Pollution during the Industrial Revolution

Peter Clark, historian of European cities, implies that every person, no matter what class they were in, had been directly affected by the industrial revolution.  According to Clark, “although the better off classes lived in larger housing and had refinery…[they] could not avoid the pollution from factories, overpopulation, and lack of sanitation.” 1   On this page we will be analyzing sources from Britain that go over some of those unavoidable characteristics. In the end you should be able to generally answer the following question:

How did major rivers during the industrial revolution become polluted and what effect did it have on urban communities?

Why did people began to move to the city in the nineteenth century?  Prior to the industrial revolution individuals typically lived rurally and worked nearby in agriculture or had a skilled-trade. As technology advanced, farms were able to be sustained with less manpower and consumable products could now be made on a massive scale, leaving many men, women, and children jobless. Unable to make a living, many individuals left their small towns and flocked to industrial cities. 2  

According to Lynn Hunt, “the population of such new industrial cities such as Manchester and Leeds increased 40 percent in the 1820s alone.” Many health and social problems erupted due to the influx of people in major cities. 3  During this time, methods for the disposal of human and animal wastes were primitive. 4  Some towns were equipped with drainage systems early on but they did not improve sanitation. In the town of Bath, it is reported that they were poorly constructed and often caused the streets to flood with waste during inclement weather.  This problem eventually led to the implementation of the Bath Act in 1757, a law that required all buildings in Bath erected from 1758 onward to be equipped with downpipes that brought the water from the rooftop to the ground in order to make the drainage system work more effectively and reduce flooding of sewage into the streets due to heavy rainfall. The sewer drains in Bath also had to be improved to meet certain standards in order to resolve this problem. The flooding persisted in the nineteenth century because of overhead spouts on some older housing complexes that continued to dump waste into the streets and due to recurring blockages of the sewer systems. 5 

"The Silent Highwayman" (1858). Source: Punch Magazine Volume 35, page 137; 10 July 1858
“The Silent Highwayman” (1858). Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up, during the Great Stink. Original Source: Punch Magazine Volume 35, page 137; 10 July 1858.

Lynn Hunt further claims that “in rapidly growing British industrial cities such as Manchester, one-third of the houses contained no latrines.”  Excrement from some of the infrastructures with latrines were to be collected in cesspits under buildings and/or drained into rivers.6 In many cases, this meant draining sewage into major water supplies which frequently were also sources for drinking water.Because of this, many people unknowingly consumed the contaminated water and became ill. For example, in London, sewage draining was often leaked into the River Thames, which was a major drinking source for the people of London.

Cholera was a very deadly disease which flourished during industrialization, and was one of the most widespread diseases of it’s time. Cholera is a contagious diarrheal disease brought on by a bacterial infection of the intestine that is spread through fecal matter, typically in water. If left untreated this disease can be deadly within just a few hours. Cholera would eventually receive the nickname “King Cholera” because of its rapid rates of infection, and the overall devastation of the disease. 7 



What do you think "The Silent Highwayman" is portraying?

Thanks for your response.



As mentioned above, populations in cities grew rapidly and with limited living space, forced an  unprecedented amount of people to live in the same quarters. Personal hygiene was rather difficult to acquire for those in the lower classes because they were only provided so much water every year. 8  The overcrowding living conditions and uncleanliness aslo contributed to the spread of the diseases Typhus and Tuberculosis.  Tuberculosis (TB) was one of the most deadly diseases during this time. TB begins with an infection in the lungs, and then can be spread through the air making it contagious. TB was reported to be the cause of around 1/3 of the total deaths in Britain during the major years of industrialization.9  Most of the problems established during this time were linked to the pollution from the lack of sewers.  Many people witnessed the disparities that these diseases caused and consequently called for government action.

Edwin Chadwick, who was a respected journalist during the first half of the 19th century, is said to have begun the call for public sanitary reform. In 1834 Chadwick became secretary to the new Poor Law Commission, which was based at Somerset House, and oversaw the operation of the Poor Law Amendment Act between 1834 and 1846. Chadwick was largely responsible for devising the system under which the country was divided into groups of parishes administered by elected boards of guardians, each board with its own medical officer. Consequently he embarked on a nationwide investigation of public health which culminated in the historic report “into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain,” which he published privately and at his own expense in 1842. In this publication, Chadwick looks specifically at two areas that could be improved by means of parliamentary action. He first looks at the condition in which many of the laboring populations of Great Britain lives in, and secondly at how these living conditions could be improved to the satisfaction of working peoples.10 In the wake of this testimony, more bills were introduced in the hope of providing efficient living conditions, free of pollution for people in the cities of Great Britain.

Please link out and read Chadwick’s testimony in full with the source provided below. Was Chadwick’s testimony effective enough in displaying the issues with sanitary conditions for working populations at this time? Were some of his proposals actually achievable? And would these proposed changes help improve conditions or was the effort not worth while?  These are questions to consider when reading the source below.



In what specific ways was industrial pollution contributing to the decline in the quality of living in large cities during the first half of the 1800’s?

Thanks for your response.



What suggestions does Mr. Chadwick give as ways to improve conditions in these cities? What role does he think Government should play, if any at all?

Thanks for your response.



As early as 1839 a Bill was created that gave authority to the Metropolitan Court of Sewers. This new authority would make a number of changes to the faulty system employed prior to their taking over, and among these changes included the requirement for newly constructed buildings to actually be connected to the sewers.

In 1844, after the Metropolitan Court of Sewers became the authority in London for regulating the sewer system, the Metropolitan Buildings Act came to fruition. This act was the initial standard laid out by the Metropolitan Court of Sewer, coming six years prior to making all buildings be connected to sewers. Specifically, the Metropolitan Buildings Act made it a requirement for new buildings constructed to be connected to a commons sewer if said sewer was within 30 feet of the new building. The distance requirement was later increased to 100 feet in an amendment to the act. In addition to new buildings, the requirement was extended to both extensions and reconstructions of buildings built before the act was in place. However, the Metropolitan Buildings Act did little to entice older buildings, unless they were extended upon or reconstructed, to connect to sewers.


What was the Metropolitan Court of Sewers first and foremost goal and did they achieve it?

Thanks for your response.



"Dirty Father Thames" (1848)
“Dirty Father Thames” (1848). Father Thames shown as a filthy looking vagrant, and the river a repository of filth and industrial waste. Original Source: Punch Magazine Volume 15, page 152; 7 October 1848.

The Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act of 1846 made up for this loophole in the Metropolitan Buildings Act by creating a provision which allowed for a council to regulate older buildings that fell out of the requirement for a connection to the sewer system in an effort to prevent the spread of disease. In 1848-1849, the General Board of Health was forced to use these provisions created by the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act in the face of the cholera epidemic.11 








What do you think "Dirty Father Thames" is portraying?

Thanks for your response.



Pollution of waterways becomes such a serious problem in England that JC Morrell of the Manchester Statistical Society wrote on pollution of waterways and how he perceives it. Morrell stated that there was a Government Bill in parliament as of 1875 on water pollution, which was the Rivers Pollution Act. Even Morrell had problems with the bill, however. He feared that many would say they are trying to stop polluting without actually doing so and that the Bill allowed this.12 


Why do you think it is significant that Morrell is a member of the Manchester Statistical Society and not a scientist or member of parliament?

Thanks for your response.



About one hundred years later, Morrell’s concerns were reinforced, as Desmond Clyde of the Clyde River Purification Board, a board made to clean up pollution in a river in Britain in the 1980’s, stated that Rivers Pollution Act of 1876 was greatly weakened in parliament because of the gains of industrialization.13 

1. Peter Clark. European Cities and Towns:400-2000. (New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2009), 197.

2. Merry E. Wiesner et al., Discovering the Western Past:A Look at the Evidence, vol.2, 7th ed. (Stamford:Cengage Learning, 2015), 200.

3. Lynn Hunt et al., The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, 3rd ed. (Boston:Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2009), 644.

4. Wiesner et al., 200.

5. Emily Cockayne. Filth, Noise and Stench in England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 195-202.

6. Lynn Hunt et al., The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, 3rd ed. (Boston:Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2009), 647

7. Chris Trueman. “Diseases in Industrial Cities in the Industrial Revolution,” The History Learning Site, Moocow,  Last modified March 3, 2016, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/britain-1700-to-1900/industrial-revolution/diseases-in-industrial-cities-in-the-industrial-revolution/

8. Lynn Hunt et al., The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, 647.

9. Chris Trueman. “Diseases in Industrial Cities in the Industrial Revolution.”

10. Edwin Chadwick, “Report on Sanitary Conditions,” The Victorian Web: Last modified October 11, 2002, http://www.victorianweb.org/history/chadwick2.html.

11. Stephen Halliday, The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Capital, (Sutton: Stroud, 2000), 47-48

12. JC, Morrell, “On the Pollution of Rivers and Water, and Its Prevention,” Economic and Social Investigations in England since 1833: Transactions of the Manchester Statistical  Society, Parts One and Two: The Transactions of the Manchester Statistical Society 1853/54 to 1875/76. 1875: 101-112, date accessed 14 Apr 2016, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/3DPkf9.

13. Desmond Hammertonm, “Cleaning the Clyde-A Century of Progress?” The Journal of Operational Research Society 37: 9 (1986): 911-921.