The earliest guardians of public health

Woodhorn. There were deep mines and burgeoning pit villages to the east of Morpeth.
Woodhorn. There were deep mines and burgeoning pit villages to the east of Morpeth.

Speaking in the Free Trade Hall at Manchester in 1872, the great Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli famously misquoted Ecclesiastes 1:2.

He said that: ‘A great scholar and a great wit, three hundred years ago, said that, in his opinion, there was a great mistake in the Vulgate,...the Latin translation of the Holy Scriptures, and that, instead of saying, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ – Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas – the wise and witty king really said, Sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas. Gentlemen, it is impossible to overrate the importance of the subject. After all, the first consideration of a Minister should be the health of the people.’

Hartburn. The area was largely rural. Hartburn paid 5/7.

Hartburn. The area was largely rural. Hartburn paid 5/7.

The scholar and wit was Gilles Ménage, 1613-1692. The witty king was Solomon, supposed author of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Disraeli was then in opposition, and although the Liberals passed a Public Health Act of their own in 1872, they derided his more comprehensive proposals.

He replied at another public meeting, this time at the Crystal Palace.

‘A leading member,’ he said, ‘denounced these policies the other day as a ‘policy of sewage’. But to one of the labouring multitude of England, it is not a policy of sewage, but a question of life and death.’

In 1874 he was back in power.

The Public Health Act of 1872 re-designated Local Boards of Health as Urban Sanitary Authorities, created new ones as necessary, and set up Rural Sanitary Authorities in those areas not otherwise covered. Each authority had to employ a Medical Officer of Health, a Clerk and an Inspector of Nuisances, but not much more.The 1875 Act went further. It consolidated over 200 Acts, including local ones, giving every board the same powers as all the rest.

The Morpeth Rural Sanitary Authority covered all of the Morpeth Poor Law Union except Newbiggin, Bedlington, Morpeth, and those townships (i.e. sub-divisions of parishes) close to Morpeth that were included in the Parliamentary borough. It covered, in other words, the rural area between the rivers Wansbeck and Coquet.

There had until then been no sanitary authority of any kind throughout this large area. Nor was it exclusively rural. Radcliffe Colliery dated from 1836, Broomhill 1849, and Ashington, North Seaton, Pegswood and Widdrington from the 1860s.

The new Board first met in January 1873. Twelve persons were present, including the Hon. and Rev. William Charles Ellis, rector of Bothal.

They resolved: “that the Board of Guardians (Except the Guardians of Morpeth, Bedlington and Newbiggin, which places are Urban Sanitary Districts) be the Rural Sanitary Authority and that no committee be appointed.”

Their first action was to approach the other boards with a view to having one medical officer and one inspector for all four authorities. In a fit of enthusiasm, they resolved to appoint the MOH at £400 p.a, which the Local Government Board in London warmly approved.

The Morpeth Local Board replied that they wished to keep the appointment of officers in their own hands, and in April Mr Ellis proposed a much cheaper option, that the MOH should be paid £25 p.a, and that the existing Relieving Officers act as Inspectors of Nuisances at an additional salary of £25 each.

Accordingly, at a well-attended meeting in May, the Guardians rescinded the motion to combine with other authorities and adopted Mr Ellis’s proposals. They still left open the possibility, however, of appointing the same person as MOH as the other boards.

In June, the Local Government Board dug its heels in – £25 was too low to attract a properly qualified medical officer for so large an area. And although they had allowed relieving officers to double up as inspectors of nuisances prior to the 1872 Act, they now considered it objectionable, partly because of the increased duties of the post, and also because: ‘Having regard to...the pauperism of the Union and to the inexpediency of the Relieving Officer holding any office, the duties of which might in any way interfere with a due and efficient administration of relief to the poor, the Board cannot assent....(etc)’

The Guardians complied in part, advertising for one inspector at £50 p.a. They also, however, persisted in advertising for an MOH at £25 p.a.

At a crowded meeting in July, with 35 present, they appointed Mr Thomas Smythe Waterson as Inspector of Nuisances. They also minuted that: ‘No offer in conformity with the advertisement...or with the orders of the Local Government Board for the Office of Medical Officer...having been received, the question of such appointment was postponed sine die.’

Since they hadn’t advertised it, the lack of response to the second option was hardly surprising.

They did, however, take steps to regularise their own affairs as a Board. The Rev B.P. Hodgson was elected Chairman, the Clerk was to get £50 p.a, and meetings were arranged for the fourth Wednesday of the month, ‘at the end of the business of the Guardians’.

It is difficult to overstate the power the Guardians had over people’s lives, especially poor and working people. The relieving officers assessed your needs when you applied for relief, and it was their word that determined whether you went into the workhouse or not.

The Guardians employed the registrars of births and deaths, the Boardroom where they met was in Morpeth Workhouse, and now they were in charge of public health throughout all but the three urban areas.

In October, Mr William Clarkson was appointed MOH at a salary of £50 a year; double what they hoped, but a far cry from £400.

Knowing broadly what their outgoings were, they proceeded to raise their first precepts (demands for money) on the various townships.

The schedule makes interesting reading. Bothal Demesne, the highest, had to pay £18 16s. 8d, but Bullocks Hall, a township consisting of a single farm near Red Row, only 9/8. Bullocks Hall no longer exists, having been demolished for opencasting.

That such a small place should collect its own rates and have a seat on the Board, is unthinkable now, but the Poor Law Unions had been set up on the basis of existing townships, and that was that.

Other highly rated townships were Widdrington, £15 18s. 2d; North Seaton, £12 16s. 6d; Pegswood, £12 3s. 3d; Longhurst (sic) £11 12s. 11d, and Chevington East, £11 6s. 10d. Chevington West was assessed at £5 10s. 9d, but Ellington only £4 12s. 1d. Hartburn, the lowest, paid 5/7. It is not clear how the Board arrived at these amounts. They could have been based on population, as a rough proxy for the likely workload, or they could have been calculated as a rate in the pound applied consistently to every township on the basis of its estimated rateable value.

The Board itself, however, did not fix a rate as such. It was up to the overseers of each township – an unpaid office going back to Elizabethan times – to combine the sanitary and poor rates, and set their own rate in the pound.