality rates as well as many communicable diseases. A second report by Lemuel Shattuck in 1850 confirms findings. In 1869 a the first state board of health is established.

1845 — Mar. 18 — Johnny Appleseed (John Chaptman) dies at age 70 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.. The legendary but real man planted apple trees across Ohio and Indiana for nearly 50 years.

1845 — Irish Potato famine begins. Over 1.5 million people die of starvation and associated disease by 1849 and another million people emigrate from Ireland, mostly for America. The problem was not only the failure of the potato crop, but rather, the laws which encouraged English landowners to export grain back to England. Irish historians today regard the disaster as one of history’s great genocides.

“… The stronger nation snatched away from the weaker, the power of helping itself … The claim of the [Irish] nationalists to re-enter the management of their own affairs — since it was plain that the England could not manage them successfully — was treated as sedition… [And yet] no people are bound to starve while their soil produces food cultivated by their own hands… On the relief committees, doctors, clergymen and country gentlemen bore the burden of the work, but a multitude of the gentry stood apart, as if the transaction did not concern them. They were busy in transmitting the harvest to England, or clearing the population off their estates … or quartering their relations and dependents on the relief fund as overseers, and… obtaining grants for their own families of money designed for the suffering poor on their estates. The benevolence of the minority could not counterbalance these odious offenses, and deadly hatred was sown…” — Charles Gavan Duffy, Four Years of Irish History 1845-1849, (London: Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co. 1883), p. 356-357.

Irish journalist John Mitchel said at the time: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” Mitchel was exiled under the Treason Felony Act for this comment.

1846 — English corn laws repealed. The laws, first passed in 1815, put up a high tariff barrier to grain imports and were meant to tilt the economic balance towards the rural gentry and away from urban working classes. The policy was contrversial for years, but failed during the Irish Potato Famine, since cheap Irish corn (grain) was shipped to England while people starved in the Irish countryside.

1847 — Southwood Smith publishes An Address to the Working Classes of the United Kingdom on their Duty in the Present State of the Sanitary Question

1847 — Cholera attacks London again. Southwood Smith writes to the city’s workers:

“For every one of the lives of these 1,500 persons who have perished during the last quarter and who might have been saved by human agency, those are responsible whose proper office is to interfere and to stay the calamity — who have the power to save but will not use it. But their apathy is an additional reason why you should rouse yourselves and show that you will submit to this dreadful state of things no longer. Let a voice come from your streets, alleys, courts, workshops and houses that shall startle the ear of the public, and command the atention of the Legislature. “

1847 — Towns Improvement Clauses Act (UK) encourages paving, drainage, cleansing and lighting and also gives large towns the power to appoint full time medical officers. Subsequent City Sewers Act of 1848 led to London appointment of Sir John Simon (1816-1904).

1847 — John Phillips, surveyor of the Westminster Court of Sewers, reports to a Royal Commission:

There are hundreds, I may say thousands, of houses in this metropolis which have no drainage whatever, and the greater part of them have stinking, overflowing cesspools, and there are also hundreds of streets, courts and alleys that have no sewers; and how the drainage and filth are cleaned away and how the miserable inhabitants live in such places it is hard to tell… Morality, and the whole economy of domestic existence is outraged and deranged by so much suffering and misery.

George Perkins Marsh
George Perkins Marsh

1847 — Sept. 30 — US Congressman George Perkins Marsh of Vermont notes destructive impact of people on the land in a speech to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont. According to the Library of Congress: “This powerful address gave voice to ideas that would become a catalytic force in the movement to conserve America’s natural resources. Marsh recognized the human capacity for destruction of the environment and advocated better management of resources and active efforts toward restoration of the land–innovative ideas for the period.”  In 1864 he will publish Man and Nature: The Earth as Modified by Human Action.  According to the Library of Congress:

1847 — Gas-works Clauses Act 1847 passed by Parliament.  One of the first attempts to regulate the environmental impacts of industry, the act prohibited discharge of coal tar and other byproducts of manufactured gas works into streams and rivers.

1848 — The year 1848 holds the same type of symbolic significance in world history as, for example, 1968 or 1989, in that great revolutions in human thought and politics took place. Since this occurred mostly in Europe, it went more or less unnoticed in US history, although European progressives who came to the US had a major influence on history in the next two decades.   Several web sites are devoted to “The Spirit of 1848.”

1848 — American Medical Association formed with two main initial goals: license physicians and survey sanitary conditions across the U.S.

1848 — April 10 — Chartist movement brings two million signatures to London demanding political and social reforms.

1848 — Cholera epidemic kills 62,000 in Britain. The Times notes that the disease “is the best of all sanitary reformers — it overlooks no mistake and pardons no oversight.” (Markham).

1848 — May 7, Public Health Act is passed by a reluctant Parliament fearful of spread of cholera. National Board of Health is formed and leads local boards to regulate water supply, sewerage, offensive trades. Smoke abatement becomes a political responsibility of the health department. The board is a political failure, however (see 1854).

1848, Oct. 13  — Rudolf (Carl) Virchow, later famed for cell theory, founds the medical journal Medical Reform (Medicinische Reform), and writes “Report on the Typhus Epidemic in Upper Silesia.” Preserving health and preventing disease requires “full and unlimited democracy” and radical measures rather than “mere palliatives” This investigation of the troubles of mill workers of Silesia condemned unsanitary conditions there in the Prussian Reichstag, much to the discomfort of Bismark and other Prussian industrialists. Virchow famously says:

“Medicine is a social science and politics [is] nothing but medicine on a grand scale… Doctors are the natural advocates of the poor, and social problems are largely within their jurisdiction.” “

Later in life, Virchow will fight for improving the health and welfare service, meat inspections, and the first four urban hospitals in Berlin. He encourages water and sewage system development.

1848 — Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape architect, proposes creation of a 500 acre People’s Park in New York. By 1853 land was purchased and by 1857 a board of commissioners was appointed for what became known as Central Park.

1848 – Elizabeth Gaskill writes  Mary Barton: A tale of Manchester Life.  “Nobody, not even Charles Dickens, had gone as far looking at the grim reality of industrial misery.  The middle class wife of a Unitarian preacher, Gaskill took herself into the lower depths of the city, into the gin palaces and dark reeking alleys where skin and bones children played among the rats.” (Simon Schama)

We do not want dainties, we want bellyfuls. We do not want grand houses, we want a roof to cover us from the rain, and the snow and the storm. I am not alone to ask this. The helpless ones that cling to us in the keen wind ask us, why we brought them into the world to suffer.  — Elizabeth Gaskill in Mary Barton

1848 — Another revolution in France, Louis Philippe abdicates and workers rise up in Paris and found The Second Republic. A public health advisory committee is attached to the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce and establishes a network of local public health councils

1848 — Karl Marx and Frederick Engels publish The Communist Manifesto

1848 — Gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill on California’s American River.

1849 — U.S. Department of Interior established.

1849 — June —  Cholera kills 5,000 in New York City, leading to first serious calls for urban reform in U.S.  Many people thought cholera was God’s retribution for sin. Others wanted environmental reform, and worked to provide sewers and banish pigs from city streets. One roundup in 1849 pushed over 20,000 pigs north to the upper wards. Still, with over 200 slaughterhouses and over 375,000 animals slaughtered per year with only the most rudimentary sanitation, New York was a public health disaster waiting to happen.

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