The Water Supply in Wakefield from Ranger’s Report of 1852 to Radcliffe’s Report of 1869: How Far Were Contemporary Criticisms of the Local Board of Health Fair?

Southerington, Sarah Helen (2021). The Water Supply in Wakefield from Ranger’s Report of 1852 to Radcliffe’s Report of 1869: How Far Were Contemporary Criticisms of the Local Board of Health Fair? Student dissertation for The Open University module A826 MA History part 2.

This dissertation was produced by a student studying the Open University postgraduate module A826 MA History part 2. The research showcased here achieved a distinction.
Please note that this student dissertation is made available in the format that it was submitted for examination, thus the author has not been able to correct errors and/or departures from academic standards in areas such as referencing.
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This study will consider the West Riding town of Wakefield, where in 1853 following a damning sanitary inspection from the General Board of Health, the town adopted the Public Health Act (1848). In 1869 Wakefield was subject to a second sanitary inspection from central government, with the published report showing that the town was in a worse sanitary condition than it had been since its adoption of the Act. For this, the author of the report blamed the local authority which was also heavily criticised by the national medical press.

Traditional representations of Victorian local government are of self-serving, factious shopocracies, adverse to central-government intervention, and too parsimonious to deliver any real measure of social reform. More recently this representation has been challenged, with ‘apologists’ pointing to the unprecedented fiscal, legal, and technological challenges that mid-century local authorities were facing, in their attempt to address the public health issues that were a consequence of rapidly-increasing urbanisation. Those local governments that failed to deliver effective sanitary reform have also been defended with the fact that Public Health legislation prior to 1875 was prolific, confusing, and mostly permissive. Additionally, and certainly for the first half of the century, Parliament was more protective of the private sector than the public, and so yet another obstacle for local governments wanting to deliver effective sanitary reform.

This study will consider whether the criticisms made of Wakefield’s Local Board of Health were fair in relation to the town’s water supply. The town’s private water company used the local, heavily-polluted River Calder as its source, much to the condemnation of both sanitary inspectors. Local press coverage and council meeting minutes will illustrate that, although there were mitigating factors in the local board’s unsatisfactory handling of the water question during the scope of this study, the Wakefield Local Board of Health largely conformed to the traditional representation of Victorian local government, as described above. This study finds therefore that the charges made against Wakefield’s local board following the publication of the 1869 report, were in fact justified.

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