Hostname: page-component-8448b6f56d-c47g7 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-24T10:36:32.962Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The National Association for the Promotion of Social Science: Its Contribution to Victorian Health Reform, 1857–1886*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

Get access


The campaign for better public health was a major social issue in England during the second half of the nineteenth century. As in the case of Poor Law and factory reform, Edwin Chadwick stands as the person who directed public interest toward the need for sanitary reform. He did this through his association with the Poor Law Commission in the late 1830s, then through his seminal and widely read 1842 Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population. Chadwick's report captured the minds of many in the British upper middle class. The Health of Towns Association, founded in 1844, helped to diffuse information on the “physical and moral evils that result from the present defective sewerage, drainage, supply of water, air, and light. …” Although the sanitary reformers had made some minor gains by 1847, they had failed to produce a satisfactory bill that would allow government some role in coordinating sanitary improvement. At this point, neither Chadwick, nor any other leading proponent of sanitary legislation wanted to put full authority in the hands of the central government, but they did desire a more efficient combination of local and national control.

The sanitary reformers, and particularly Chadwick, achieved a measure of success in 1848 when the Public Health Bill received parliamentary approval. It was hoped the Act would bring about a useful consolidation of responsibility for drainage, sewerage, water supply, and road maintenance. Instead, the legislation spurred a furious debate over how much national government interference was acceptable. It did little to improve public health because the argument over government interference for a time took attention away from critical issues of sanitation reform. Although never completely overcome, the argument over principles faded in the 1850s in the face of an urgent need for reform.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1985

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



The author gratefully acknowledges travel grants from the American Philosophical Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota that made research possible in England. He also acknowledges the helpful comments made by R. Vladimir Steffel of the Ohio State University, Marion, when the paper was in its early stages.


1 See Lewis, R.A., Edwin Chadwick and the Public Health Movement, 1832-1854 (London, 1952), pp. 2973Google Scholar; Finer, S.E.. The Life and Times of Edwin Chadwick (London, 1970)Google Scholar; Lubenow, William C., The Politics of Government Growth: Early Victorian Attitudes Toward State Intervention, 1833-1848 (Hamden, Conn., 1971), pp. 6973Google Scholar; Lambert, Royston, Sir John Simon, 1816-1904 and English Social Administration (London, 1963), pp. 6063Google Scholar; Roach, John, Social Reform in England, 1780-1880 (New York, 1978) pp. 142144.Google Scholar

2 Lubenow, , Politics of Government Growth, p. 72Google Scholar. Chadwick made surreptitious contributions to the Health of Towns Association, but refused to be directly connected with it. See Lambert, , Sir John Simon, p. 63.Google Scholar

3 The 1848 Act was quite similar to the New Poor Law of 1834 in that it combined central authority with local authority in the administration of public health measures. Sanitary administration was assigned to local units of government. See discussions in Lubenow, , Politics of Government Growth, pp. 7284Google Scholar; Lambert, , Sir John Simon, pp. 7074Google Scholar; Roach, , Social Reform in England, pp. 142146.Google Scholar

4 Lambert, , Sir John Simon, p. 299Google Scholar. In his biography of Simon, Lambert refers to the organization as “one of the more notable pressure groups of the day” (p. 299). This is not an opinion shared by the majority of those who have discussed the Association in print.

5 Hastings, George W., The History and Objects of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, second edition (London, 1863), p. 54.Google Scholar

6 G.W. Hastings to Lord Brougham, May 2, 1857, Brougham Papers, University College, London (UCL), 13088; Hastings to Brougham, August 1, 1857, Brougham Papers, UCL 13903.

7 For a detailed description of the structure of the NAPSS, see Ritt, Lawrence, “The Victorian Concience in Action: The National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, 1857-1886” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1959), pp. 7991Google Scholar. Also, see Macleod, R. and Collins, P., eds., The Parliament of Science: The British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831-1981 (London, 1981).Google Scholar

8 Goldman, Lawrence, “The Origins of British ‘Social Science’: Political Economy, Natural Science and Statistics, 1830-1835,” The Historical Journal 26 (September, 1983): 589590CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Goldman is planning a booklength history of the NAPSS.

9 McGregor, O.R., “Social Research and Social Policy in the Nineteenth Century,” British Journal of Sociology 8 (1957): 152153CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Goldman, , “Origins of British ‘Social Science,’” pp. 587616.Google Scholar

10 Hastings, , History and Objects, pp. 4-6, 11.Google Scholar

11 Hastings to Florence Nightingale, September 26, 1958, British Library (B.L.), Add. Mss. 45797.

12 Transactions, 1859, p. 11.Google ScholarPubMed

13 McGregor, , “Social Research and Social Policy,” pp. 146157Google Scholar. Meliorism was a distinctly middle-class philosophy, and some students contend that the failure of meliorism in the face of a more aggressive working class is the principal reason for the Association's collapse in the mid-1880s. See M.W. Flinn's comments in Stewart, Alexander P. and Jenkins, Edward, The Medical and Legal Aspects of Sanitary Reform (Leicester, 1969), pp. 2124.Google Scholar

14 Goldman, , “Origins of British ‘Social Science,’” pp. 598614.Google Scholar

15 See Gordon, Barry, Political Economy in Parliament, 1819-1823 (New York, 1976)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Gordon's book is flawed, but it does show that the political economists were not single-minded doctrinaires. See also my Radical Lord Radnor: The Public Life of Viscount Folkestone, Third Earl of Radnor (1779-1869), (Minneapolis, 1977), pp. 132165Google Scholar. Brown's, LucyThe Board of Trade and the Free-Trade Movement, 1830-1842 (Oxford, 1858), pp. 3774Google Scholar also throws light on this issue.

16 The prospect of newspaper coverage inspired many participants. The Earl of Shaftesbury was greatly dismayed at the lack of attention given to his 1886 Manchester address in the London newspapers. Hodder, Edwin, The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, 3 volumes (London, 1887), 3: 215Google Scholar; Finlayson, Geoffrey B.A.M., The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, 1801-1855 (London, 1981), p. 469.Google Scholar

17 Birmingham Daily Press, October 16, 1857; The Times, June 7, 1862.

18 Ritt, , “The Victorian Conscience,” pp. 303304Google Scholar; The Times, October 16, 1858.

19 The Times, June 7, 1862; Journal of Social Science, 16 (1883)Google Scholar. The latter contains a summary of newspaper comment on the Association.

20 Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 88: 707.Google Scholar

21 Ibid., p. 708.

22 Ibid., p. 709.

23 British Medical Journal (BMJ), September 12, 1857, p. 774.Google Scholar

24 See report on the paper given by Edward T. Tibbitts, M.D. in the 1883 Transactions. For more on this issue, see Peterson, M. Jeanne, The Medical Profession in mid-Victorian London (Berkeley, 1978)Google Scholar, and her Gentlemen and Medical Men: The Problem of Professional Recruitment,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 58 (Winter, 1984): 457473.Google ScholarPubMed

25 BMJ, September 12, 1857, p. 774.

26 Transactions, 1857, pp. viii-ix.

27 Ibid., p. 343.

28 BMJ, October 1,1864, p. 383. A zymotic disease is a disease believed to be caused by fermentative process. It was thought, for example, that small pox was spread in this fashion.

29 “Surgical appliances and ambulances were among the items on display. See BMJ, December 6, 1884.

30 Lambert, , Sir John Simon, p. 399.Google Scholar

31 BMJ, December 6, 1884, p. 1115.

32 See Hodgkinson's, Ruth introduction in Public Health in the Victorian Age (Westmead, England, 1973).Google Scholar

33 Ritt, , “Victorian Conscience in Action,” pp. 248249.Google Scholar

34 Transactions, 1861, pp. xxxixxl.Google ScholarPubMed

35 Youngson, A.J.. The Scientific Revolution in Victorian Medicine (London, 1979), pp. 942.Google Scholar

36 The Association was circumspect in the face of controversial matters. In 1872, when the annual congress was held in Plymouth, it was determined by the Association's president that discussion of the Contagious Diseases Acts should be strictly limited owing to the “great differences of opinion” on the subject in Plymouth and nearby towns. See BMJ, September 28, 2872, p. 365.

37 Initially, it was not thought proper for women to read their own papers before the NAPSS congresses and the Executive Council degreed that men should read the work of prominent women. Within two years, however, this policy changed and women were able to read then-own work. See McCrone, Kathleen E., “The National Association for the Promotion of Social Science and the Advancement of Victorian Women,” Atlantis 8 (Autumn, 1982): 47Google Scholar. Mc-Crone's article provides an excellent assessment of the importance of the NAPSS toward advancing the cause of professional women in mid-Victorian England.

38 See Smith, F.B., Florence Nightingale (London, 1982), pp. 134135Google ScholarPubMed. Hastings to Nightingale, October 15, 1858, B.L. Add. MSS. 45797; William Fair ro Nightingale, October 15, 1858, B.L. Add. MSS. 43398.

39 Youngson, , Scientific Revolution, pp. 186187Google Scholar; Smith, F.B., The People's Health, 1830-1910 (London, 1979), 34-40, 260284.Google Scholar

40 Transactions, 1858, pp. 462-482.

41 Ibid., pp. 554-560.

42 Elizabeth Garrett gave interesting papers in 1866 and 1868, and Catherine Toison Duck contributed a noteworthy paper on hospital management in 1869. The administration of hospitals remained a major concern of the Health Department throughout the existence of the NAPSS. The 1881 Transactions printed in full Burdett's, Henry C. paper, “Is it Desirable that Hospitals Should be Placed Under State Supervision,” pp. 498512.Google Scholar

43 Youngson, , Scientific Revolution, pp. 164171Google Scholar; Ayers, Gwendoline M., England's First State Hospitals, 1867-1930 (London, 1971), pp. 4, 5, 193.Google Scholar

44 Jones' ideas, and the model he displayed, “excited great interest” among those who heard his presentation. See Transactions, 1870, 449.

45 Transactions, 1869, p. 451.

46 Youngson, , Scientific Revolution, p. 186Google Scholar; The Lancet, October 10, 1868. See paper by Garrett, Elizabeth in Transactions, 1868, pp. 464, 482488.Google Scholar

47 See Flinn's introduction in Stewart, and Jenkins, , Medical and Legal Aspects, p. 24Google Scholar. For a partial listing of the Association's publications see Ritt, , “The Victorian Conscience in Action,” p. 361Google Scholar. Except for the Transactions, the Association's publications were irregular owing to unstable finances.

48 Eyler, John, Victorian Social Medicine: The Ideas and Methods of William Fan (Baltimore, 1979), pp. 6163Google Scholar; Eyler, , “William Farr on the Cholera: The Sanitarian's Disease Theory and the Statistician's Method,” Journal of the History of Medicine 28 (April, 1973): 79100Google Scholar; Eyler, , “Mortality Statistics and Victorian Health Policy: Program and Criticism,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 50 (1976): 335355.Google ScholarPubMed

49 Lambert, , Sir John Simon, p. 321.Google Scholar

50 Eyler, , Victorian Social Medicine, p. 159.Google Scholar

51 Farr spent forty years on the staff of the Registrar General's Office which he joined in 1841. See Lewis, , Edwin Chadwick, p. 32Google Scholar, and Eyler, , Victorian Social Medicine, p. 11.Google Scholar

52 Nevertheless, Farr and Horace Mann clearly supported Rumsey's call for information and they specifically encouraged the gathering of health statistics as part of the 1861 census. See Transactions, 1859, p. 628.Google Scholar

53 Lambert, , Sir John Simon, pp. 316321.Google Scholar

54 Eyler, , Victorian Social Medicine, pp. 6165.Google Scholar

55 However, see Wohl, Anthony, Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), pp. 206231.Google Scholar

56 See Dingle, A.E., “The Monster Nuisance of All: Landowners, Alkali Manufacturers, and Air Pollution, 1828-1864,” Economic History Review, second series, 35 (November, 1982): 529548.Google Scholar

57 He based this on his observations as a government inspector under the Alkali Act passed in July, 1863. See Roy Macleod, M., “The Alkali Acts Administration: The Emergence of the the Civil Scientist,” Victorian Studies 9 (1965): 9295Google Scholar; Dingle, A.E., “Monster Nuisance,” pp. 544545.Google ScholarPubMed

58 Smith, Robert Angus, “How far are Smoke and the Products Combustion Arising from Various Manufacturing Processes Injurious to Health?Transactions, 1861, pp. 429440.Google ScholarPubMed

59 Smith, Robert Angus, “What Amendments are required in the Legislation necessary to Prevent the Evils arising from Noxious Vapours and Smoke,” Transactions, 1876, p. 516.Google ScholarPubMed

60 Ibid., pp. 533-534.

61 See discussion in Transactions, 1876, pp. 534542.Google ScholarPubMed

62 There were many regional and local smoke abatement societies. See Wohl, , Endangered Lives, pp. 206231.Google Scholar

63 See Macadam, Stevenson, “How can the Pollution of Rivers by the Refuse and Sewate of Towns be best Prevented,” Transactions, 1866, pp. 574588.Google Scholar

64 See Rumsey's, H.W.Address on Health,” Transactions, 1868, pp. 9398Google Scholar. The 1855 Local Management Act had made it possible to pay for pumping sewage into the Thames.

65 Transactions, 1866, pp. 574588.Google Scholar

66 See Dawson, Christopher, “What are the best and most Economical Methods of Removing and Utilizing the Sewage of Large Towns,” Transactions, 1871, pp. 408418.Google Scholar

67 On River Obstructions and Pollution by Manufacturers,” Transactions, 1868, p. 472.Google ScholarPubMed

68 Ibid., p. 478.

69 See Hope's, What means can be Adopted to Prevent the Pollution of Rivers,” Transactions, 1872, p. 331Google Scholar. See Mcleod, , “The Alkali Acts Administration,” pp. 8893.Google Scholar

70 BMJ, October 21, 1871.

71 Macadam, Stevenson, “What are the regulations which Should be Adopted for the Prevention of Pollution of streams without undue Interference with Industrial Operations and for the Preservation of Pure Sources of Water Supply.” Transactions, 1880, pp. 565567.Google Scholar

72 See Ritt, , “Victorian Conscience in Action,” pp. 269310Google Scholar; McGregor, , “Social Research and Social Policy,” p. 154Google Scholar; Rodgers, Brian, “The Social Science Association, 1857-1886,” Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies 20 (September, 1952): 283310CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In his introduction to Stewart and Jenkins, Medical and Legal Aspects, M.W. Flinn suggests that increasing radicalism and impatience of doctrinaire left wing groups gave the “death blow” to the Association (pp. 21-22). This also appears to be the view, although it is less convincingly presented, of Reba Soffer in her Ethics and Society in England: The Revolution in the Social Sciences, 18701914 (Berkeley, 1978), pp. 1526.Google Scholar

73 Transactions, “Conference on Temperance Legislation,” 1886. The NAPSS did not hold a congress in 1885.

74 April 22, 1886.

75 Quoted in Stewart, and Jenkins, , Medical and Legal Aspects, p. 89.Google Scholar

76 Lubenow, , Politics of Government Growth, pp. 7273Google Scholar; Stewart, and Jenkins, , Medical and Legal Aspects, p. 89.Google Scholar

77 Lambert, Sir John Simon, pp. 374-377.

78 IBid., p. 373. Greenhow was a doctor from Tynemouth. Physicians were increasingly agitated by the fact that local authorities seemed to ignore their suggestions for reducing mortality. See Flinn's introduction to Stewart, and Jenkins, , Medical and Legal Aspects, pp. 2324.Google Scholar

79 Eleventh Annual Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council,” Parliamentary Papers (18681869), xxxii, p. 22.Google Scholar

80 Stewart, and Jenkins, , Medical and Legal Aspects, p. 17.Google Scholar

81 Ibid., pp. 23-24; Wohl, , Endangered Lives, p. 158.Google Scholar

82 The Lancet, October 10, 1868.

83 H.W. Rumsey to Edwin Chadwick, March 19, 1867, Chadwick Papers, UCL 1725. Also Transactions, 1867, pp. xl-xli.

84 BMJ, April 13, 1867, p. 431; Flinn's introduction in Stewart, and Jenkins, , Medical and Legal Aspects, pp. 2124.Google Scholar

85 BMJ, January 11, 1868, p. 33; Flinn's introduction to Stewart, and Jenkins, , Medical and Legal Aspects, pp. 1623.Google Scholar

86 BMJ, May 16, 1868, p. 489; Flinn's introduction in Stewart, and Jenkins, , Medical and Legal Aspects, p. 16.Google Scholar

87 BMJ, May 30, 1868, pp. 541-543.

88 Clifford-Smith, J.L., Twenty-Five Year History of the Social Science Association (London, 1882), p. 107Google Scholar; The Times, October 3, 1873.

89 Transactions, 1871, pp. 137142.Google Scholar

90 BMJ, September 4 and October 2, 1869.

91 BMJ, August 17, 1872, pp. 189-190, 193.

92 BMJ, September 13, 1872 and September 28, 1872. This committee had been proposed by A.P. Stewart in August, 1872. See Flinn's introduction in Stewart, and Jenkins, , Medical and Legal Aspects, pp. 1124Google Scholar and the discussion in Wohl, , Endangered Lives, pp. 155-159, 312314.Google Scholar

93 Lambert, , Sir John Simon, p. 561.Google Scholar

94 See Roach, John, Social Reform in England, 1780-1880 (New York, 1978), pp. 200204Google Scholar; Frazer, M.W., A History of English Public Health, 1834-1939 (London, 1950), p. 118.Google Scholar

95 McGregor, , “Social Research and Social Policy,” pp. 152153.Google Scholar

96 Flinn's introduction to Stewart, and Jenkins, , Medical and Legal Aspects, pp. 2223.Google Scholar

97 In his Victorian England, p. 169.

98 See Kitson-Clark, G.S.R., An Expanding Society: Britain 1830-1900 (Cambridge, 1967), pp. 162180.Google Scholar

99 Ritt, , “The Victorian Conscience in Action,” p. 263.Google Scholar