No sanitary services legislation existed in 1800.  Systems of sewers and drains were rare. Houses might have a cesspool below the kitchen floor or some form of onsite septic tank. Even large country houses commonly had no water closet at all.

At common law, a nuisance which was  injurious to health was indictable. A person may be fined for accumulation of sewage on his land although prosecutions may rarely have occurred.

Early Byelaws made by corporations prohibited the deposit of filth and rubbish and required cleaning of gutters and such rudimentary cesspools  etc. as existed.

Powers for Towns

Modern public health legislation commenced by applications by townships and districts to Parliament for powers to undertake functions in their areas.  Slowly more districts followed and  eventually, general legislation passed parliament.  At first legislation was permissive and ultimately became mandatory.

As early as reign of George II, larger towns had  powers to exercise functions in relation to (gas) lighting, paving, cleansing and improving the district.  They did not generally contain provisions for drainage of streets or houses.  Later Acts recognized the importance of  sanitary regulation and it provided for removal of nuisances and have measures to combat sanitary problems.

In many cases, the legislation was not in fact implemented. In major cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow, numerous dwellings and streets were in breach of legislation which ostensibly applied.

General Town Powers

The Lightning and Watching Act and the Lighting of Towns (Ireland) Act 1833 and 1828 respectively was a move towards general legislation.  The Lighting and Watching Act provided for lighting and watching in parishes. Many parishes could appoint inspectors who might contract the work.  Penalties were imposed for contaminating water by gas.  The Act was not mandatory.  It may be adopted by parishes if the vestry duly convened for the purpose.

The Towns Improvement Clauses Act 1847, The Town Police Clauses Act, the Water Clauses Act and the Gas Clauses Act each passed in 1847 consolidated and generalized provisions of local Acts for various purposes.  They provided model clauses which could be adopted into local Acts.  They were adopted into numerous local pieces of legislation by a short form procedure.

Districts were formed known as Improvement Act Districts which were subject to Improvement Commissioners.  Most of these ultimately merged into the sanitary authorities.

The Town Improvements Clause Act 1847, which was adopted in many towns, created the Officer of Health and Inspector of Nuisances.  This allowed local authorities to appoint these officers if they thought appropriate.


In 1855, each vestry and District Board in the metropolis was empowered to appoint a Medical Officer of Health and Inspector of Nuisances.  This became national law under the Public Health Act 1875 when it was the duty of every sanitary authority to appoint such officer.  The legislation was enacted in Ireland as The Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878. See the separate chapters on this legislation.

Cholera had been virulent in England in 1832 and again 1847 and 1848.  The first English Public Health Act of 1848 was the foundation stone of sanitary law in England. It was intended largely for large towns and populated places but did not apply to the metropolis.  It created a general Board of Health which was empowered to appoint inspectors to superintend the act.

Generally, a local Board of Health could be created on the initiative of ratepayers.  However, where mortality was high, the General Board of Health might act on its own relation.

The Town Council was deemed the local Board in municipal boroughs.  In other places, the Board was elected by ratepayers.  It had power to construct and manage sewers, drains, wells, waters.  It had powers to deal with water refuse; closets; slaughter-houses; to regulate offensive trades; to remove nuisances; protect water-works from pollution; pave streets; regulate dwellings and common lodging-houses; provide burial and recreation grounds; and supplied public baths with wholesome water. Powers were given to justices to summarily order removal of nuisances.

The Public Health Act 1875 repealed the 1849 Act and 29 later Acts. It re-enacted and consolidated them.  It provides the sanitary code for England outside of the metropolis.

The Notification of Infectious Diseases Act, 1889, made it a duty of the relatives of persons suffering from infectious disease and of his medical attendants and occupiers of the houses to give notice to the Medical Officer of Health for the district.  The Act was later made compulsory in 1899 but had been adopted by the majority of districts.

The public health legislations practically wiped out typhus.  Vaccination greatly reduced infectious diseases further.  The Vaccination Act 1898 and earlier legislation required managing vaccination, deaths from smallpox, scarlet fever reduced dramatically in the last 20 years of the century.


At common law, every person is entitled to be buried in the churchyard of the established church unless he is unbaptized, excommunicated or has committed suicide.  This applied to all persons whether dissenters or not.

By two pieces of legislation 1808 and 1886, all bodies washed up must be buried by church wardens and overseers in the parish in which they are found at the expense of that parish.

As the population  increased, the parish churchyard become inadequate to meet the requirements.  In the late 18th century, commercial undertakings developed to undertake burials.  The Cemetery Clauses Acts 1847 provides a series of model clauses for adoption into model local Acts by private cemetery commissioners.

Burial under any church was forbidden by public health legislation in 1848, save by special leave. The Privy Council was given powers to close burial grounds within the metropolis for the protection of public health. The Cemetery Clauses Act was incorporated into the Public Health Acts in 1879 in England. Sanitary authorities were empowered to maintain cemeteries within their districts and exercise all the functions of the Cemetery Clauses Act.

The Local Government Board was given power to compel a District Council to provide a cemetery where urgently required either by the existing cemetery being full or where there were public health issues arose.

The Burial Acts 1852 to 1885 enabled parish districts and townships to provide  burial grounds.  These were permissive Acts.  New local authorities’ style Burial Boards were constituted with between three and nine members elected by the vestry.   A Town Council could under certain circumstances acquire the powers of a Burial Board and provide a burial ground for its own district within urban areas but not rural areas. Many of the distinctions between burial grounds and cemeteries were removed by the Burials Act 1900 in England and Wales.


The British and Foreign School Society was founded in 1808 and the National Society in 1811.  They were initially supported by voluntary subscriptions and were non-sectarian in the former case, the latter belonging to the Church of England.

In 1834, schools established by these agencies finally received grants from government.  At the same time, an attempt was made to create an Education Department.  A Committee of the Privy Council was appointed to superintend spending of money by parliament for the purpose of public education. The Committee of the Council appointed Inspectors to visit schools and to report on their efficiency.  In 1847, 46 grants were made for the first time to training colleges for teachers.

Public elementary education was initiated in 1870.  At that stage over a million children in England were receiving no education at all. The Elementary Education Act 1870 established the duty of the State to provide school accommodation wherever private facilities and institutions did not suffice.  The whole country was divided into school districts with the metropolis as a single district.

Every borough was a school district.  Every parish outside the metropolis or in a borough was also a school district. There must be a School Board or a School Attendance Committee for every school district. The Board must be elected in districts where the elementary education is inadequate.

Ratepayers might  choose to have a School Board where education was insufficient if they wished.  If they did not so wish, the Council or Board of Guardians must appoint between six and 12 members to be School Attendance Committee to enforce attendance in school.

The Elementary Education Act 1876 made it the duty of every parent to ensure that his child received efficient elementary education.  Children were prohibited from employments which interfered with education.  Further steps have been taken by legislation passed in 1880, 1893 1899 and 1900 so that by the turn of the century, no child could be employed under the age of 12 in a way that prevents regular attendance at school.

Children between 12 and 14 could be excluded from school attendance either wholly or partly provided they had reached certain standard of education fixed by bylaw.  In most parts of the country a child over 12 may obtain partial exemption and may work half time in a factory on workshop if he has reached fifth standard or is more than five years registered, 350 attendances for five years in not more than two schools during each year. Stricter rules applied in the metropolis.  Children between 12 and 14 were obliged to reach the seventh standard.

Legislation in 1893 required attendance at school by blind and deaf children until they were 16.  Provision was made in 1899 for education of epileptic children.

At the turn of the century, the standards required depended on the relevant byelaws. It meant reading, writing and arithmetic but laterally a good deal more. If the local authority chose it could spend money in teaching other subjects provided, they were included in the Code issued annually by the Board of Education.



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