Rule by the Margate Local Board of Health 1851 - 1858

Anthony Lee

4. The Inspector Calls.

The debate in Margate now shifted to the question of how best to deal with the inspector when he came. On 18 October the Kent Herald published an editorial, under the title The Government Inspector:43

Now that there remains no longer any doubt as to the coming of the government offi­cer to enquire into the sewerage and the supply of pure water to the 10,900 settled inhabitants, and the 70,000 to 100,000 visitors during the summer season, a great outcry is beginning to be made as to the enormous expense it will entail, and for no purpose, beyond that of exposing the errors of our system in resting contented with the most incomplete, ill-constructed sewerage imaginable, the thorough absence of a good supply of water, the burying of the dead in the midst of the living, and the forming under nearly each and every house a cesspool, or pools for the reception of night soil and filthy water. Well indeed may the enquiry be dreaded, but futile will be the oppo­sition now organizing to stifle it. Statistics, the most extensive of longevity, most extraordinary in places declared most dirty, in conjunction with a statement of the low rate of mortality in this town as compared to others, will be thrust under the commissioner's nose, and thereby an attempt be made to convince him that  it is the paragon of excellence. Those who have been foremost in complaining of the manifest nuisances, now hide themselves, and everything has become to them sweet by reason of the cold weather, feeling no anxiety for the future, and certainly no compunction for the past.

On 1 November the Kent Herald published a report, later to be found untrue, that the inspector had already started his work, but helpfully suggested an itinerary for him, parts of which have already been quoted:33

It is said but how truly we do not know, that a certain ambiguous looking personage at present perambulating the town, is none other than the government inspector in-cog,examining the correctness of the statement contained in the memorial forwarded a month back to the government in reference to the sanitary condition of Mar­gate. If such be the case the conclusion he must arrive at is easy to guess, particularly so if he wends his way towards High-street and thence to the Harbour which has evolved the most vile stench imaginable, from the decomposing sea weed during the past week. If the gentleman goes eastward along King-street the atmosphere is little if any better, it being as medical men assert constantly charged with fever more or less and arising from an imperfect (and in some cases) total absence of drainage and no supply of water to the numerous courts and alleys, cess-pools, and slaughter-houses, in a densely populated neighbourhood. Proceeding onwards and contiguous to a dirty place known as the Town-yard is the gas house, the surrounding air of which is rendered exceedingly impure by the noxious gases that are sent forth from the factory; — if he proceeds southward he inhales the pestilential air of the grave yard and where the occupiers of the house adjoining assert that the heads of the  coffins come flush against the founda­tion or kitchen wall, and have actually been seen through the crevices in the brick wall, and the mice travel in and out, rendering it necessary to cement the holes up. Con­tinuing on, the parish church-yard meets his view where for some hundreds of years interments have taken place, and which has long been considered full, and without any disinfectant having been applied to it, even during the worst times of the cholera. The very appearance of the place will show it is surcharged with dead bodies, and yet it is surrounded with dwellings, no steps having been taken for its closing which it imperatively demands. We say if the gentleman in question is present in the town with those glaring facts before him, and he can come to any other conclusion than that it wants prompt remedial measures, it will require stronger evidence than has ever been submit­ted to an enquiring board. The oppositionists are deserving of credit for the energetic manner in which they persevere in obtaining statistical evidence of health and longevity of one from the 99 who fell victims; but the plan cannot be admired of enlisting under their banner poor people who from their birth have been unacquainted with domestic comforts arising from a total ignorance of sanitary rules and observances, and who as much dread an innovation on their long accustomed habits, producing ill health and pauperism, as they would an increased rent charge, even if the proceeds of the latter went to raise their moral and physical condition. Such evidence comprising the fact also that the deaths for the last quarter were equal to the 12 months’ previous, and that there is no service of water and very little sewerage, will tend of itself to bring about a better state of things and that speedily.

The reformers believed they had a strong case: ‘cess­pools, privies, and burial grounds . . . courts, alleys, and slaughter-houses . . . — to sum up in a few words, the town is not one eighth part drained, nor yet one quarter supplied with good water — and the authorities of the town know it — but "for a reason they have" public attention must not be directed to it’.88 But the opponents of reform were also busy marshalling their arguments, or, as the Kent Herald put it: ‘right busy are “the old school” preparing for the ordeal of an examination’.88 The anti-reformers were relying on a statistical analysis proving ‘the longevity and limited number of deaths in Margate, as compared to other places’.88 This statistical analysis was being prepared by Edward Mottley, a farmer and cow-keeper in Margate with an interest in science and statistics, born in 1799. His real importance for Margate history is, however, that he was honorary secretary of the Margate Municipal Reform Association, ‘a society whose object is to control the expenditure of the parochial rates’.89 This brought him into conflict with the Cobbs and the Improvement Commissioners, against whom he had fought a long battle for reform of Margate governance, a battle in which he was often joined by Joshua Waddington. It might have been thought that this would have made him a strong supporter of a petition to the General Board of Health, but presumably worries about likely effects on the rates in fact made him a strong opponent.

In February and March 1849 Mottley gave two lectures to the Margate Literary and Scientific Institution in their rooms in Hawley Square, on ‘Respiration and Vital Statistics’.90,91 The lectures drew a large audience: ‘the [lecture]  theatre was densely crowded, the subject was beautifully illustrated by some elegant diagrams and statistical tables.’ He concluded that statistics proved that ‘Margate ranks amongst the most healthy and salubrious places in the kingdom’. He decided to publish these results as a pamphlet but the pro-reformers plastered the walls of Margate with a spoiling poster:92

BE NOT DECEIVED, EVIL COMMUNICATIONS CORRUPT GOOD MANNERS – It is believed that shortly will appear, ‘Statistics on the Longevity and Limited Number of Deaths in Margate, compared with other Localities,’ elegantly bound in calf, tooled, and lettered, with extra sophistry, showing that the sea-coast of Margate, being a promontory, without a supply of water or sewerage, is really more healthy than a less healthy town. These sapient vested interested philanthropists, with their man Friday, blessed with the milk of human kindness, saying  all things to all men, yet a skeptic, would not for the world violate humanity and entail upon the poor unnecessary sickness, deaths, funerals, crime, and all the concomitant miseries attendant thereon, by cherishing an old, dirty, and dangerous system, — such as  thousands of cesspools and water closets, with a well, as a companion, to receive the  infiltration; burial grounds full, dirty courts and filthy streets, houses without sufficient light and ventilation, and not one yard of sewerage; no, certainly not, they only wish to show that by some magic, that the town can bear eternally the deposition of all the refuse of 11,000 inhabitants, with the addition of 50 to 60,000 visitors annually, to fill up the imperial measure, and yet be pure. Yet, although the fact may be as red as scarlet, it, by some supernatural agency shall be as white as snow. Church-yards, cesspools, and refuse, give out abundantly sulphureted hydrogen, as well as other deadly gases, and the champions of filth know it. Now mark the subtlety of the poison: — Sulphureted hydrogen gas, 1 part in 1500 of atmospheric air, would destroy a bird; 1 part in 800 of atmospheric air is instant death to a dog or a man. Then how can men congregate (sometimes under very unfavorable circumstances) constantly exposed to such poisons, without suffering a corresponding damage to their physical and vital powers? Can we be surprised at the numerous and unnecessary deaths artfully kept a secret from the people by some men; and also the professional and legitimate name of typhus, most absurdly, and old womanishly, called bilious fever? For further information see Kent Herald of Thursday, Nov. 1st, a paper sufficiently circulated not requiring a reprint of its contents to give them publicity. — WATCHMAN — Margate, Nov. 3, 1849

Mottley did indeed publish his pamphlet, in January 1850, with the title ‘The vital statistics of the town of Margate for the twelve years, ending June 1849’93 with a revised edition published later that year.85 He showed that the annual mortality rate in Margate was low, and that lung diseases such as scrofula and consumption were rare, as were diseases such as scarlatina and typhus that were typical of poor, crowded conditions. He did, however, have to concede that ‘the south side of King Street, is built almost within the ancient Swach, or Water-way, and lying in part under high-water mark, is occasionally liable to be overflowed; many of the houses there situated are of considerable antiquity, and badly constructed; low fever is occasionally present, — it is seldom fatal.’ He added that this ‘lower fever’ was not present ‘in sufficient amount or intensity to have any appreciable effect upon the general health of the Town’. This was probably little consolation to those unlucky enough to be actually living on Margate’s south side, who also had to live with the problem that ‘the water on the South side of King Street . . . is unfit for culi­nary purposes, and brackish from infiltration’ although ‘the water on the North side of King Street, is excellent, and the supply unlimited’.

Mottley’s efforts were strongly supported by the other anti-reformers. The Canterbury Journal attacked both the pro-reformers and the Kent Herald:94  ‘The distorted weekly reports in the Kent Herald respecting Margate nuisances, ad nauseum, are well known to proceed from spite and envy [by those] being kept out of the town commission. We hope, if occasion requires, to hear the evidence of our principal medial men, men of longstanding in the profession, men who have patients to attend to and who are, therefore, able to speak from practical experience. . . . “The Vital Statistics of Margate”, lately published by Mr. Edward Mottley, are a glorious refutation of the base attempts which have been made to deprecate the health of Margate in the eyes of its visitors and the world.’ A month after publication of the Vital Statistics, ‘a subscription amounting to more than forty pounds, has been raised in Margate, within a few hours, to reimburse Mr. Mottley for his outlay in publishing “The Vital Statistics of the Town of Margate," . . . and to ensure a second edition of four thousand copies’.95 Mottley also received strong support in a ‘manifesto’ sent out by Joshua Waddington:96

The health of Margate. The late articles in the Kentish Observer, deeply interest the inhabitants of Margate, now that they are in a daily expectation of a visit from a Superintendent Inspector of the General Board of Health to inquire into, and report upon, the statements made by Dr. Chambers, and others, respecting the sewerage, drainage, supply of water, and sanitary conditions of the inhabitants – thus, striking at the very root of the welfare of Margate, as a fashionable ‘watering place,’ and resort for invalids. I deny the prevalence of epidemic, or endemic diseases, beyond the usual limited extent, and which is proved by Mr. Mottley’s excellent work, ‘The vital statistics of the town of Margate.’ – When the day arrives, it will be curious to see who the parties are who will stand up in the Town-hall and record their opinions against the wishes, and the best interests of the great mass of the inhabitants. If the ‘Health of Towns Act’ is carried out in Margate, it will, beyond all question, impose additional heavy burdens on the rate payers, already ground down to the utmost by the pressure of local taxation. Every legitimate means ought, therefore, to be employed to prevent the operation, in this town, of so obnoxious an enactment. I am prepared to pay my quota of the charge. It is not for myself, or for persons in my position, that I plead: I advocate the cause of the poor, who can ill afford to have any additional burden thrown upon them. JOSHUA WADDINGTON.

Toward the end of 1849 there were numerous rumors that the General Board’s Inspector had been seen ‘quietly walking about the town’13 but all proved false alarms until, finally, in May 1850, the Kent Herald was able to announce ‘On Monday last notices were posted up on the chapel and church doors that Edward Cresy, Esq., was appointed under the Public Health Act to open a Court of Enquiry on Wednesday the 29th inst. at the Town Hall, touching the sanitary condition of this town in respect to drainage, sewerage, a supply of water and intramural internments’.97 Edward Cresy was a surveyor and civil engineer, born in 1792, with wide interests and widely travelled in Europe. He published a series of books on the architecture of Italy, on bridge building, and on Gothic architecture, as well as an encyclopaedia of civil engineering. In the 1840s he became an enthusiastic supporter of the movement for sanitary reform and, because of his expertise in hydraulics, was appointed to be one of the first five superintending inspectors to the General Board of Health.98,99   

The naming of the date of the enquiry prompted a flurry of activity, and ‘a hand bill has been issued by one of the opponents to the measure, having for its object to deter persons from giving evidence’.100 The text of the handbill, by Joshua Waddington, was published in the Canterbury Journal:87

RATE PAYERS OF MARGATE! — One tenth of the rated inhabitants of the parish of St. John, Margate, have, it is said, signed a memorial to ‘the General Board of Health,’ asking for a public inquiry: — in other words, have proclaimed to all the world that Margate — a fashionable watering place, wholly dependent upon its summer visitors — is both dirty and unhealthy! I believe, that ninety-nine out of every one hundred of the simple minded memorialists, have repented signing that which must, if carried out, lead to increased local rates and assessments. On Wednesday next, the 29th instant, at the Town Hall, at ten o’clock in the forenoon, Edward Cresy, Esq., one of the Superintending Inspectors of the ‘Public Health Act,’ will be prepared to meet all persons desirous of being heard upon the subject of the said inquiry. Remember! — if no evidence is offered, the matter must fall to the ground. If evidence is given, even by one rate payer (ever so disreputable) the odious Government measure will be carried out. Having resided among you nearly forty five years, I am curious to see the individual who will have the hardihood to stand up in the Town hall, and slander the town, to the injury of his neighbour. Let every rate payer be at his post — he will find open courts and fair play no longer strangers at Margate. The definition which Demosthenes gives of eloquence is — ‘Action.’ It was by energy in a bad cause, that the Leaguers (Dr. Chambers and Mr. Towne) succeeded in cajoling the rate payers into signing the memorial. They have shown you how to agitate, — follow their example, not by ‘pressure from without,’ but by ‘a voice like thunder from within;’ show that we have the true secret of the means by which we may secure – Justice to Margate! — Your well-wisher, JOSHUA WADDINGTON — Marine Terrace, Monday, May 27th, 1850.