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Water, sanitation and health in the first industrial society: Britain 1780 – 1930

Water, sanitation and health in the first industrial society: Britain 1780 – 1930


Mortality of cholera

Farr, W. 1852. Report on the mortality of cholera in England, 1848-40.

This project will provide the first long-run account of the relationships between urbanisation and mortality from faecal-oral diseases in Britain during the transition to modern levels of urbanisation.

Britain was the world's first industrial society and pioneered the development of new water supply and sanitary technologies, characteristics that have given it an archetypal status in the history of public health and WaSH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) interventions. However, the impact of these measures on Britain's mortality decline remains contested. We therefore seek to reconceptualise this history by testing three widespread and influential assumptions:

  • that mortality from sanitation-related diseases worsened during the period of most rapid industrialisation and urbanisation (c.1820-1850)
  • that local efforts to improve sanitary conditions had little effect on these mortality rates before the 1870s
  • that increased spending on WaSH projects after c.1870 was responsible for large falls in mortality from faecal-oral diseases, including infant diarrhoea.

We aim to challenge these assumptions by:

  • taking a longer view of the history of both sanitary intervention and mortality change to identify the effects of early as well as late WaSH initiatives
  • combining more precise measures of specific WaSH investments with high-resolution measures of age- and cause-specific mortality to identify specific intervention-disease associations
  • undertaking a detailed analysis of the processes of sanitary reform in different areas in order to better understand the relationships between sanitary intervention and mortality change
  • comparing changes in mortality in urban and rural areas to shed new light on the decline mortality in both types of area
  • comparing English and Welsh with Scottish towns, for which superior mortality data sources are available
  • investigating the reasons for the later onset of the decline in infant diarrhoeal mortality and the determinants of mortality change after 1911.

Girl at a wellOur main impact-related objectives are:

  • to contribute to contemporary debates regarding the efficacy of WaSH interventions and alternatives to water-based faecal disposal
  • to provide publicly-available historical mortality time series
  • to produce teaching materials for Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 (England and Wales) and Third/Fourth Level and Senior Phase (Scotland).

Banner image credits: Thirsty (1883) by M.A. Jameson (1851-1919), photo credit Brampton Museum CC BY-NC licence; Gray, S.M., (1894) Proposed plan for a sewerage system and for the disposal of the sewage of the city of Providence (Providence, Providence Press); Craig Goch dam © Chris Downer,, CC BY-SA 2.0

Image: Girl at a well, by HJY King (1855-1924). Photo credit Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston.