THE Public Health Act 1848 was piloted through the House of Commons by Lord Morpeth. Under it, one tenth of the rated inhabitants of an area could requisition an inquiry into its sanitary condition.
A bound file at Woodhorn contains William Woodman’s papers on the setting up of the Morpeth Local Board in 1851, comprising printed documents, bills, letters, and scribbled notes.
A petition was established, signed by the mayor and 86 other ratepayers. The Superintending Inspector, appointed by the General Board of Health, was Robert Rawlinson Esq, Civil Engineer. On October 10, 1849, he wrote from Gwydyr House, the Board’s headquarters in Whitehall, asking Woodman to recommend a good hotel.
He wrote again on October 16, presumably from the Queen’s Head: “Sir, If perfectly convenient to you, I shall be most happy to see you this evening relative to the inquiry in the morning.”
Present at the Town Hall next day were the Mayor Dr William Trotter; the Hon and Rev FR Grey, rector; Alderman Thew; councillors Jobling, Charlton, Nicholson, Thompson and Hood; the Rev SB Maughan, Hebron; the Revs J Anderson, Presbyterian minister, and Ayre, Independent; Andrew Robert Fenwick, the Earl of Carlisle’s agent; Robert Hawdon and Matthew Brumell, surgeons; George Brumell, Clerk to the Guardians; Mr Woodman, and others.
The Inspector’s report says that a petition had been sent from the town, soliciting an inquiry into its state and condition.
But: “I conducted the inquiry with reference to the entire Parliamentary Borough, and held an adjourned meeting in the village of Bedlington.”
So the petition was from the town only, but someone decided to widen it to cover the much larger parliamentary borough, including Bedlington. This became the cause of so much trouble that it is worthwhile asking how it happened.
Robert Rawlinson, later Sir Robert, was a senior figure in the Board of Health, a man of broad culture, poet, engineer, and admirer of Robert Burns, whose verses he knew by heart. He was undoubtedly close to the Secretary Edwin Chadwick.
Chadwick was an impatient reformer. There can be little doubt that this arbitrary move was made with his approval, if not indeed suggested or even insisted on by him. Chadwick was a rather austere, unsympathetic figure. Rawlinson’s passion for sanitary reform was combined with a warm personality.
The Inquiry resumed on October 19 at the Queen’s Arms, Bedlington. Present were William Wharton Burdon, Hartford Hall; William Longridge, partner in Bedlington Iron Works; the Rev EC Ogle, vicar; George Routledge, colliery owner; Andrew Robert Fenwick; William Woodman and others.
One, described as Robert Foult, relieving officer and registrar for Bedlington, must really be Robert Soulsby. I wrongly gave his name last week as Richard Soulsby.
Despite occupying a rather modest position, he was a key figure in the affairs of Bedlington from 1836 to at least 1858, when, among other public offices, he was also parish clerk.
The report is dated October 1849, but probably appeared later. Woodman’s file contains a meticulously corrected proof.
For example, where the draft says that in the Civil War, Morpeth Castle was damaged by the king’s guns, he puts ‘Montrose’s guns’.
The historical section also includes a eulogy on Lord William Howard, 1563-1640, ancestor of Lord Carlisle. Lord Morpeth, now Lord Carlisle, was both a great landowner in this area and a Health Commissioner – Edwin Chadwick’s political boss, no less.
Rawlinson visited Morpeth Castle and vividly describes the town nestling between wooded hills. He visited the yards behind Bridge Street and Oldgate and contrasts the beauty of the one with the squalor of the other.
The yards had no drainage. Foul water and butcher’s offal lay on the ground.
“Fever, according to the medical evidence, is almost constant in these places; and cholera, as always, is first developed in such rooms as that over the ash-pit, situated in Lumsden’s-lane.”
And, he adds: “Many examples might have been given from other portions of the town.”
He visited Thomas King’s waterworks on Allery Banks, but found the reservoir little more than a large hole in the ground, not capable of supplying the whole town.
Dr Hawdon told him: “In reply to your note, I consider sanitary improvements are much required in the village of Bedlington, where, from the population being rapidly increased of late, all the houses are overcrowded, and although standing upon high ground, there are no drains of any description, but privies, cesspits and dung-heaps in every yard, and the cottages are surrounded by stagnant water emitting a most fetid smell.
“There is one part called the Muggers Corner, which I must beg of you to examine, as disease always visits it; and one house where there is a dunghill before the door, … only a few days ago I was called to two cases of cholera in it.”
I cannot definitely identify Muggers Corner, but the Land Valuation map, 1910, has Muggers Nook off the north corner of the Market Place, just beyond the steps.
Although Rawlinson moved from town to town holding inquiries, he and Woodman kept in touch.
On October 26, he writes from the White Swan at Alnwick: “I am sorry I had not the pleasure of seeing you before I left Morpeth.
“I found passing backwards and forwards would not do as it wasted all my time… Shall I see you at Alnwick or Berwick? Saturday and Sunday I shall be at Howick.”
On November 1, he writes from Berwick, on the 6th from Carlisle, the 14th from Penrith, and on the 19th from Keswick. Cholera had broken out at Bedlington.
Woodman kept him posted, but: “Surely you must have been wrongly informed as to the cholera deaths in Bedlington.
“Ten per cent on 6,000 people would be 600 deaths. The parties probably meant one per cent, or 60. The number of deaths at Alnwick was rather more than double this, namely 136.
“You will wonder what I am doing in Keswick ~ Well, I have come partly on pleasure to let Mrs Rawlinson see something of the Lake District and partly on business.
“The Keswickites wish me to look over a plan of drainage they have laid out for themselves as they do not wish to apply for the Public Health Act ~ I go to Ormskirk tomorrow.
“I trust that Mrs Woodman and family are quite well. Mrs Rawlinson joins me in desiring to be remembered to you and them.
“Write up to the Board about your report on account of the Bedlington outbreak. This may hasten it.”
Shortly after Christmas, Mr Woodman received two letters. One, a standard form from the Board of Health, gives “the opinion of the Board … condition of the locality … excess of preventible deaths … plans proposed by the Inspector … reduction of existing charges … productive of extensive benefits to the inhabitants.”
The other, from Bromley, South Kensington, said: “I reached home on Christmas eve – rather tired – Mrs Rawlinson is quite well and will be glad to be remembered to you and your good lady.
“Please make my respects also.”
Sanitary reform was imminent. Or was it?