Maps Supporting the Public Health Act 1848

Maps Supporting the Public Health Act 1848: Using Wisbech, Cambridgeshire as an example.

As an introduction, it should be said that the general condition of drinking water and sewage disposal until to the middle 19th century was rather poor. The number of deaths attributable to these factors alone were considerable. Certain individuals, among them, one, William Lee Esq., were instrumental in changing this state of affairs, though it was perhaps twenty to thirty years before their voices had been fully acted upon. These gentlemen visited various towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom, inspecting the sources of drinking water and the means by which sewage may have been disposed of. In many cases the link between these two was disturbingly close.

Their reports were eventually seen by parliament and the Public Health Act of 1848 became law. One of the first things that had to be established was the whereabouts of all sources of drinking water. At the same time, the network of ditches, drains and night soil collection points for each community, were to be mapped. These would be known as General Board of Health Town Plans.

The town plans for Wisbech, Cambridgeshire were drawn up by RW Dobson & C Weekes, civil engineers in 1853 and an impressive job they made of it. I am uncertain of the scale of these maps but suffice to say that the frontage of the average building presented itself as about one inch. Wisbech had a population in 1851 of 10,594 which probably equated to no more than 2,000 dwellings. The town plan of Wisbech is in book form, each page measuring approximately 46 inches by 30 inches. These measurements are from memory but I’m sure that they are fairly accurate. I also seem to remember that there were about 20 leaves with a map on both faces, taking fly leaves and title pages into account I should imagine the plan of Wisbech comprised of about 35 individual maps. It is some time since I had access to the town plan but it has left a lasting impression. The entire plan is in colour, obviously hand tinted after it was drawn. Rivers were blue, vegetation green, permanent buildings in pink, wooden outbuildings in light brown, hard-road surfaces and paving in grey and unsurfaced roads and verges without vegetation in beige. Every outdoor and indoor ‘thunder-box’ is depicted as a small square containing a smaller circle -very appropriate. Each water pump, each pond and each street urinal is clearly marked. The overall effect of the plan is to give a very visual snap-shot into the past.

Perhaps more important to us in the PHS is that each tavern, inn and hotel is named for posterity. I mentioned that the short time that I was allowed access to the plan really made an impression upon me. Let me explain why. Not all of us are interested particularly in the buildings or their names etc. but those of us who are, eventually get to the point (within our own search area) where we run out of searchable data. We grind to a halt and, as in my case, can’t find a fresh inn that hasn’t already been documented into the history of local establishments. Wisbech was fortunate enough in 1950 to have Arthur Artis Oldham, a well-known local historian, who wrote a small book called “The Inns and Taverns of Wisbech”. Like Arthur I have stuck to the very defined area of Wisbech town itself and where it has grown over the years hardly any new pubs have emerged. Modern housing estates round here hardly ever include new pubs for the residents, probably because the town centre is still only walking distance and commercial prudence is closing them, not building them. Arthur’s entry for the Red Cow states “Was a beershop of locality unknown, and was in existence in 1845 and 1855 with John Johnson as keeper.” Imagine how chuffed I was when the town plan showed the Red Cow Inn to be clearly marked in Great South Street and next door was the White Horse, never before mentioned in any source to my knowledge. Seventy yards down the road where the Flower pot (still surviving today) overlooked the junction with Elm Road, was the Prince of Wales Inn (not the same one as in Agenoria Street), also not mentioned anywhere else to my knowledge.

Here then was a rich source of forgotten data.  When I talked to Steve Williams of the PHS he suggested that I might like to share this info with the rest of you. Finding out exactly which towns the plans had been drawn-up for has proved to be more difficult than I had first thought. Eventually I came up with the following details. Some of these are a bit sketchy but if you are interested, hopefully there are enough clues for you to find out. The information talks only of the reports to the Board of Health and I am assuming that the report includes the town plan or at least caused the town plan to be drawn-up.

It appears that 398 reports were published between 1848 and 1857. They refer to 296 localities and include the further inquiries that were necessary in some cases. The most complete collection is that in the library of the Department of Health and Social Services at Alexander Fleming House: 395 reports for 296 localities. The British Museum collection, better known, was not acquired under the copyright privilege but from the estate of Sir Edwin Chadwick in 1891. This consists of 375 reports for 279 localities. There are no other collections of this completeness. The only other sizeable collections are at Sheffield University (39 reports), Birmingham Public Library (25), Cardiff Public Library (15), Manchester Public Library (12) and London University (8). Two libraries have 5 each; Leicester City Library has four including one report not in either of the two London collections. Nowhere outside London is there a full collection for any one county. Of course, local newspapers very frequently reproduced the reports in their entirety at the time of publication. Photocopies can be obtained from the British Museum and the Department of Health and Social Security, the latter being ready to loan its loose copies for this purpose. The British Museum Catalogue should be consulted for the localities reported on. It does not include the following: preliminary inquiries at Aldershot, Arnold, Basingstoke, Brentwood, Bridgnorth, Caverswall, Crumpsall, Cwmdu, Droitwich, Hexham, Milton next Sittingbourne, Seaford, Skipton, Thornton, Upton cum Chalvey, and Ynyscynhaiarn; further inquiries at Caverswall, Dalton, Haworth and Skipton; third reports on Leicester and Newton Heath.

The previous paragraph has been lifted from an article ‘Local Reports to the General Board of Health’ by H J Smith, Durham Local History Society, 1967.  I have not seen a reference to the Wisbech report or town-plan anywhere else other than in the catalogue for the Fenland Museum in Wisbech.  If you want to gain access to your own local town-plan for the 1848 Public Health Act, a good starting point would be your local museum or record office. Local libraries may also know the whereabouts if the area was included at the time. If anyone does find this route useful I should like to know.

Finally, while on the subject of maps, many of you will already know that the Ordnance Survey maps are but the last link in the history of maps for your local cities, towns and villages. Prior to their introduction in the late 1870s, maps were often made by local people with the ability to do it. As far as Wisbech is concerned there is Elstobb’s map of the river Nene dated 1772 (which includes many riverside properties). In 1830 John Wood created a map of Wisbech and it is amazing to see the difference to the map drawn by Frederick Utting in 1850. It is obvious that the town had undergone major development between these years. Many streets remained the same but the individual buildings changed greatly. It was probably during those years that Wisbech lost many of its more ancient properties. Utting updated his map in 1859 though changes were subtler except for the Town Bridge, which changed from a Venetian stone arch to the ‘plank’ Iron Bridge that lasted until the 1930s. Charles Mumford also recorded the town plan in 1867 and was the last to do so prior to the OS map editions of 1887, 1902, and 1927. Overall, these maps display a wealth of information regarding anything from the humble beershop to the grand hotels.

Andy Ketley
March 2007

An example of the type of map used in the Wisbech case can be seen to the right.

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