There have been several major changes which have contributed to the improvement in the Public Health of the people of Wigan during the 20th century. The main changes have been in the extension of mains water supplies and drainage to virtually all properties, and the replacement of the slums that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. The provision of more and better hospitals and medical services has also helped. In recent years many new private housing and commercial developments have changed the appearance of Wigan beyond recognition, compared to its appearance one hundred years ago.
The improvement in water and drainage was a continuation of the developments that had started in the 19th century with the construction of the sewage works at Newburgh in 1881. Water supplies and drainage were extended to the slum clearance areas as new houses were built. Before the 1920's there was a lack of finance and interest in improving people's living conditions. It was the end of the First World War that started the changes.
In the King's Speech to Local Government representatives in 1919, the King stressed the need to improve "the unhealthy, ugly, overcrowded house ... if drink and crime are to be successfully combated".
Extract from King's Speech, April 1919
The first areas that were cleared for new housing were Beech Hill and Ridyard Street, which were redeveloped in the 1920's with semi-detached houses with gardens. George Orwell described these houses as "...well built and are quite agreeable to look at." He described the tenants as being "very well satisfied with their house and proud of it."
New Council Housing at Beech Hill, 1930's
Other housing, such as found in Whelley, was not of such a high quality. Orwell describes these properties as "House is cold, draughty and damp. Fireplace in living room gives out no heat and makes room very dusty...Fireplace in best bedroom is too small to be any use. Walls upstairs cracking." Even so they were far better than the houses they replaced.
One problem with all the new housing estates was that they broke up communities and had few shops, pubs or other facilities. There was no satisfactory public transport network to link the housing estates with where people worked. It was not until 1936 that a central bus station was built.
People complained about a lack of community spirit and restrictions that were imposed on them by the Council. For example they could not keep pigeons or poultry, and all gardens had the same hedges. To improve the hygiene standards the Council insisted on tenants being deloused before they could move in to their new homes, which many people felt was degrading.
After the Second World War more housing was built, this time three thousand houses were built in the Norley Hall area. In Scholes the Council built three storey flats instead of houses. In the 1960's many towns and cities built high rise flats, but Wigan has very few of these. The policy of the Council in recent years has been to improve its housing stock instead of replacing them. In the last forty years most of the new housing has been built by private developers, either in new areas or replacements for older sub-standard housing.
Sanitation improved as the housing was replaced. Death rates decreased as did diseases. Wrightington Hospital was built in 1933 as a specialist T.B. hospital. Improvements in the health of the country as a result of the development of anti-biotics helped improve the general health of the people. Hospitals have been modernised continuously and now include many specialised services that did not exist at the start of the century. These have come about since the introduction of the National Health Service after the Second World War.
Malnutrition was a problem during the wars and for a time afterwards. To help reduce this problem the Council provided extra food to schools. Free school milk was given to all children and babies received blackcurrant juice and cod liver oil. Adults could buy a cheap nutritious meal for under a shilling (4p/5p) from the British Restaurant in the Court Hall. As well as these services the Council introduced a Schools Medical Service in the 1930's. In fact, during the 1930's the Council set up no fewer than 32 Committees to discuss the whole range of health issues that affected the people of Wigan.
Since the Second World War malnutrition is no longer a problem, except for a very small minority of people. As people have become better off they have been able to buy far more types of food than ever before, and have a far wider choice of places to buy from. At the start of the century people had only small local shops to buy from, but now there are large supermarkets selling an enormous range of fresh or frozen foods.
One example of the changes in lifestyle that have occurred is the development of Wigan Pier, which was originally a coal loading jetty. Wigan Pier used to be a Music Hall joke, as people associated piers with the seaside, but it is now a thriving historical centre explaining to visitors how life has changed over the past one hundred years. Tourism itself hardly existed in 1900, but it is now a major industry. The Council were so impressed with the improvements that had been made to the town, that at one time they arranged for all letters going out from the town to be franked with the words "Wigan Has No Peer" and it probably hasn't!