To Visit the Sick (2)

Behind the scene ...

The causes of sickness and the recurring epidemics of typhus and cholera in particular were the subject of research in the 1830s in England and Ireland. Conditions in the workhouses and their contribution to the spread of illness and disease among the people living there were also investigated. The Review of the Operation of the Poor Law Act (1837-38), undertaken by a Select Committee of the House of Lords, sought the opinions of medical practitioners on workhouse conditions and the spread of disease.  An extract from the Report of 1837-38, with the Minutes of Evidence (pp. 555-556), records the evidence of one medical practitioner as follows:

Q: “Did the persons who came in eat of this Gruel also? A: Yes.

Q: Diarrhoea is not infectious is it? A: Not in a general way. I think the Health is very much injured by coming in to such a confined house and that they had taken the disease. The children were lying five and six in a bed.

Q: The illnesses might have arisen from other causes than the Gruel? A: I think the Gruel was the immediate cause ... Their health was injured by being brought into so confined a house, where there were so many diseased persons.

Q: Was there any other disease prevailing? A: No; it was principally cases of diarrhoea. There were also some old persons, such as there always are in workhouses.”

It must have been difficult for doctors and workhouse officials to improve health conditions in such overcrowded situations, with so few resources available to them.


Report from the Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to examine into the several cases alluded to in certain papers respecting the operation of the Poor Law Amendment Act, and to report thereon. With the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee and an index thereto. Part 1 (1837-38).