ome historians have considered trends in real income, because these are the only measurable criteria, as though they are the only valid ones. But, in terms of life itself, it really mattered little how a labourer's wage varied between, say, 12s and 15s a week, if a dwelling-house with water supply, sewers and sanitation, in paved and drained streets, none capable, in other words, of safeguarding a normal span of human life, could not be afforded on any income under, say, 30s a week. Other historians have studied housing in terms of bricks and mortar per acre, or people per house, as though a few cubic feet more or less made all the difference. The quality and duration of life are social variables which have always depended upon an almost infinite range of economic and social factors, the most important of which in modern times are levels of real income, the degree of adulteration of food, the quantity and quality of housing, sanitation, paving, sewerage, water supply, open spaces, working conditions, and the public provision of the basic social services, of which education stands at the head of the list. Only some of these factors are capable of statistical measurement.
. . . If the decline of the death rate had continued after the first decade of the nineteenth century, it is just possible that existing institutions and existing policies might have been able to cope with the social problems of urban development. But the earlier reduction of mortality was itself the means of releasing upon the hapless cities a flood of immigrants from the surrounding countryside which inflated the subsequent difficulties beyond all hope of solution under existing regimes. However, so inured were the men of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to the toll of disease, to the shortness of the span of urban human life, that they were unlikely to be moved by only a slight rise in the death rate, which, in any case, was not easily detectable in the short-run fluctuations produced by epidemics.
Last modified 26 September 2002