An editorial in The Times of London in 1854 read: “We would rather risk cholera and other diseases than be healthy by being bullied. There is nothing like being washed against our will, or having someone sweep the floor and his walls Whitewashed, his pet poop pile cleaned up, or his thatched cottage forced to give way to slate, all at the command of some sort of hygiene bomb.”
As if to remind us that the extreme politicization of public health issues is not unique to the 21st century, an excerpt from a 170-year-old editorial in The Times of London argues against being “health-bullyed” by “authoritarian” government agencies. Enthusiastic new audiences on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The viral quote includes excerpts from a lengthy opinion article in The Times of August 1, 1854, discussing the Public Health Act of 1848 and the General Councilor of Sanitation Public health reforms implemented by Devin Chadwick, in the wake of the cholera pandemic:
We would rather risk cholera and other diseases than be bullied and be healthy. There is nothing more annoying than being cleaned against your will, or being swept floors, painted walls, cleared of pet poop piles, or forced to give way to slate thatched huts, all within some sort of hygiene bomb .
As the excerpt suggests, The New York Times does not support the Public Health Act, public health reform, or Chadwick. Its editors argue that central government has no right to “bully” public health (note that the term “bombailiff” or “bumbailiff” is a mockery of someone who hunts down and arrests debtors).
Here is a longer excerpt from an 1854 editorial celebrating the dissolution and reorganization of the Sanitary Board (Chadwick would be replaced):
If there is such a thing as political certainty among us, it is that there cannot be any despotism in this country. British nature abhors absolute power, whether in the form of a monarch, bishop, council, chamber of commerce, committee, or even parliament. The Sanitation Service is down. After six years of erratic growth, varying between overdevelopment and sudden stagnation, it eventually withered like an exotic that was not adapted to this soil or climate. All of us claim the right to change our doctors, to throw away their medicines when we get tired of them, or to not use them at all when we feel okay. This country is just a collection of all of us, equally unwilling to put up with a medical tyrant. Esculapius and Chiron, deposed in the form of Mr. Chadwick and Dr. Southwood Smith, we would rather risk cholera and other diseases than be bullied to health. Lord Seymour liberated us from this strange new territory. He was William Tell who overthrew Sanitary Gessler. The action includes a forceful and humorous history of the board. Its mandate is twofold – introducing sanitary measures and enforcing the Public Health Act. Unfortunately, the ruling genius is too bland when it comes to enforcing the latter’s difficult and delicate trust. Inspectors everywhere are supposed to do their “spiritual checks” as gently as possible, but they are arbitrary, insulting, and expensive. They go into houses and manufactures, as an improved English landlord might go into an Irish cottage, and insist on alterations contrary to the habit or pride of the master and occupants. There is nothing more hated than being swept against one’s will, or someone sweeping his floors, painting his walls, cleaning out his pet poop, or having his thatch house forced to give way to slate, all of which It was Bomb Deacon on some kind of hygienic order.
Chadwick was the author of a large, self-funded study published in 1842 called “A Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the English Working Population”. According to Chadwick’s profile on the website of the Health Foundation, the UK’s private healthcare reform organisation, he has pushed for renewal of the nation’s health infrastructure:
Chadwick found a link between poor living standards and the spread and progression of disease. A leading proponent of sanitation reform, he suggested the government should intervene to provide clean water, improve drainage and empower local councils to clean up rubbish from homes and streets.
To convince the government to take action, Chadwick argued that poor and sick labor endured poor conditions that prevented them from working efficiently.
The article cites the New York Times editorial as evidence of the public’s “aversion to high levels of interference in public health affairs.” Furthermore, “Chadwick’s challenging personality and strong support for centralized administration and government intervention made him many enemies in Parliament.”
There is also a general consensus that the Public Health Act and boards of health have largely failed in their mission of positive change, although not everyone agrees that this is because the program relies too heavily on centralized authority. According to the UK Parliament website today, its main limitation is that it is not focused enough:
The act created a central board of health with limited powers and no funding. Those boroughs that have incorporated corporations, such as Sunderland, will be responsible for drainage, water supply, pollution removal and road paving. Loans are available for public health infrastructure that can be repaid from interest rates. If the death rate is higher than 23 per 1000, local health boards must be established.
The main limitation of the bill is that it provides a framework that can be used by local authorities but does not mandate action.
With the passage of the Public Health Act 1875, Parliament sought to right the mistakes of earlier legislation, partly by making local councils responsible for health and sanitation.
Bum Bailiff (Grose 1811 dictionary). https://words.fromoldbooks.org/Grose-VulgarTongue/b/bum-bailiff.html. Accessed January 11, 2023.
“Editorials from the Times.” The Times, 1 August 1854, p. 8. newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/116195658/the-times/.
“A report on the sanitary conditions of the UK working population”. Policy Navigator, https://navigator.health.org.uk/theme/report-sanitary-conditions-laboring-population-great-britain. Accessed January 11, 2023.
“The Public Health Act 1848.” British Parliament, https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/towncountry/towns/tyne-and-wear-case-study/about-the-group/public -administration/the-1848-Public Health Act/.
“Public Health Act”. Milford History, https://www.milfordhistory.org.uk/content/local-history/history/healthcare/public-health-act. Accessed January 11, 2023.