Contagious Diseases in the Slums – Ellis Burley


Prostitution and the condition of the slums caused the spread of many contagious diseases. Diseases, especially venereal, became an issue for all social classes of the nineteenth century as passing dirt through touch was known to cause disease and infection. This caused preventative and curative methods of combating these diseases to be developed. These included the passing of legislation, the use of new materials and medical advancements. All of these new inventions were parallel to the industrialisation of Britain and were often aimed at the working classes of the slums, who were blamed for the  passing of contagious diseases.


As the population in the slums grew, so did prostitution, meaning more diseases were being passed onto the higher classes. This then affected people living outside of the slums, forcing action to cure and prevent contagious diseases.[1]

Women often had to turn to prostitution in order to survive ‘slum life’. These women were often solely blamed for the spread of disease. This was not only put down to their job but to the condition of their homes and lifestyles also caused these contagious diseases.[2]

The passing of venereal diseases by prostitutes to men of the armed forces and higher classes caused the Contagious Diseases Acts to be passed in the 1860s.  This not only gave the right to law enforcement to prosecute women soliciting near docks, but gave the higher classes more reasons to accuse the women of the working class of being inferior to them, separating them further from the ‘civilised society’ of the middle class. This led to a clear class divide, as well as a gender divide, working-class women were always held responsible for contamination.

Figure 1 shows the attitudes of the Mayor of Leeds to the prosecution of the working classes. He dehumanises these women and blames them solely for the passing of venereal and other contagious diseases. The source also demonstrates the attitudes towards the working class and the reasons for their poverty. This is a clear demonstration that the middle class wanted to remove slum dwellers from the streets of the cities, as they implied the lower classes were guilty of infecting them.

Newspapers were often used for announcements of legal changes such as in Figure 1, but they were also commonly used for advertising new technologies and advancements in science in the nineteenth century. In the later parts of the century, it is evident that technology was being developed to suppress disease. In Figure 2, the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent advertised a multi-use pill produced to cure many diseases and infections caused by intimate touching. The production of new pills and ointments to help combat venereal diseases or infections related to sex and sexual vice reflect the advancements in medicine and show that intimate touching was being discussed as a cause of the spread of disease. [3]

Alongside legislation and advancements in medicine, developments technology in helped to combat the spread of venereal diseases. The process of vulcanising rubber, which involves using different chemicals and methods to make use of specific materials, was first discovered by Charles Goodyear. Goodyear was credited with the patent of changing the uses of rubber.[4] This eventually led to the development of the rubber condom. Condoms were not a new invention but using rubber was a more efficient use of materials to prevent the spread of diseases. Condoms were previously made from animal remains or other fabrics which were not successful in preventing the spread of venereal diseases and also caused other infections.[5]

Figure 3 shows how the work of Charles Goodyear led to research into the uses of other fabrics and the advantages of using rubber above other fabrics . This eventually led to the use of rubber as protection during sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy and passing on contagious diseases. The inclusion of this story in the Daily News shows how rubber became popular due to its cleanliness and affordability. The demand for this product came from new knowledge of how diseases were passed through touch.[6]


The passing of the Contagious Diseases act was a start for the realisation that hygiene is important to health. Although it was designed to protect the armed forces and the higher classes it acknowledged that the passing of disease was linked to touching, especially intimately leading to the blaming solely on the working for the passing of disease. Together with developments in medicine and technology, they focused on developing preventative methods as well as cures. This proves that intimate touching between classes was seen as as much of a problem as slum living conditions themselves.

Ellis Burley



[1] Englander, David, Poverty and Poor Law Reform in 19th Century Britain, 1834-1914. (New York, Routledge, 2013).

[2] The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, Saturday, August 05, 1843; pg. [1]; Issue 1225.Available from: British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.

[3] The Royal Cornwall Gazette, Falmouth Packet, and General Advertiser, Thursday, January 28, 1869; pg. 3; Issue 3420. Available from: British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.

[4] The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, Saturday, August 05, 1843; pg. 1

[5] Daily News (London, England), Saturday, September 24, 1853; Issue 2292. (2300 words). British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900

[6] Belmonte, Frances R., Birth control invented. (Salem: Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2016)