How to look for records of... Public health and epidemics in the 19th and 20th centuries
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide to find out about
- official bodies that were created to manage public health
- legislation put in place to improve conditions
- how to search for relevant records
There is a separate guide on Health and social policy 1919-1939 that you should refer to for the inter-war period.
2. Essential information
You can search our catalogue for relevant records using keywords and dates. However, because the catalogue descriptions of these records are not very detailed it can be difficult to identify the right keywords to find the documents you want.
The printed current guide, available on site at Kew, can be used to identify useful keywords relating to this or other subjects. Ask for it at an enquiry desk.
The key administrative bodies involved in public health in the 19th and 20th centuries are listed below. Knowing the relevant government body for a particular period will help you to make more focused catalogue searches.
- 1805-1806 and 1831-1832 Board of Health
- 1834-1847 Poor Law Commission
- 1847-1871 Poor Law Board
- 1848-1858 General Board of Health
- 1871-1919 Local Government Board
- 1919-1968 Ministry of Health
The description of MH Division 1 also lists some key record series. Browse this list to see if anything covers your area of interest. To see more clearly how events and legislation during the 19th century fit together, you may find it useful to look at the
3. Parliamentary papers
Parliamentary papers are available online at The National Archives and many libraries and academic institutions. You can:
- search for papers using the paper number and the year
- browse by century, year and volume
- browse the 19th century subject catalogue – for instance health and housing; public health and sanitation; infectious diseases; cholera
Where parliamentary papers are mentioned in this guide we will mention the year, volume number and sometimes paper number.
4. Using our catalogue to find records
For tips on searching the catalogue, use the help page.
Look for mentions in this guide of:
- department references such as MH (Ministry of Health) or PC (Privy Council)
- series references such as MH 98 or PC 1
These will help you to focus your search for relevant records using the advanced search option in our catalogue.
The catalogue contains descriptions of the documents we have rather than their content. Only a few documents are available to view online. To see most documents you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. Alternatively, you can pay for research.
5. Board of Health 1805-1806 and 1831-1832
5.1 The first Board of Health
In February 1805 the Privy Council set up the Board of Health to give advice on preventing the spread of a fever from Spain and Gibraltar to Britain. The Board met until August 1806.
Most Board of Health papers are in record series PC 1. To locate relevant documents references try searching the catalogue within this record series using keywords such as ‘board of health’.
Reports from the board are in PC 1/3637 and PC 1/3666 and reports to the Board on foreign epidemics are in MH 98/1.
5.2 The second Board of Health
The early 1830s saw the following activity prompted by the threat of a cholera epidemic:
- June 1831: consultative Board of Health set up
- 25 October 1831: regulations to prevent the spread of cholera published in the London Gazette, available on The Gazette website
- November 1831: Central Board of Health established and local boards began to be set up. Surviving records are held in local record offices
- December 1832: Central Board was dissolved and local boards disappeared as cholera epidemic receded
Use keywords to search our catalogue within department reference PC to find useful records. Some key records for research in this area are:
- minutes of the consultative board in PC 1/101 and HO 31/17
- minutes of the Central board in PC 1/105
- letter books in PC 1/93-100
- list of local health boards in PC 1/102
- correspondence and miscellaneous papers in PC 1/102-114
- correspondence and reports relating to quarantine in PC 1/2660-2662 and PC 1/4395
6. Poor Law Commissioner’s surveys 1838-1842
The Poor Law Commission organised two surveys of the sanitary conditions of the poor in east London, one in 1838 and another in 1842.
The first survey was at the request of Edwin Chadwick, a Poor Law Commissioner, and was published in the annual report of the Poor Law Commissioners 1838 (Parliamentary paper number 147; 1837-8 vol xxvii)
The second survey was more extensive and was carried out by assistant commissioners with a report published under Chadwick’s name in 1842. Some key records relating to this survey are
- original survey returns in MH 32 and MH 12
- registers of correspondence between Commission and inspectors in MH 33
- William Day’s synopsis of reports on housing conditions in North Wales in MH 32/16
- correspondence from assistant commissioners Day and Gilbert in MH 33/2
7. Health of Towns Commission 1843
As a result of the 1842 Poor Law Commissioners report, the Royal Commission on the Health of Towns was appointed in 1843 to investigate the sanitary arrangements of 50 English towns. Its findings resulted in the Public Health Act in 1848.
8. General Board of Health 1848-1858
The Public Health Act 1848 established the General Board of Health for a period of five years. The Board was reconstituted in 1854 but abolished by the Public Health Act in 1858.
8.1 Local boards of health
The General Board could give permission for local boards of health to be set up. Where the average death rate exceeded 23 per 1000 the General Board could create local boards itself.
Most surviving records of the local boards are in local record offices and some public libraries.
The National Archives has local board sanitary inspection reports for Keswick in PC 1/2665 and Conway in PC 1/2667 as well as a copy of a set of reports (with some additions) on microfiche in PRO 28/125.
8.2 General Board of Health records
Key records relating to the General Board of Health include
- applications to form local boards and general correspondence in HLG 19 and MH 13
- correspondence and papers on cholera, yellow fever and quarantine in MH 13/245-50
- other correspondence in HLG 1 and HLG 46
- minute books in MH 5 and MH 6
- similar instruments sanctioning borrowing or mortgages by local boards are in HLG 15 with nominal registers in HLG 16
- Bill papers relating to public health and local government legislation are in HLG 29
9. Local Government Act Office and Privy Council Medical Department (from 1858)
In 1858 the General Board of Health’s functions were transferred to the
- Local Government Act Office (part of the Home Office)
- Medical Department of the Privy Council
9.1 Local Government Act Office
Under the Sanitary Acts of 1866-1870, local authorities became responsible for the provision of sewers, water and street cleaning and had to appoint Sanitary Inspectors.
9.2 Privy Council Medical Department
Papers relating to and collected by the Medical Officer and inspectors are in record series MH 113 along with copies of some of the Medical Officer’s annual reports.
Parliamentary papers online has a full collection of these reports which provide a picture of the health, social and industrial conditions of the period.
The few official records that survive from the Privy Council Medical Department are in record series PC 1.
10. Rationalisation of authorities
By 1870 over 700 authorities such as parish vestries, boards of guardians and highways boards had a hand in public health matters.
Legislative and administrative efforts to streamline management of public health included:
- 1869 Royal Sanitary Commission set up to look into management of public health
- 1871 Local Government Board Act transferred responsibility for sanitary and public health to the Local Government Board
- 1872 and 1875 Public Health Acts set up local sanitary authorities with medical officers of health to advise them
- 1888 county councils established with authority to appoint medical officers of health
- 1894 urban and rural district councils established as health administrations
11. Local Government Board 1871
The Local Government Board took on responsibility for local environmental health services from the Local Government Act Office in 1871.
The Public Health Department of the Local Government Board (LGB) dealt with the administrative aspects of public health and vaccinations. Key records relating to the department include:
- correspondence relating to notification of infectious diseases in MH 23
- general correspondence in MH 25
- local authority correspondence and papers in MH 12, MH 30 and MH 48
- departmental correspondence in MH 19
Some records relating to specific diseases are given below:
- cholera MH 19/227-244 and MH 13
- yellow fever MH 19/244-246
- plague MH 19/244, MH 19/247-275
- smallpox MH 19/276
- quarantine regulations MH 19/277-80
12. Surveys 1885-1895
Several public health surveys were undertaken by the LGB Medical Inspectorate towards the end of the 19th century:
- cholera in 1885
- port and riparian survey in 1892
- general sanitary survey in 1893-5
The returns of these investigations are among local authority correspondence in record series MH 12.
Search our catalogue within MH 12 using relevant dates and the name of the relevant urban or rural sanitary authority within a given poor law union.
13. Foreign epidemics
Correspondence about foreign epidemics is in MH 98 including:
- information from British consular officials
- statistics concerning mortality and the distribution of disease
- newspaper cuttings and extracts from foreign journals
- correspondence on related subjects such as ship quarantine
Similar material is in:
- the Buchanan Papers in MH 113
- files relating to specific diseases in MH 19
- correspondence from consular officials in Foreign Office General Correspondence series
Foreign Office records of international sanitary conferences include:
- Paris 1851-1853, 1859-1860 in FO 97/210-218
- Constantinople 1865-1867 in FO 78/2005-2008
- Austria 1874 in FO 7/982-983
- Venice 1891-1893 and, 1897 in FO 83/1280-1284, FO 83/1573
- Dresden 1893 in FO 83/1277-1279
- Paris 1893-1894 in FO 83/1329-1331
- Venice 1898 in FO 83/1641
- Paris 1902-1903 in FO 83/2055-2056
Colonial Office original correspondence also contains information about outbreaks of epidemic diseases.
14. 20th-century health
The Ministry of Health was established in 1919 under the Ministry of Health Act. It took on the powers and duties of the:
- Local Government Board
- National Health Insurance Commissions of England and Wales
- Privy Council under the Midwives Act
The National Health Service was established in 1948. For records relating to health policy in the 20th century search within the following record series and department references:
- MH 10 – circulars and publications 1834-1962
- MH 68 – correspondence with poor law authorities 1904-1933
- MH 52 – correspondence with local authorities 1913-1973
- BN – Dept Health & Social Security 1834-2003
- JA – Dept Health 1988 to date
- PIN – Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance 1854-1998
The following websites may also be useful for researching NHS history:
- National Health Service history (This link is to the WebArchive, and is a snapshot (archived copy) of the NHS website)
- BBC archive Birth of the National Health Service collection
- Nuffield Trust NHS timeline
15. Further reading
The following recommended publications are available in The National Archives’ Library
Anne Digby and John Stewart (eds) ‘Gender, Health and Welfare’ (Routledge, 1996)
Anne Digby, British Welfare Policy. Workhouse to Workfare (Faber and Faber, 1989)
Jane Lewis, ‘Gender, the Family and Women’s Agency in the Building of ‘Welfare States: The British Case’, Social History, 19 (1994)
Dorothy Porter, ‘Health, Civilization and the State: a History of Public Health from Antiquity to Modernity’ (Routledge, 1998)
Pat Thane, Foundations of the Welfare State (Longman, 1996)