WATERWORKS IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN: Local government control improved public health

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29 Mar 2016

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Nearly one third of Britain’s more than 300 privately built waterworks were municipalised during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Research by Nicola Tynan and colleagues, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge, asks why and explores the consequences for public health.

Their study finds that towns with increased rates of typhoid mortality were more likely to take control of private waterworks and that municipalisation improved public health. Deaths from typhoid fever fell by 19% in the years following local government control.

These gains from municipalisation were concentrated in older waterworks, which were likely to have required large capital investments. Because public versus private control of waterworks has become quite controversial in recent years, exploring the effects of municipalisation in Victorian Britain can help us better understand why private ownership works well in some institutional context but not others.

Prior to 1860, nearly 70% of waterworks in England and Wales were privately built. By 1910, 63% of waterworks were under local government control. While local government acquisition was dictated by the preferences and concerns of local voters and politicians, rates of municipalisation increased soon after major pieces of legislation, such as the Public Health Act of 1875 and Local Government Act of 1894.

Controlling for trends in fatality rates, local government acquisition reduced typhoid fatality rates by 19% between 1869 and 1907.

Privately built waterworks that were municipalised tended to be older and served larger towns and cities in districts with faster growing populations, while waterworks that remained private or were publically built tended to be newer and serve smaller towns.

Towns that municipalised their waterworks likely did so in response to a deteriorating disease environment. The researchers find that a 1% increase in the average typhoid fatality rate over a five-year period increases the likelihood of municipal purchase during the next five years by 2%.

This suggests that a subset of companies with older infrastructure underinvested in disease prevention, possibly because they were credit constrained, and that local disease environments improved sharply once those companies were municipalised.

Did voters and local politicians panic or exploit an extreme typhoid epidemic to take control of private assets? In other words, was the improved disease environment simply a return to prior, normal rates of typhoid fatality? The answer of these researchers is no.

Excluding a town’s five largest epidemics has little impact on the results: typhoid fatality fell by 16% following municipalisation. Even though towns were more likely to support municipalisation after experiencing increases in typhoid fatalities, these were responses to longer-term concerns about deteriorating public health.


‘Who should own and control urban water systems? Disease and the municipalization of private waterworks in 19th century England’ 

Brian Beach, College of William and Mary

Werner Troesken, University of Pittsburgh

Nicola Tynan, Dickinson College – presenting co-author: tynann@dickinson.edu

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