The British Working Class Throughout the Nineteenth Century

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In this essay, I am contending that the mistrust between the British working-class and the doctors and health officials in the nineteenth century was justified. I support this view by looking at different factors that contributed to this distrust; the purchasing of cadavers by medical schools from grave robbers, deceptions by anatomy inspectors John Somerville and John Bacot, the effect of the grave-robbing scandals on the 1832 cholera outbreak, the concealment of the outbreak in Liverpool and finally the establishment of the 1853 Compulsory Vaccination act.

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I would argue that the mistrust of nineteenth century doctors and health officials between the British working class originated from the scandals involving grave-robbing and the selling of cadavers to medical schools. In the late 1820s, there was a short supply of cadavers to be used for dissection in medical schools. The scarcity of corpses and desperate demand from the schools lead to grave-robbers – also known as “Resurrectionists” – removing bodies from graves and selling them to the schools. This contextualises the nonchalant and careless attitude of doctors towards the deceased individual, whose stolen body they would purchase and dissect without consent. The cadavers were treated like entities rather than former human beings. Demand for corpses escalated to the point where people were murdered so their bodies could be sold to the schools. This led to the introduction of the 1832 Anatomy bill, allowing medical and anatomy schools access to “bodies of people who died in workhouses and hospitals” by assuming consent to dissection unless stated otherwise. It also allowed for donation of a relative’s cadaver . This did not go as well as planned, as workhouses soon became the epicentres of body trafficking when parish officials received money in exchange for corpses.

Furthermore, in 1832, James Somerville was the appointed anatomy inspector for England and Wales. His role involved regulating and scrutinizing the obtainment of cadavers, ensuring nothing unlawful was occurring, however he soon became corrupt. Somerville began to “condone evasions of the law” and proposed methods for anatomy teachers to attain cadavers without the families knowing. This demonstrates the enormous discourtesy shown by the health officials and doctors towards the individual’s and the relatives’ wishes for no dissection to occur. Additionally, John Bacot who succeeded Somerville, but was only in charge of the provinces, proved to be equally fraudulent. When a family wanted to claim a body, the body had already been sent for dissection at King’s College medical school, Bacot ordered the school to “bury the corpse quickly” and for a certificate to be sent to him, stating the body was sent straight from the workhouse to the grave. In addition to this, when a mother wanted to attend her son’s funeral, the school that had already received the boy’s body were instructed to “not touch the face, and return the corpse immediately”. These dishonesties and deceptions undoubtedly contribute to the development of mistrust between the middle classes and the doctors and health officials, as there was clear breaching of consent and overall impertinence towards the deceased and their families.

When cholera broke out in 1832, the mistrust and suspicion heightened to the extent where violent riots aimed at “authorities, doctors or both”broke out. This was due to the common belief that cholera patients who were admitted into hospital were killed by the doctors so their bodies could be sent for dissection. This was easily believable given the high demand for cadavers by medical schools and the high mortality rate of cholera. Another reason for mistrust was the concealment of the cholera outbreak in Liverpool, when the Liverpool Board of Health denied the existence of cholera for three weeks after the first case was reported. This allowed the Liverpool docks to stay open for shipping and to “continue to operate”), which would have been a “clear economic advantage” as the London and Bristol ports had been forced to close due to cholera outbreaks . This highlights how the health officials prioritised financial gains over the wellbeing of the population, essentially valuing business over human lives.

The lack of care demonstrated by health officials in the nineteenth century is further consolidated by the 1853 Compulsory Vaccination Act, which required all infants born in England or Wales to be vaccinated against smallpox. However, the orders to get vaccinated extended to workplaces where workers were forced to get vaccinated or they would lose their jobs, which would have been devastating. This became known as the “Vaccination or Starvation” policy in Gloucester in 1897 . Understandably, many members of the working class viewed this as an act that stripped them of the liberty to govern their children’s and their own bodies. Punishments for non-compliance were so harsh that they essentially had no other choice than to comply, thoroughly disrespecting and disregarding their rights and treating them like objects. Anyone who did not comply was either forced to pay a fine, have their belongings auctioned off to raise funds to cover the fine or face imprisonment. In the prisons, they were treated like common criminals. It could be argued that this may not be reason for mistrust, however, it certainly is sufficient to fuel the condemnation of the doctors and health officials within this time period, because of how they treated the working-class.


Throughout the nineteenth century, the British working-class had several reasons to mistrust doctors and health officials. The purchasing and non-consensual dissection of corpses by medical schools accentuated the immense lack of respect towards working class cadavers shown by doctors. The corpses were attained in such an inhumane way that they were essentially just seen as objects. Further objectification of the working-class was reinforced by the 1853 Compulsory Vaccination Act which withdrew their rights to oversee their own and their children’s bodies and punished them for not complying by fining, firing or imprisoning them. These things highlight the immeasurable lack of care shown by the doctors and health officials for the wishes and requests of the working-class. Furthermore, the concealment of the cholera outbreak in Liverpool underlined the negligent attitude shown by the health officials who decided to focus on economical benefit over the welfare of the community. Overall, the nonchalant, discourteous and callous treatment by the doctors and health officials was more than sufficient to spawn feelings of abhorrence and mistrust by the British working-class.  

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