Welcome to Middle Temple Library’s exhibition on Squalor to Sanitation

Introduction: From Squalor to Sanitation

This exhibition explores the impact of epidemics on public health law. From plagues to the present, the display will look at the way public officials manage the spread of disease, as they try to understand the causes of illness.

Uniquely placed near the epicentre of many of these historic pandemics, the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple observed the streets and sewers change around it- change implemented to improve public health and take London from squalor to sanitation.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection CC BY

Great Plague 1665-1666

“The Pestilence being a contagious distemper, it is one of the first principles that every family should abstain, as much as possible, from conversing with others. When a house is infected with the plague, we shut it up.”
-Scott, Narratives of two families exposed to the Great Plague of London, pg 6

The Great Plague of 1665-1666 began in the overcrowded parish of St. Giles in the Field. By the end of the epidemic, 68,596 deaths were officially recorded in London; although, the capital’s true figure is likely closer to 100,000. At the time, many believed in the miasma theory- disease spread from smelling the “bad air” released from waste and decomposing material, while others believed it was a punishment from God.

Those who were able to leave the city did, including King Charles II and his Court. The poor remained behind in cramped, unsanitary conditions, which exacerbated the spread.

The government introduced some measures to prevent the plague from spreading, including “shutting up” (quarantining) plague victims in their homes for 40 days, marking their home with a red cross and having it guarded by a watchman. Public gatherings were also banned during this time and fires were lit in the street ‘to correct the air’ affirming the belief breathing smoke was better than miasma.

Samuel Pepys; selected and edited by Robert Latham, The Illustrated Pepys, 1979

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) worked in the Navy and was a Member of Parliament. He was 26 years old in 1660, when he started keeping detailed observations in his now famous diary. His account of many historical events, including King Charles II’s coronation, the Great Plague and Great Fire of London, serves as an important primary source of London during a tulmultous decade.

“Today, I saw two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” written on them; which was a sad sight to me, as it was the first time I had seen this. It made me nervous.”
-Pepys’ Diary; 7th June 1665

Follow this link to read more of Pepys' Diary

Picture of Samuel Pepys courtesy of National Portrait Gallery CC BY

John Scott, Narratives of two families exposed to the Great Plague of London, A.D. 1665, 1832

John Scott was the vicar of North Ferriby and minister of St. Mary’s, Hull in the early 19th century. The vicar purchased a 1722 publication titled: Due Preparations for the Plague, as Well for Soul as Body from a London book stall around the late 18th century.

Divided into two parts, the book begins with an anonymous account of a family of seven quarantined in the parish of St. Albans, on Wood Street in London during the time of the Great Plague in 1665. The second narrative of Due Preparations for the Plague follows a series of conversations amongst another family as they focus on spiritual preparation and ‘the necessity of living prepared for death and eternity’ during the plague.

Deeply moved by the stories, Scott published this abridged version of the book, under the title, Narratives of two families exposed of the Great Plague of London, writing “to young persons, in particular, I dare promise that it will afford much interesting information; while I hope it may at the same time, by the blessing God, make very salutary impressions on their heart.”

The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, Minutes of Parliament, 13th June 1665

The Inn cancelled the Summer Reading and dissolved commons on Tuesday, 13th June 1665 in response to the rise in plague cases. The gates and passages between Middle and Inner Temple were ordered to be ‘made up’.

The Inn’s Parliament reconvened the following February once the royal court returned to London.

Great Fire of London, 1666

On 2nd September 1666, a fire broke out in a bakery on Pudding Lane in London. The preceding summer was hot, dry and the strong winds of that night, combined with the densely packed timber buildings of the city, fuelled the fire and it spread quickly. It was brought under control 4 days later, but not before it destroyed over 13,000 homes, 87 churches and left 70,000 homeless.

“A sad sight to see how the River looks: no houses nor church near it, to the Temple, where it stopped.”
-Pepys’ Diary 6th September 1666

The fire reached the Inns of Court, burning through Kings Bench Walk, stopping short of Middle Temple, though it did destroy Lamb Building. In the fire’s aftermath, an Act for rebuilding the City of London imposed better building regulations- homes were constructed of brick and stone, and to improve overcrowding upper levels were no longer permitted to jut out over the lower floors.

It has also been suggested the fire helped “cleanse” the city of the plague, killing the rats and fleas carrying the disease; although, records show deaths continued to be recorded following the fire, and while devastating, a large portion of the city still remained untouched by fire.

The two artists’ depictions of London illustrate the area of the city affected by the fire. The panorama of London, dated 1616, is an engraving by Claes Visscher (1586-1652) a Dutch painter and draughtsman. St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Globe Theatre are visible either side of the River Thames.
In contrast, the Czech artist Wenceslaus Hollar's (1607-1677) illustration depicts the Great Fire raging across the north bank of the Thames.

Follow this link to see more of Wenceslaus Hollar's panoramas of London

Thomas Pennant, Of London, 1790

Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) was a writer, antiquarian and naturalist; British Zoology and The History of Quadrupeds, being among his acclaimed publications on natural history. He also travelled throughout the British Isles and published an observational account, Of London, in 1790. The work traces the capital both chronologically and geographically, and includes this passage on the benefits resulting from the Great Fire of London.

“Great as this calamity [Great Fire] was, yet it proved the providential cause of putting a stop to one of a far more tremendous nature. The plague, which, for a series of ages, had, with very short intervals, visited our capital in its most dreadful forms, never appeared there again after the rebuilding of the city in a more open and airy manner, which removed several nuisances; which, if not the actual origin of a plague, was assuredly one great pabulum, when it seized our streets.”
-Pennant, Of London, pg 303

Image of Pennant © National Portrait Gallery CC BY

Industrial Revolution, 1733 – 1913

During the industrial revolution the country moved from an agrarian society to one focused on manufacturing and industry. The nation was slowly becoming wealthier, and huge migrations of people flocked to the city for better wages. Between 1800 and 1850 London’s population doubled to over 2.5 million people.

Legislation for better infrastructure came into force during this period, easing congestion and allowing for trade and business. In 1761, seven ancient gates of London (Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate, and Ludgate) were removed in order to improve circulation of traffic in the city.

Despite this progress and the building improvements following the Great Fire, the city could not cope with the rapid growth, and it was difficult to keep it clean. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in London slums led to outbreaks of cholera, typhus, and influenza.

At the time, the government adopted a laissez-faire approach to governing, not wanting to interfere with the economy. Also, any large scale public health improvements would be very expensive to implement.

Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890)

Sir Edwin Chadwick was a barrister and social reformer. A member of Inner Temple, he moved in the same circles as other philosophical radicals of the time, working as Jeremy Bentham’s secretary until Bentham passed away in 1832.

Chadwick had a keen interest in the various social problems of London, but his views were quite controversial. He favoured centralised, mandatory practices to assist the poor.

In 1831, when doctors were confounded by the spread of cholera, the government ordered an enquiry and Chadwick’s investigation culminated in a Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Poor. His findings demonstrated a correlation between unsanitary living conditions and high mortality rates. The report also made recommendations to the government to improve the situation.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection CC BY

Sir Edwin Chadwick, Report to Her Majesty's principal secretary of state for the Home Department from the Poor Law Commissioners, on an inquiry into the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain; with appendices. Presented to both Houses of Parliament, by command of Her Majesty, July, 1842

“I am constantly shocked almost beyond endurance at the filth and misery in which a large part of our population are permitted to drag on a diseased and miserable existence.”
-1842 Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, pg 45

Edwin Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Poor would make clear the link between unsanitary living conditions and the spread of disease. His report pointed out the contribution of damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings, that disease, wherever its attacks are frequent, is always found in connexion with the physical circumstances above specified.

The report made clear that sanitation was key to controlling disease and defective supply of water would hinder cleanliness. Chadwick recommended government intervention to provide clean water and drainage systems. The Poor Law Commission for whom Chadwick worked did not take kindly to the report and distanced themselves from it. Still, Chadwick’s findings would contribute towards the Public Health Act of 1848, which would provide local authorities a framework within which they could administrate better public health. The report itself would be seen as a major contribution to social reform politics.

Follow this link to see Chadwick's report

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection Public Domain

Hansard 1848, Public Health debate

Edwin Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain recommended improving drainage and sewers, as well as providing clean drinking water. The report also said a medical officer should be appointed for each town.

There was little government action immediately following the report; public officials cited concerns over costs and raising rates on citizens as reasons not to fund any large infrastructure projects. It was not until a devastating outbreak of cholera in Wales in 1848 that the Public Health Bill was introduced in Parliament.

As the Public Health Bill was debated in Parliament there were ongoing concerns raised about the centralisation of power, which was incongruous to the laissez-faire philosophy of government at the time.

“Centralisation dissolved the bonds of society; and the petitioners against this measure were aware of that fact. All the petitioners against this Bill for so-called sanitary reform, expressed themselves opposed to it, because it was a measure of centralisation. The fact was, centralisation was usurpation.”
-Colonel Sibthorp of Lincoln, Hansard 1848 Vol. 98 Col. 713

The Statutes of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, 1849

The Public Health Act 1848 received Royal Assent on 31st August 1848. The Act established a Central Board of Health, with the responsibility of improving living conditions in ‘towns and populous places’ in England and Wales by establishing local boards of health.

The boards of health were charged with providing clean water, sewerage, paving and rubbish collection, but with little funding and enforcement powers the Act was ineffective in elevating the sanitary conditions. Despite this, the Act is still regarded as an important shift in societal thinking about the government’s role in ensuring a standard of health.

Robert Callis, The reading of that famous and learned gentleman, Robert Callis Esq; sergeant at law, upon the statute of 23 H.8. Cap. 5. of sewers: as it was delivered by him at Grays-Inn, in August, 1622, 1824

Robert Callis: ‘we must conceive that these laws of Sewers are of great and urgent necessity and use for the good of the whole Commonwealth of the Realm.’\ -Callis, Reading on the Law of Sewers, pg 118-119

Robert Callis was a barrister and commissioner of sewers for the county of Lincolnshire. In 1622 at Gray’s Inn, he delivered his famous reading of an older statute- the Bill of Sewers, passing during the time of Henry VIII in 1531.

Sewers during Henry VIII’s time referred to any watercourse used to drain land, nothing to do with removing urban waste. This early piece of legislation strengthened the power of the commissioners of sewers, in charge of keeping the tunnels in their district in good repair. There were eight different groups of commissioners; unfortunately, with no uniform oversight there was no common maintenance standard nor was there a map indicating the location of the city’s sewers.

This haphazard sewer management continued into the 19th century. At this time, human waste was dumped into brick-lined cesspits, emptied by the ‘night-soil men,’ who took the waste and sold it to nearby farms as fertilizer. Although wealthier families had indoor, flushing toilets, the sewage from London properties was dumped directly into the River Thames.

Cholera Outbreaks, 1832, 1849 and 1854

Three major outbreaks of cholera occurred in the 19th century. Beginning in 1831, cholera arrived on the shores of England as British troops returned from the Indian sub-continent to Europe.

Cholera was a frightening and confounding disease with a long list of ghastly symptoms, which included vomiting, diarrhoea, and dehydration. Doctors had little or no experience of the disease, which limited their ability to understand it or stop its transmission. Referred to as Asiatic cholera, the disease was presented as a foreign invasion.

A major outbreak of cholera occurred in Soho, London, in August 1854- killing over 600 within a month. This was the third cholera outbreak in London, having previously occurred in 1832 and 1849.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection CC BY

John Snow (1813-1858)

John Snow is considered a pioneer of epidemiology. As a medical practitioner, he was interested in many areas of medicine, such as anaesthesia and respiratory diseases, but his most well-known work is the research he carried out during an outbreak of cholera in Soho, 1854.

Unlike many at the time, he did not believe in the miasma theory, which posited disease spread through noxious air. During the Soho outbreak, he proved contaminated water was a likely spreader of the disease, after findings revealed a high mortality rate near a leaking cesspit that was affecting the local water supply.

John Snow, Map from a Report on the cholera outbreak in the Parish of St. James, Westminster, during the autumn of 1854, 1855

John Snow was a resident of Soho during the cholera outbreak of 1854. His proximity to the epidemic provided an opportunity to triangulate the source of the spread. He mapped the deaths caused by the disease until a pattern formed pointing towards the Broad Street (now Broadwick) pump.

Snow convinced local authorities the pump was the source of infection and had the handle removed to stop locals from accessing the water supply. The cause of the spread was sewage leaking into the water supply via a local cesspit.

Snow’s work is a pioneering contribution to epidemiology and is still used as a case study in the field.

Follow this link to see John Snow's report

Map courtesy of the Wellcome Collection Public Domain

The Great Stink, 1858

After decades of treating the River Thames as an open sewer, the problem became impossible to ignore in the summer of 1858.

A hot summer, combined with raw sewage from the river produced a putrid smell. The Houses of Parliament soaked the curtains in chloride of lime to sequester the stench. Parliament could no longer maintain a laisse-faire approach to public health.

In just 18 days, a bill was passed providing money to construct a massive new sewer scheme for London, and build an Embankment along the Thames to improve the flow of water and of traffic.

“The Metropolitan Board shall cause to be commenced as soon as may be after the passing of the Act and to be carried on and completed with all convenient speed according to such plan as to them may seem proper the necessary Sewers and Works for the Improvement of the Main Drainage of the Metropolis, and for preventing as far as may be practicable, the sewage of the Metropolis from passing into the River Thames within the Metropolis.”
-Metropolis Local Management Amendment Act, 1855

Follow this link to view Hansard debate of this Amendment Act

Memorandum to the Under-Treasurer requesting chloride of lime for the Library during the Great Stink, 25 June 1858

On 25 June, a memorandum was sent to the Under-Treasurer reporting that the Librarian was, 'in common with the gentlemen frequenting the Library, greatly annoyed by the offensive state of the Thames water', and requesting that chloride of lime be placed in the Library.

Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891)

Sir Joseph Bazalgette was the civil engineer charged with developing London’s new drainage system. Work on the ambitious project began in 1859, and the project was complete by 1875. The new sewers drastically improved Londoners’ health and much of the system is still in use today. It also physically changed the appearance of riverside London and the River Thames.

150 years later Bazalgette’s sewers are no longer sufficient to adequately carry the sewage that leaves the city and once again, the Thames River is the recipient of overflow. A private enterprise project, Tideway, is now charged with building a 25km super sewer under the capital, creating seven new embankment spaces, including one to be named the Bazalgette Embankment.

London in 1850. The Temple

Wood engraving of the Temple in 1850 from the Thames. Includes Middle Temple Hall, Temple Gardens, Crown Office Row, New Paper Buildings and Kings Bench Walk. An annotation in the bottom right of the secondary support reads 'The London Journal 1850'.

This image illustrates the River Thames prior to the construction of Bazalgette’s sewer.

'Progress of the Thames Embankment at the Temple Gardens', wood-engraving, 1865

Wood engraving of the progress of the Thames Embankment works at Temple Gardens

R.C. Hulme' is printed in the bottom left of the image and 'M. Jackson' is printed in the bottom right of the image. From 'The Illustrated London News', 4 February 1865, p.112.

Depicts the sewer’s progress. The former Middle Temple Library is in view on the right hand side of the picture.

Letters between Metropolitan Board of Works and the Inn, 1868-1870

A new embankment was developed along the North Bank of the River Thames to cover sewerage and a new underground railway. The Thames Embankment Act 1862 allowed for the development of the land, which included property belonging to the Inns. The Act reserved part of the bank for the use of members of the Inner and Middle Temple. It also required the Metropolitan Board of Works to construct a railing between the Embankment Roadway and Temple Lands.

A series of four letters between the Metropolitan Board of Works and the Inn are on display, discussing the design of the railing, as well as the public footpath created.

Letter dated 12th May 1868: Joseph Bazalgette writing to the Inn’s Treasure, John Monk, asking for approval of a design for a fence between the Embankment roadway and the Temple lands.

Letter dated 4th August 1868: Joseph Bazalgette writing to the Treasurer, enquiring about the Thames Embankment footway for public use through Middle Temple Land, and proposing a meeting on the subject.

Letter dated 28th April 1870: As work on the sewer nears completion, Joseph Bazalgette writes a follow-up letter to the Rt Hon Sir Robert Joseph Phillimore, Inn Treasure, requesting a decision on the matter, raised two years prior, of the design of the fence to be constructed between Embankment roadway and the Temple Lands.

Letter dated 3rd May 1870: Burton Yeates & Hart and Park Nelson, representing the Inner and Middle Temples, write to Joseph Bazalgette, with the opinions of the two Benches on his design for a fence, expressing concern that boys may be able to climb over, and requesting a different design including an intermediate 'dog rail'.

In 2022, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry commenced. The focus of the independent public inquiry is to examine the government’s response and preparations in managing the Coronavirus pandemic. It will take some time before the complete findings of this report are published. For now, we can review previous pandemics to see the measures the government has taken in the past.