York and the 1918 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic

One hundred years ago, the ‘Spanish Influenza’ attacked York

Hello, I’m Chloe – from January to March of this year I’ve been on a placement at York Explore, researching the impact the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu had on York. As a History Masters student, I’m used to research, but this has been a new and exciting experience for me!


Chloe researching the 1918 influenza in York Explore’s reading room

I’ve been looking through newspapers, diaries, council minute books and cemetery records, and have found some surprising results. First, a little background information. The title “Spanish Flu” came from reportage from Spain; their press was uncensored, unlike in Britain, so it looked like they were suffering more from the epidemic. The flu killed around 100 million worldwide, with 200,000 in England and Wales.

Workhouse death register_1918

Extract from York Workhouse death register, 1918

The first wave hit York in July 1918, with a second more deadly wave in October. I’ve found answers to:

  • Who was most at risk from influenza?
  • How did local authorities respond?
  • Which areas of York were badly hit?

As well as much more! This information will be displayed as an exhibition on Sunday 18 March at York Explore Library and Archive, Library Square, 11.30am-3pm. Come along to our archives reading room to find out more about how York was impacted by the flu, and see some of the original documents I used.

It has been an interesting, but also an emotional experience for me. I was surprised at how different the Spanish Flu was from the bouts we have now. I didn’t know much about it before, so this placement has been eye-opening for me. There were times when I smiled, particularly after reading a newspaper notice apologising about a shortage of Bovril, which was believed to help prevent the flu. On the other hand, it was sad reading through cemetery records and seeing all the lives cut short through this epidemic.

Looking through the archives has been a personal experience. There are such a variety of documents – this type of research is so different from reading a history textbook. You get more of a sense of the people living through this experience one hundred years ago. The staff and volunteers at York Explore are all friendly and I would encourage you to visit.

You can find information on how to get to York Explore here: https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/york-explore/

Hope to see you at the exhibition, and thanks for reading!



Action packed boxmaking

Hello all,

As we near the end of conserving the Poor Law Union and Workhouse Records, I have been busy completing the final lot of repairs to especially damaged material and creating bespoke boxes. Today I thought I would share how I’ve been making the enclosures.

Bespoke enclosure for Poor Law Union volume

Around fifty of the Poor Law Union volumes are too large, too damaged, or otherwise poorly suited to fit inside our standard archive boxes (or would rattle around our next standard size). In creating bespoke enclosures, I was looking for a design that would be:

  • Simple to make
  • Create a minimum of waste board or card
  • Did not require rivets (to avoid purchasing materials and equipment we didn’t already have).

After completing several tests designs, I found a one that fit the bill. Once a workflow was established, these enclosures could be completed in about 20-25 minutes each, doing four to six at one time, as the space allowed.

I choose a four flap design, made with 1000 micron (1mm) archival laminated boxboard and tied with 16 mm unbleached cotton tying tape. I based the design on this one here, but modified slightly it avoid having the abrasive tapes directly against the books (a majority of the volumes had red rot damage which was just consolidated).

Below is a diagram of the boxboard construction and measurements.


First, the volume is measured using a book measuring machine, which helps ensure that any wonky books are accurately measured at their largest dimensions. These dimensions are entered into an excel file I created with the box formula (linked at the bottom of the post). It doesn’t take much time to calculate by hand for one or two enclosures, but when completing them in batches, I found this system reduced the overall making time since the measurements could be done ahead of time and boxes completed when it was convenient.



The boxes are made from three pieces of board (protector piece A, vertical piece B, a horizontal piece C ) that are cut and creased so that they fit snugly against each other. The two pieces of equipment have been helpful is a board chopper and a board creaser, which improve accuracy and speed when creating the boxes. The pieces are then rounded at the corners with a corner rounder, and then folded into shape.



I use a straight chisel to create a slot one-third of the way from the top and bottom edge of each side of horizontal piece C.  The tying tape is threaded through the slots using a piece of polyester as a needle to pull it through, this holds the tapes in place when the enclosures are tied. Pieces B and C are then adhered together with EVA and weighted down until dry.


Once it is tested for size, the enclosure is now complete! 

Volume in enclosure

Thanks for reading!


Link to the excel Four flap enclosures template.



Final thoughts…

Three months go really fast, especially when you always have something to do and you enjoy what you do. So have been my three months working at York Explore Archive: quick, but really interesting. Certainly, working with Julie-Ann, Tiffany and the volunteers who work in this project has been a wonderful experience that I will never forget.

In these months, the archive has allowed me to learn how York was between 19th and 20th centuries. It was, without doubt, a very different city from the one we know today: for example, The Shambles was not so dreamful as to open Harry Potter shops for tourists. Streets such as Walmgate or Hungate were areas where some of the poorest people of the city lived. And, of course, York was not the clean and healthy city that we know today. Nonetheless, the huge amount of documentation of the Health Committee and other institutions show that the health care was a matter of great concern to the authorities.


Butchers selling their wares in The Shambles in the 1890s

It would be really hard to try to explain in a few lines everything I have learned, so I think I am not going to try to!. I think it is much easier if you come to the archive and discover yourself all the possibilities it offers. So, I want to encourage all people living in York to come to this lovely centre one day to learn a bit more about this astonishing city, or even encourage them to work as volunteers on one of these projects. I can guarantee that if you come you are going to discover many of the secrets that this city hides. After all, an archive like this is a “box” where the entire memory of a city is stored, waiting for its citizens to open it up to learn.

Finally, I want to finish this post by thanking all the people who have supported me during these months to make this possible. All of you are an important part of this incredible experience.

Thank you so much everyone and thank you for reading,

Carlos Parra

Initial impressions…

This month we have a post from the newest Past Caring team member: our fantastic Erasmus intern from Spain…

Hello everybody,

I’m writing on this blog to introduce myself as the Erasmus intern who will be working at York Explore Library and Archive during the following months. My name is Carlos Parra and I am a graduate in History from the University of Valladolid (Spain) since July 2017.

Like all students, in the months before finishing this stage of my life I was totally full of doubts and fears: what’s coming now? What future waits? Will I be able to work in the field I have studied? I have never faced such a big decision and I really did not know what to do! The big moment was getting closer and closer and while this happened I was more confused about what to do. Finally, I got it, what I needed was time to think. In the meantime, I needed a way that would help me to prepare myself for the future so I decided to join the Erasmus programme.

The Law Faculty, Valladolid

The magnificent building which is home to the Faculty of Law and the Archives of the University of Valladolid. I gained experience in the Archives before coming to York.

Actually, some of my friends had tried this opportunity before and their experiences were the key in persuading me that this was the right way. So, I started a long search for an institution that would accept me as an Erasmus trainee; and that was not easy at all. I sent an uncountable amount of emails, more than a hundred I am sure. Luckily for me, before I finished my Degree an institution accepted my application and agreed to welcome me as an Erasmus trainee. Furthermore, it was an archive – York Explore! One of the fields I am most proud to work in during my career.

A few months later, everything was ready for my trip and a few days before I started my traineeship I was flying to York. I cannot explain the mixture of nervousness and happiness that I felt: on one side, I thought I was leaving many things behind and, on the other hand, I just thought on the months to come. A new city, new friends, new job and a lot of experience before coming back to Spain. I can only thank all the people who helped me in my first days and made my arrival much easier.

Since starting work at the archive I have realised that many things about the arrangement and the organization are very similar to Spanish archives. However, a lot of things are different and this has offered me the opportunity to learn new points of view about the treatment of documents and about the methods used to bring citizens closer to the archives, one point in which Spanish archives, only used by academics, have a lot to learn. Furthermore, I think it is incredible how volunteers work together with archivists on cataloguing and repackaging tasks; it is a very strange situation to imagine this in a Spanish archive but I think it would be worthwhile for Spanish archivists to learn about this. In general, there are many things that Spanish archivists should learn about our English neighbour and I want to take the opportunity to do this during my Erasmus traineeship.

Certainly, the experience I am going to get during the following months has no price. Just a month here has been incredible, and I feel my work is very satisfying. 


Learning paper repairs

This work has been basically split in two parts: on one side, the work with Julie-Ann has consisted of helping to catalogue one of the collections in the archive: the nineteenth and twentieth- century poor law and health care records of York, such as minutes of the Committees and improvement plans of the city of York.    On the other side, the work with Tiffany has consisted of helping to clean and repackage the items in the same collection.  Furthermore, I have had the opportunity to learn about repairing documents. This has allowed to me to improve my abilities as an archivist and historian, but also I have been able to learn more about this incredible city, thanks to the huge variety of documents that the archive keeps.

I think a month has already passed and it is just incredible. Time has passed very quickly but I am happy that I am discovering many new things and, of course, there is a lot to learn about this incredible city and about the documents.

Many thanks for reading,

Carlos Parra.



York’s sanitary inspection books – more than just old drains

It has been a busy start to the autumn for the Past Caring team. Tiffany, our conservator, has been working hard along with her volunteers to repair, clean and package the Poor Law records. Meanwhile I have moved on to the records of York’s Medical Officer of Health and the Health Department, which date from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.   These records are proving to be one of the most surprising collections I have worked on – there is  not only a huge range of information, but also some really unexpected details turning up.

To illustrate this,  I thought I would focus on one particular series of records, the report books of the Assistant Inspector of Nuisances [1904-1925]. The duties of this officer might seem fairly self-evident, but it was a role that had quite wide-ranging responsibilities. There were a number of assistant inspectors at any one time, and each had their own particular duties to perform. Some inspectors were responsible for investigating drainage and sanitation, but others were responsible for reporting on cases of overcrowding; inspecting the homes of patients with infectious diseases; and dealing with public ‘nuisances’ – which could include anything from neighbours keeping noisy, dirty livestock in the middle of the city, to an unregistered tripe boiler setting up shop in a densely populated area like the Shambles.

Though each individual report is fairly brief, they nevertheless provide richly detailed snapshots of life in York in the opening decades of the twentieth century. The reports of overcrowding, in particular, show just how challenging living conditions were for some residents of city. The entry below, from 1909, records a family of 10 sleeping on just three beds across two bedrooms. In his report the Inspector also notes that the head of the household is reliant on casual work and has been forced to apply for poor relief in the past.

Severe overcrowding

In some cases, these volumes yield quite unexpected details. Recently, I was cataloguing the records from 1914-1918 when I realised that the reports included sanitary inspections of WWI billets, and provided not only the location of the billet, but in many cases also the name of unit billeted. This entry, from 22 November 1914, tells us that 25 horses and 11 men from the 8th West Yorkshire Transport unit were billeted in a stable and loft space in Park Grove.


Similarly, while the drain inspection reports record all the expected information on the drainage of properties, some entries also include meticulously drawn drainage plans. In the image below you can see a wonderfully detailed drawing of King’s Manor, a complex of medieval buildings in the centre of York. The buildings once housed the Yorkshire School for the Blind (as shown in the plan), but are now part of York University.

King's Manor

There are 23 volumes of the Assistant Inspector of Nuisances report books, and together they document living conditions, troublesome neighbours, illness, and even wartime measures.  And for all you house historians out there, the entries in the volumes are usually indexed by street and house number (or name), with many of the reports also listing the owners and occupiers of properties.  Just another fantastic resource in these surprising healthcare collections.

Archive volunteers needed!

WP2 boxesWe have a new opportunity to volunteer with our fabulous Past Caring archives project at York Explore. You will be helping us to catalogue and conserve York’s healthcare records dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is a fantastic opportunity to gain experience working with original archives in a friendly group environment.

Volunteers for this role will be listing archives onto an Excel spreadsheet as well as carrying out basic conservation measures, such as cleaning, packaging and relabeling of documents.

The work will give you a hands-on introduction to different aspects of archive work, including preservation and packaging of records; cataloguing; and team working. You will be working with a range of archive material including slum clearance records, plans, correspondence files, and photographs.

We are looking for volunteers who are able to commit either to a Thursday morning session (10.00-12.30) or Thursday afternoon session (14.00-16.30), for approximately four to eight months, starting 05 October 2017.

If you are interested in volunteering for this project please email the Project Archivist, Julie-Ann Vickers, as soon as possible, as we have a maximum number of volunteers that we can accommodate.


You can find out more about the work of the Past Caring project on our information page

or follow us on Twitter @pastcaringyork




Conquering the Dreaded Red Rot


Throughout the Past Caring Project we’ve often mentioned the term red rot as a major part of the collection’s conservation issues. As I’ve recently completed consolidating one hundred degraded leather bindings of the Poor Law Union and Workhouse collection, it feels like a great time to write a post on the topic.

However foreboding the name, red rot is a fairly common type of leather degradation that most often occurs in bindings from the late industrial revolution onwards. Leather, like all organic material, breaks down and degrades over time. However, due to changes in the manufacturing process of leathers during the 19th century, the material from this time period is often in poorer condition than earlier leathers. On red rotted bindings, the leather is fragile and weak, often splitting, cracking, and coming off the binding at the joints, corners and top and bottom of books. The leather is also easily abraded and scratched. In its poorest states, simply placing the book on a work surface causes powdery leather fibres to fall off. Over half of the books of the Poor Law Union and Workhouse have this kind of degradation, with 300 large Minute Books and Ledger  bindings that are damaged enough to require a conservation treatment.

Fun with a microscope!

For a visual comparison, I took two small fibre samples from new and red rotted leather to photograph under a microscope. These fibres were gently scraped with the back of a scalpel from the flesh side of the leathers (the side without the grain).

Leather fibre samples

New leather sample (left) and historic sample (right).

The sample on the left was taken from a new piece of archival quality leather; the fibres were reluctant to come apart during sampling. The sample on the right was taken from the inside of an 1846 Minute Book and was noticeably easier to tease apart.

Samples at 55x magnification: new leather (L), red rotted leather (R).

Samples at 200x magnification

Under magnification, the fibres from the new leather are longer and more cohesive, which gives strength and durability to the leather. The shorter, less cohesive fibres of the Minute Book is why the leather on the latter binding is fragile, easily abraded and ends up all over hands and clothes during handling.

What changed during the industrial revolution? Why is it called red rot?

To transform animal skin (most commonly calf, sheep, goat, and pig in the UK) into bookbinding leather, the skin must go through a chemical process called tanning, which makes the skins resistant to putrefaction and decay. During this process, the animal skin (which is previously  prepared by removing hair and flesh) is submerged in the tanning liquor- an astringent liquid made from leaves, twigs, wood and bark of plants (two examples are sumac and chestnut). The tanning liquor attaches and coats the fibres of the skin, preserving it in a way that creates flexibility and malleability while resisting biological attack. After this, the leather is dyed and ‘finished’ to create the final product. This process can take several months or more.

Leather tanning from Diderot's Encyclopaedia

Engraving of leather tanning from Diderot’s Encyclopaedia. (Link for more images of leather processes here). Image: public domain

As demand for leathers increased in the late 18th and 19th C, leather makers began using more astringent plant matter (such as Hemlock and Gambier) to speed up the tanning process. These quicker tans have a slightly different chemical makeup and result in leathers more susceptible to absorbing pollutants from the atmosphere- which plays a large role in its deterioration. Once absorbed, the pollutants react with the tannin and become acidic, which increases the rate that the leather fibres break and degrade, reducing its strength. These speedier tannins also react with light to create the characteristic red and oranges tones of red rot, while poor storage conditions exacerbates deterioration.

What are we doing to help?

While there is no way to fully halt or reverse red rot, one of the main goals of the Past Caring project is to slow the rate of degradation and enable readers to access the volumes without causing further physical damage to the items. We also aim to reduce the amount of powdery leather deposits that gets on the users, tracks through the bindings, and are potentially inhaled during use.

With the above goals in mind, we chose a two step approach: first treating the leather with a very light consolidant (adhesive) to prevent the leather fibres from coming off the binding, then creating a user friendly cover to minimise the amount of abrasion and direct contact with the leather during use.

Consolidant testing

Initial testing of the consolidant at different concentrations.

The leather consolidant is a mixture of Klucel G© (a light adhesive with proven longevity) which is dissolved in an isopropanol (a purified version of rubbing alcohol). The consolidant mixture was chosen because it did not blacken or significantly darken the leather, which retained the binding’s original appearance, while being a relatively benign treatment in the long term. The consolidant is gently applied with a large brush and after it is dried, a bespoke cover made from archival polyester is created to protect the binding. We chose polyester as it is smoother and less abrasive than a card cover, while enabling the spine or any label markings to be viewed on the binding. The bindings are then housed horizontally in low-acid archival boxes which will help to protect the bindings from any environmental or physical damage, while absorbing excess acidity.

Phew, only 200 more bindings to go!

Thank you for reading! Please feel free to leave a message below or email me at tiffany.moore[@]exploreyork.org.uk for with any questions or comments.





Kite, M., & Thompson, R. (2008). Conservation of leather and related materials. Oxford, Burlington, MA.

Larsen, R., & Vest, M. (1994). STEP leather project: evaluation of the correlation between natural and artificial ageing of vegetable tanned leather and determination of parameters for standardization of an artificial ageing method. København, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Conservation.

Roberts, M. T., & Etherington, D. Vegetable Tannins. Bookbinding and the conservation of books: a dictionary of descriptive terminology. Online edition. http://cool.conservation-us.org/don//. [Accessed 05.08.2017].

Vidler, K. (2014). ‘Collagens and Tannins in Bookbinding Leather’. Conservation of Leather Bindings. West Dean College. Unpublished.

Vidler, K. (2014). ‘Common Types of Bookbinding Leather Deterioration’. Conservation of Leather Bindings. West Dean College. Unpublished.