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.

Billets

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.

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