Disease in the Industrial Revolution

Disease in the Industrial Revolution

Disease was a constant threat during the Industrial Revolution. Changes in the way that people lived and the conditions in which they worked led to disease being able to spread much more rapidly, and new forms of disease emerged that were as deadly as any killer that had been before.

Towns grew very quickly as factories led to migration from the countryside and immigration from different parts of Europe and the empire. As the demand for housing increased so rapidly the quality of homes constructed was low. Housing for the worker was cramped in, built quickly and built with little regard for hygiene. In many cities the result was that large slums appeared.

Snippet from A Court for King Cholera, a poster about the deadly disease

These slums were areas where houses were small, roads narrow and services such as rubbish collection, sewage works and basic washing facilities were virtually non existent. In this type of climate bacteria grows quickly, the water supply is likely to become infected and weaker people are likely to fall ill much more rapidly.

Water was often the problem. Factories would sometimes dump waste into streams and rivers. The same streams and rivers were used to supply homes with water for washing and cooking. Soon peoples health was endangered. In many slums the same water supply was infected with human sewage as toilet facilities were often inadequate and sometimes consisted of a toilet blcok that was emptied irregularly: meaning that when it rained, the waste may overflow into the gutter and therefore into the rivers and streams.

The result of this is the spread of disease.


One of the main killers of the industrial age was Cholera. This deadly disease was water borne and spread through filthy cities with ease, killing thousands. Typhoid also took a hold in some areas and aain made great use of the poor sewage provisions to take a hold of many areas.

Diseases such as Cholera and Typhoid are now fairly easily prevented. Basic cleanliness, underground sewage pipes and regularly cleaned and controlled water supplies doing most of the work to prevent any recurrence of this form of disease.

In an age where the ordinary man had no political say however, and no money or even education to support a claim for improved conditions, the issue was often overlooked. These diseases rarely concerned the wealthy, there was always another worker available to replace those who died, so why should they concern themselves with issues such as the health of the poor? Thankfully some of the great industrialists of the time did see a worth in tackling the problem and there were a number of reports and recommendations made into preventing disease and improving hygiene. The most notable including the works of Rowntree and Booth. The Industrial age also saw the advent of new forms of science and medical advances, these too aided the fight against killers such as Cholera and Typhoid.

A more detailed narrative of Public Health during the Industrial Revolution is available on our sister site, medicinethroughtime.co.uk.

British HistoryIndustrial RevolutionPublic Health in the Industrial Revolution

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