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Response to Review of Governing Systems: Modernity and the Making of Public Health in England, 1830–1910

I am immensely grateful to Professor Hamlin for his generous and wide-ranging review. Having written so brilliantly on the subject himself, he knows first-hand what it is to wrestle with such a richly documented and much-debated field of government. I’m glad he thinks that I largely – if by no means entirely – succeeded in offering a new way of making sense of what became a truly pervasive, multi-layered, multi-disciplinary governmental complex: ‘the stuff of ordinary English life’.

He’s quite right to suggest that more work is required. My own book, though long, might have been much longer. I can only hope it serves, as he suggests it might, to stimulate others to make up for its many omissions. There is certainly still much to discover, and most of all, as Hamlin advises, during the long reign of the Local Government Board (LGB, 1871–1919), which is really the period when ‘public health’ (in his third sense) emerged as a localized, professionalized force across all of England. Here I can only embellish Hamlin’s suggestions. Historians have detailed the work of medical officers, sanitary inspectors and health visitors; but not that of town clerks, public analysts, and borough surveyors and engineers. The latter constitute an especially notable omission: while Bazalgette’s monumental scheme for London (which was largely complete by the mid-1860s) has rightly garnered attention, we know barely anything about how local engineers and contractors fared in places like Stoke-on-Trent or Doncaster during the latter decades of the century.(1) My own chapter on the subject – chapter 5 – only scratched the surface. 

Likewise, the LGB itself merits further investigation, not least the work of central officials when they ventured outside of Whitehall and interacted, face-to-face, as they had to, with councillors, landowners and businessmen (though councillors and local officials would also travel to London for meetings in Whitehall). To my knowledge, no detailed study has yet been undertaken on the ‘public inquiries’ conducted by LGB inspectors in the course of granting loans to local authorities – and yet there were hundreds of inquiries every year, some of which, it seems, involved confronting often intricate financial and administrative disputes between and within local authorities. Finally, sources: to those noted by Hamlin, one might add, more specifically, the Local Government Chronicle, which began life in 1872. Of all the printed sources I’ve encountered, this conveys best just how much public health, perhaps even more so than the poor law – the other chief responsibility of the LGB – dominated the routine work of local authorities at this time.

There is one aspect, however, that I would like to respond to in a more defensive fashion: the suggestion that the book is insufficiently attentive to matters of conflict, choice and negotiation, which in turn, Hamlin suggests, relates to one of the book’s guiding threads: the relentless focus on systems. I shall make two points. 

The first one is for the avoidance of confusion: simply that the term ‘system’ was widely used at the time. (It still is today.) It is not an anachronistic imposition. To be sure, to the extent that the term means a set of parts that relate to one another to form some kind of whole, the focus on systems offered a useful way of developing the broadly – and now quite orthodox – Foucauldian premise that governing is a diffuse enterprise that requires mobilizing a medley of different elements, human and non-human, discursive and material, and so on. Hence too my aversion toward making sense of what happened in terms of ‘the state’, which is perhaps best seen as the result or effect of multiple systems. Yet, it also offered a neat fit with how the Victorians and Edwardians themselves talked about governing, and distinguished between particular administrative practices and infrastructures. To give but one example, the work of the General Register Office, which I examine in chapter three, was performed by a number of (interlocking, crisscrossing) systems. Among others: the ‘system of registration’ that generated the raw data; the ‘ticking system’ that clerks used to collate raw items of data into tabulated, office-based form; the ‘classification systems’ that ordered the data once published for epidemiological and administrative purposes; the ‘national system of computation’ that then privileged a particular fact (the death rate) for assessing the sanitary efforts of local authorities – all terms that were used at the time. As I note in the introduction, others areas of governing were no different: at mid-century, elementary schools were variously practising ‘monitorial’ and ‘simultaneous systems’ of instruction, or combinations of the two (the ‘combined system’). The examples are many, endless.

Of course, systems can be macro and micro, grandiose and modest, and there is a slippage, certainly, between ‘system’ understood loosely (as above, as a combination of parts) and system understood more systematically, as a combination of parts that function in a way that is orderly, methodical and efficient. But – and this brings me to my second point – this is precisely what, for me, made public health modern as it developed from the 1830s: which is to say, that it was henceforth articulated (in all senses of the term, material and discursive) in this polymorphous, multi-systemic fashion.

This is also where the book locates conflict – as well as negotiation, choice, frustration and confusion – which is, I would submit, more evident than Hamlin suggests. Let me put this schematically. On the one hand, the book details conflicts of a macro-systemic sort, such as competing visions of centre-local relations; or again, and partly overlapping with the former, Chadwick’s sanitary-infrastructural vision of public health (as then practised, disputed and reinterpreted by engineers) and Rumsey’s more state-medicalized vision (as then practised, disputed and reinterpreted by medical officers). As I argue, these large-scale visions of system and order were hugely important, for though none were realized, they set agendas, delimited possibilities, offered hope and progress. What was realized in fact was a kind of messy amalgam of all these (broken, contested, mangled) visions, as they were variously implemented and opposed, updated and refreshed, and then critiqued again, as ‘public health’ as an administrative enterprise gradually gained purchase on the ground.   

On the other hand, the book sought to detail conflicts of a micro-systemic sort, regarding (a) the particular design and functioning of more specialist, technical systems; and (b) their implementation and practice, where they met with varying degrees and types of resistance, from technical malfunction to public opposition. Among others that feature are the multiple technological systems that emerged – some water-borne, some ‘dry’ – for disposing of household excreta; systems for policing infectious disease, both on land (various notification systems) and portside (the ‘English system’); and systems of inspection and nuisance prevention. 

Hamlin is quite right that the book doesn’t deal with all the conflicts that animated and frustrated public health; and he usefully notes some of the approaches undertaken by others – and my own is but another approach, another way in. He’s right, too, to suggest that the book is also concerned with the embedding of systems, their routinization their – ‘growing systematicity,’ as he puts it – which is surely just as important as contestation and choice. Even so, the book does reconstruct, if certainly not all, then at least some of the key conflicts (from the macro to the micro) that opened up at the time, rich as they were in choice, possibility and agency. And as the book argues, even once conflicts had been resolved and particular choices pursued, no system functioned systematically – hence indeed the routinization of critique and the Sisyphean search for still greater system, which I see as such a crucial feature of modernity.  

I welcome Hamlin’s scepticism, as any author would in the context of such an engaged and smart review; but I do think, however badly executed in my own account, that such an approach can be put to useful work in terms of rethinking the multiple forms and varied intensities of conflict that animated public health at this momentous juncture – and perhaps beyond, into the 20th century; and maybe in other areas of governing too.


  1. Hamlin in fact is one of the few historians to have looked in detail at local engineers, albeit for the mid-century. See Christopher Hamlin, 'James Newlands and the Bounds of Public Health', Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 143 (1993), 117–39; and Christopher Hamlin, Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800–1854 (Cambridge, 1998), chap. 10.Back to (1)