[In “Kingsley, Millar, Chadwick on Poverty and Epidemics” the author explains the various contexts of Kingsley’s efforts to improve the environment in which the lower classes lived, worked, and died. — George P. Landow]

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harles Kingsley campaigned for something far more ambitious than the solutions to dangers to health and environment proposed in the Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain or the Report from the Select Committee on the Health of Towns. He argued in ‘The Science of Health’ that insanitary living was causing the English ‘race’ to ‘degenerate’, and he therefore proposed measures based on the science of health to preserve the whole ‘race’ from degeneration. With an unworldly disinterest in financial matters and Parliamentary politics, he proposed an authentically national benefit because his proposals encompassed even ‘the weakest’, those least likely to survive (8). He argued that faced with a weakly person, society must be pro-active, ‘save life’ and ‘alleviate pain’, but he conceded that the inevitable consequence would be that each year we ‘preserve a large percentage of weakly persons who, marrying freely in their own class...must produce weaklier children, and they weaklier children still’. He proposed a national educational programme as the solution. Everyone should learn about physiology thereby enlightening them about the body’s workings and keeping it healthy to prevent the inheritance of weakness by the next generation. Like ‘our hardy forefathers’ (8) their offspring would inherit strength and survive rather than become extinct. In this he was echoing Edwin Chadwick on the value of education for the younger generation: ‘the younger population, bred up under noxious physical agencies, is inferior in physical organisation and general health to a population preserved from the presence of such agencies. That the population so exposed is less susceptible of moral influences, and the effects of education are more transient than with a healthy population’ (Conclusion).

Preservation and education dominated Kingsley’s agenda and the November 1854 Nineteenth Century carried a magnificent article by him that called for preserving human beings from the ravages of industrialization. In it he anticipated a time when Divine Providence would ensure a ‘higher civilisation’ in which ‘our human refuse shall be utilised like our material refuse; when man as man, down to the weakest and most ignorant, shall be found (as he really is) so valuable that it will be worthwhile to preserve his health, to develop his capabilities, to save him alive, body, intellect, and character, at any cost; because men will see that a man is, after all, the most precious and useful thing on the earth, and that no cost spent on the development of human beings can possibly be thrown away’ (my italics).

This is an impassioned argument for preserving ‘our human refuse’, the tragic product of industrialization, from disease and physical and spiritual deprivation, and in 1872 he proposed that for the benefit of all, ‘the science of health, now so utterly neglected in our curriculum of so-called education, ought to be taught — the rudiments of it at least — in every school, college, and university’ (8).

In his 1872 lecture he described the Industrial Revolution, despite its deleterious effects, as part of God’s Providence ‘for which God is to be thanked’ and celebrated an event which was ‘a sudden and unprecedented change’ in which millions found work, married, had children and led ‘more, or less civilised lives’. Yet cholera, typhus, scrofula, consumption, rickets, and alcoholism permeated the new overcrowded industrial centres. In 1849 Kingsley had seen for himself the cause of the Bermondsey cholera outbreak in London’s Docklands - drinking polluted water. He described seeing people ‘throwing untold horrors into the ditch, and then dipping out the water and drinking it!!’ (Memoirs, 216). But he remembered what he had witnessed in Bermondsey in 1849, when he welcomed the Industrial Revolution as Providential. He described it ambivalently as a new ‘phase of humanity’, with ‘new comforts’, ‘new noblenesses’, ‘new generosities’, and ‘new conceptions of duty’ - but with its own ‘temptations and dangers’. Kingsley dramatically amplified these as the degeneration created by the proletariat’s insanitary living conditions. He told his audience that industrialization had degraded the ‘race’ and transformed their physical degradation into moral degeneration for it had given them ‘stooping, asphyxiated, sedentary and unwholesome lives’ in unhealthy houses and workshops where strong drink compensated for ill health and depression. In a Lamarckian version of the adaptation of species he argued that the proletariat had adapted to the insanitary living conditions and become degenerate. Their off-spring and then their off-spring would inherit the degeneration, and finally the whole race would be permanently degenerate (p. 10).

As a way of preserving everyone from the degeneration he saw threatening the U.K., Kingsley celebrated enlightened welfare practice: ‘Every sanitary reform, prevention of pestilence, medical discovery, amelioration of climate, drainage of soil, improvement in dwelling-houses, workhouses, gaols; every reformatory school, every hospital, every cure of drunkenness’ had interfered with natural selection and saved the weak (10). He did not subscribe to the Malthusian doctrine of rejecting any governmental ‘restraint’ (15, 1), and, unlike the laissez-faire Parliamentarians who were reluctant to require the relevant bodies to carry out the necessary cleansing and other improvements, Kingsley advocated organisation of social welfare by national and local government. In a hard-hearted age he proposed that government had the responsibility to create an environment favourable to human survival and healthy evolution.

Polluted drinking water was a major source of infection, and Kingsley, who had seen for himself the results of drinking polluted water (see above), argued that safe, clean waster was essential for good health. He therefore demanded government control London’s water supplies (1874, pp. 34-43) at a time when households made ever increasing demands on them. In 1850, for instance, the average daily household water usage was 160 gallons, but that rose in just six years to 244 (Halliday, 199).

He sets forth his ideas in the form of a conversation with a schoolboy. The boy suggests building dams (50). Kingsley rejects this because of the attitudes of the poor that scarcity has forced on them: ‘the less water they get; and the less they care to have water; and the less they are inclined to pay for it; and the more, I am sorry to say, they waste what little they do get’. The boy suggests a solution: ‘But why not let some company manage it, as they manage railways, and gas, and other things?’ Kingsley replies by arguing against new water companies on these grounds: ‘the men who make up companies are no worse than other men, and some of them, as you ought to know, very good men; yet what they have to look to is their profits; and the less water they supply, and the worse it is, the more profit they make’ (51). The odd situation in which supplying foul water becomes profitable is simple. Water companies do not want the expense of purifying the water before supplying it. Kingsley’s solution is expensive action by the State - the government must send in teams of inspectors and compel the companies to take the utmost care. Since its population is growing exponentially, London needs more water and that need ‘we must not leave to any private companies. It must be done by a public authority, as is fit and proper in a free self-governing country’. This has to involve the extension and greater stringency of the Acts of Parliament for the ventilation of factories and workshops, with inspectors ‘empowered also to demand a proper system of ventilation for every new house, whether in country or in town. To that, I believe, we must come’.

However, there was a limit to Kingsley’s envisaged imposition of state control. In ‘The Two Breaths’, a lecture which he gave at Winchester in 1869, he made his position clear: ‘I look forward--I say it openly--to some period of higher civilisation, when the Acts of Parliament for the ventilation of factories and workshops shall be largely extended, and made far more stringent; when officers of public health shall be empowered to enforce the ventilation of every room in which persons are employed for hire; and empowered also to demand a proper system of ventilation for every new house, whether in country or in town. To that, I believe, we must come: but I had sooner far see these improvements carried out, as befits the citizens of a free country, in the spirit of the Gospel rather than in that of the Law; carried out, not compulsorily and from fear of fines, but voluntarily, from a sense of duty, honour, and humanity’ (20).

In this way his Christian socialism comprehensively refuted laissez-faire politics. He did not argue that disease and unhealthy environments should be allowed to eliminate the weak but aimed for the opposite. Faced with a weakly person, society must ‘heal, strengthen, develop him to the utmost’, and ‘every human - hearted man or woman’ must follow their conscience and ‘save life, alleviate pain, like Him who causes His sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and His rain to fall on the just and on the unjust’ (10).

To achieve his ideals, the Baconian Kingsley proposed to educate all Britons about physiology so that everyone might better understand the body’s workings and keep themselves healthy to prevent the inheritance of weakness by the next generation. Like ‘our hardy forefathers’ (8) their offspring would inherit their strength and survive rather than become extinct. For the sake of the younger generation, he proposed that biology be taught in schools since it constituted real ‘technical education’, i.e. the art of staying alive. For the young he further proposed that they learn the causes of diseases, such as scrofula, consumption, rickets, dipsomania, and cerebral derangement. Unusual for a Victorian, he refused argued against sheltering young women from such topics. Finally. he proposed to teach everyone an understanding of good drainage - to free people from the dangers of the lethal ‘miasma’. This would be an essential triumph of applied science and promote communal strength.

Kingsley’s ambitions caused him to include more than physiology, psychology and drainage in his programme. Dean Stanley said at Kingsley’s funeral, he ‘desired, with a passionate desire’ for the artisans and working man of London ‘pure air, pure water, habitable dwellings’, and in 1872 he added personal hygiene, unadulterated food, clothes, physical and mental exercise, and schools of health.

We see different sides of Kingsley unite in his program: The Classicist Kingsley summarised the desired result as ‘the mentem sanam in corpore sano’; the Baconian Kingsley insisted that people should obey the natural law as God’s will expressed in ‘facts’; the Christian Darwinist Kingsley believed that God governed by a process of natural selection that often operated by chance. Therefore, people had to understand the divinely created world and the divine law which they must obey, pursuing His wishes and not their own. Thus following God’s law would check evolutionary degeneration. Kingsley regarded science as the key to human progress, which depended upon the extermination of ‘the germs of hereditary disease’ (12). Following sciencewould remove the threat of degeneration.


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Last modified 31 May 2020