Keeping Clean in the Slums – Jennifer Benson

Bathing and Cleanliness
Click on this link to access the pamphlet

The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association for Improving the Public Health, Bathing and Cleanliness (London, Hume Tracts, 1847).

During the mid-nineteenth century, there was growing opinion that the deteriorating health of the slums population was a direct result of a lack of care by the population themselves. At this point, theories that the cause of poor health were a result of the unsanitary conditions of the slums were non-existent, or if they were, they were not popular. To help improve the health of the slums’ population, pamphlets such as this (pictured left) were produced in order to encourage the population to become more sanitary. The pamphlet that this blog post will cover is a sixteen-page pamphlet on bathing and cleanliness, but touches upon many different aspects of the slums, such as morals, influence and the science behind becoming more sanitary. The attitude of the writers shown in the pamphlet towards the lack of cleanliness amongst the working class is unsympathetic, as the pamphlet comments that, “(t)he poor and, and in common with them a large number of the working class, are accustomed to think that their narrow circumstances are a sufficient excuse for their dirty habits.” [1] This is shown by the Association’s lack of understanding of the working class, and perhaps, their naivety of the task that the organisation has set themselves.

The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association for Improving the Public Health was founded in 1847 by members of the working class who realised how dire their living conditions were. [2] By this point, the 1846 Bath and Washhouse Act had been passed, so councils were able to establish public bathhouses in England [3], although there are examples of baths having been built before this Act was passed, such as the Glasshouse Yard baths in London, in 1844, [4] which is mentioned in the pamphlet as a recommendation for bathhouses.[5]  Members of the Association may or may not have been living in the slums at this time. Although members were working class, middle-class members would help to set up charities and organisations, by giving financial help and assistance.[6] One example is the Association for the Establishment of Baths and Washhouses, which was founded in 1844. Its donations comprised from a variety of wealthy backers, such as Lords and MPs. The Association was used mostly for publicity and only established 1 permanent bath out of 3. In London, this publicity was wellreceived as by 1885 “a total of ten baths… had been opened in the metropolis.”[7] In the first in a series of pamphlets, the Association outlines details of what they believe to be the causes of disease, and a petition with a list of demands to enforce sanitary laws. Other topics that the series cover are exercise, ventilation in the house, the raising and training of children, sewerage and draining, and water supply. [8]

Public baths had originally been the epitome of luxury dedicated to the middle- and upper-classes –  now, they were the centre of necessary cleanliness. The pamphlet reiterates the importance of cleanliness within the home, and recommends, “as one of the conditions of healththat “the whole surface of the body.. should be washed every day with cold water.”[9] The pamphlet mentions “public establishments” that had “recently opened in London.” [10] This is a reference to the first public bath to have opened in London, which included “a wooden hut with washing stations and cubicles for cold-water baths.” [11] However, as demand for the washing houses grew, the funding given to councils was not enough to sustain the facilities needed for demand. The first and second class had a separate pool and washhouse, and the sexes would also need to be separated.  Private pools for each class would be established, and access for women to enter the first and second was limited, except for a few hours during the week. Plunge pools for the third class were also provided. [12] Public baths were to become more available and accessible to the public in an attempt to encourage the working classes, in particular those in the slums, to wash and clean themselves, as it was believed that the poor habits and immoral behaviour were the cause of the conditions in the slums. 

Tom Crook describes what he calls, “the ethics of cleanliness.”[13] Public baths were to become a major element of ensuring a healthy body and mind of an individual, and in doing so, this would create a good economy and a healthy family. Not only was an individual actively choosing to go to a public bath, but they would also encourage their families to do so, and thus, become acclimatised to cleanliness. (14) Cleanliness, according to Crooks, was becoming, “contagious”,[15] as those who were now using the public baths regularly had become more self-conscious, both morally and physically in the home and as individuals.[16] Bathing and Cleanliness reiterates the importance of relaxing after work, which “prepares the body for the coming repose.”[17] It could be argued that the popularity of the public baths helped to stimulate Victorian respectability.[18] This in turn encouraged the ideals of Victorian liberalism, which were prominent at this time.  Alfred Ebsworth discussed the benefits of public baths for the working class and slum residents in 1853:

“Professionally speaking, I would declare that no one remedy could be devised to counteract the evils of our overcrowded dwellings, so much as the establishment of Public Baths; that they have tended materially to improve the social and moral condition of the poor is an axiom clearly established beyond the power of dispute, and I may predict a vast decrease of the eruptive disorders from the continued increase of bathers.”[19]

The influence of a member of the family bathing is highly prevalent in Bathing and Cleanliness, suggesting that if one member began to bathe, the rest of the family would follow suit. In turn, this would be passed through the generations, hindering uncleanliness within the household.[20]

Jennifer Benson

References:

[1] The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association for Improving the Public Health, Bathing and Cleanliness (London, Hume Tracts, 1847), p.9.

[2] The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association for Improving the Public Health, “The first address from the Committee” (London: Hume Tracts,  1847), p.2.

[3]  Parker, Claire, “Improving the ‘Condition of the People’: The Health of Britain and the Provision of Public Baths, 1840 – 1870”, The Sports Historian, 20:2, pp.24 – 25.

[4] Parker,“Improving the ‘Condition of the People'”,  p.29.

[5] The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association for Improving the Public Health, Bathing and Cleanliness, pp.11 – 12.

[6]  Prochaska, F.K., “Philanthropy” in Thompson, F.M.L. (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750 – 1950 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992), p.366.

[7] Crook, Tom, “‘Schools for the moral training of the people’: Public Baths, Liberalism and the Promotion of Cleanliness in Victorian Britain”, European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 13:1, pp.23 – 4.

[8]  The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association…,The first address from the Committee, p.9.

[9] The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association…, Bathing and Cleanliness, p.9.

[10] The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association…, Bathing and Cleanliness, p.8.

[11] De Bonneville, Franҫoise, The Book of the Bath, Brenton, Jane (translated by) (London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1998), p.57.

[12] Parker,“Improving the ‘Condition of the People’”, p.35.

[13] Crook, Tom, “‘Schools for the moral training of the people’”, p.27.

[14] Crook, “‘Schools for the moral training of the people’”, p.27.

[15] Crook, “‘Schools for the moral training of the people’”, p.26.

[16] Crook,“‘Schools for the moral training of the people’”, p.26.

[17] The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association, Bathing and Cleanliness, , p.11.

[18] Crook, “‘Schools for the moral training of the people’”, p.27.

[19] Ebsworth, Alfred, Facts and Inferences Drawn from an Inspection of Public Baths and Washhouses in this Metropolis, London, 1853, as quoted in Crook,, “‘Schools for the moral training of the people’”, p.25.

[20]  The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association, Bathing and Cleanliness, p.12.

 

 

 

 

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