BRITAIN’S SHARP FALL IN MORTALITY 1850-1914: New study of the impact of sanitary improvements

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Date:
31 Mar 2016

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During the second half of the nineteenth century, the rate of mortality in Britain declined quite sharply. Research by Bernard Harris and Andrew Hinde, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge, examines the role played by loans contracted by urban local authorities for public works and other sanitary purposes. Their study also compares the chronology of these loans with the pattern of mortality decline from different diseases.

Many of the investments that took place during the Victorian era have continued to shape the environment of urban Britain, and the issues examined in this study are directly relevant today’s debates about the role of local authorities, the value of public investment and the underlying causes of long-term improvements in health and wellbeing.

The late Victorian decline in Britain’s mortality rate began among children and then continued throughout different age groups. Although the infant mortality rate (the death rate among children below the age of one) remained stubbornly high until the end of the century, these changes began to have a significant effect on the population’s average life expectancy at birth. This figure rose from around 40 years in the middle years of the nineteenth century to more than 50 years on the eve of the First World War.

Over the course of the last 60 years, there has been a continuing and vigorous debate over the reasons for this advance. Many writers used to argue that increases in life expectancy were caused by improvements in medicine, but this idea was challenged forcefully during the 1950s and 1960s, when the medical writer, Thomas McKeown, began to investigate what he eventually called The modern rise of population.

But McKeown’s own views have also been hotly debated. Whereas he argued that the primary (though not the only) cause of mortality change was an improvement in diet and living standards, other writers have placed much greater emphasis on the role played by sanitary reform and improvements in the water supply.

Despite the long-running nature of this debate, there have been relatively few attempts to quantify the extent of sanitary improvements or their impact on mortality change. This study attempts to address this shortfall by exploring the value of the loans contracted by urban local authorities for public works and other sanitary purposes. The authors also attempt to compare the chronology of these loans with the pattern of mortality decline from different diseases.

ENDS

Public works loans, social intervention and mortality change in England and Wales, 1850-1914

Bernard Harris, School of Social Work and Social Policy, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

Email: Bernard.harris@strath.ac.uk 

Andrew Hinde, Department of Social Statistics, University of Southampton

Email: prahinde@aol.com

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