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?

  • Some

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

Read the administrative background information in the catalogue descriptions of MH and MH Division 1 for useful information about the formation and responsibilities of these official bodies.

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:

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.

The Commission’s minute book is in MH 7/1 and its report was printed for parliament (Parliamentary papers number 572; 1844 vol xvii and number 602; 1845 vol xviii)

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.

Reports from the Local Government Act Office are in MH 13 and correspondence about them is in HO 45.

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.

Correspondence from the medical inspectors is in MH 32/105 and MH 32/106.

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:

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:

Foreign Office records of international sanitary conferences include:

Colonial Office original correspondence also contains information about outbreaks of epidemic diseases.

Confidential print (available onsite at Kew and also by subscription through Adam Matthew) and Parliamentary Papers are further sources.

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:

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)