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!



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




Improving York one street at a time

York’s City Commissioners (aka the Improvement Commissioners)

Many of you may not be familiar with York’s City Commissioners, a group of officials who had the unenviable task of improving the condition of York’s streets in the first half of the nineteenth century. At the moment I am working on the catalogue for their records and thought it would be a good opportunity to tell you a bit about their role in the history of York’s urban development.

York’s City Commissioners came into being with an Act of parliament in 1825. By the 1820s many of the city’s inhabitants had become disgruntled with York Corporation, which was seen as corrupt and ineffective. With a growing population, the medieval and Georgian streets of York were badly in need of attention and investment, neither of which was forthcoming from the civic officials.  However, public pressure resulted in the York Improvement Act of 1825. The Act allowed for 40 Commissioners to be elected, forming a local board with separate and independent powers to that of York Corporation. The autonomy of the board was significant for two reasons: first, non-conformists, such as members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), were eligible to become Commissioners at a time when they were barred from taking civic office in York; second, many considered the Corporation too corrupt to be trusted with the duties outlined in the Improvement Act.  In theory therefore the new City Commissioners were able to act outside of what many believed was a broken system.

York was not the only town in England faced with an inefficient or inadequate form of local government during this period. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hundreds of acts were passed through Parliament, each specific to a particular town. And these ad hoc boards were charged with carrying out improvements in urban centres where the local authority was unable or unwilling to do the job.

Who were the City Commissioners?

To be eligible for election, prospective commissioners needed only to satisfy a property qualification, which was the possession of land or property with an annual value of £10 or more. Many of the Commissioners were local businessmen and tradesmen who had a vested interest in improving York’s streets.

Members of York’s Quaker community were quick to seize the opportunity to make an active contribution to the development of the city. The handbill below shows a list of commissioners that includes the names Daniel Tuke, James Backhouse and Thomas Terry, who were all from prominent Quaker families.

List of elected Commissioners c1830

List of elected Commissioners c1830

What did they do?

When the York Improvement Act came into force in 1826, it granted the Commissioners authority over street cleaning and public nuisances, paving, lighting, and some policing. For the first time, there was an authority that had responsibility for cleaning the streets and yards of the poorer areas of York. In order to fund these improvements the Commissioners were granted the power to levy rates, although the amount they could impose was limited. As elected officials, it was also their job to respond to complaints from individuals and communities regarding specific streets in York. The document below shows a signed petition (or memorial) from some of York’s ratepayers complaining about the street of Hungate in 1839. I have also transcribed some extracts from this petition, which you can read at the end of the blog.

Signatures of ratepayers on a petition to the City Commissioners, 1839

Looking at the papers and minutes of the Commissioners, it is clear that they made a concerted attempt to make York’s streets cleaner and safer. Many areas were paved and some streets were macadamised, a system of laying a compacted surface of small stones that was pioneered by John McAdam in 1820; the Commissioners were also responsible for instituting the first nightwatch in York.  But their work was curtailed for various reasons. Overlapping jurisdictions with the Corporation led to frequent disputes, and the differing makeup of each body only exacerbated these quarrels. In addition, the Commissioners were severely underfunded yet unable to increase their income owing to the restrictions on the rates they could collect. Further limitations were placed on what they could achieve as gas and water supplies were still controlled by private companies.

In 1835, York Corporation was reformed under the Municipal Corporations Act of the same year. In the years that followed many of the concerns that led to the passing of the Improvement Act were addressed by the new civic organisation. The Commissioners were eventually wound up in 1850 and their responsibilities transferred in part to the newly established Local Board of Health and in part to the now reformed York Corporation.

What kinds of records did they create?

Voucher bundles MI8

Bundles of vouchers (1840s)

Around eight boxes of records for the City Commissioners survive. They include minutes of meetings; correspondence; financial papers, which include quite a large number of vouchers (what we would call receipts today); election papers; as well as papers relating to streets, drainage and lighting. Some of the documents are still in their original bundles, as you can see in the image to the left.


While the City Commissioners may not have brought about a transformation of York’s streets, their work nevertheless signals a key period in the history of England’s urban centres – one that witnessed a move towards more regulated and planned approaches to development.  Importantly, they also show how York’s built environment  has been shaped by an ongoing process of negotiation between York’s officials and the people of the city.

Extracts from petition of 1839

To the Commissioners under the York Improvement Act

That your memorialists have suffered considerable inconvenience and danger in passing along the street of Hungate, in consequence of its very narrow width at the upper end, adjoining St Saviourgate, where it is with the greatest difficulty that on Marketdays and on frequent other occasions foot passengers can proceed, from the continual passing of carts and the danger of being crushed to death, the entire width of the street at the part opposite the Church Yard being only 10 feet 3 inches from wall to wall

That the great bulk of your memorialists are engaged in daily labour to provide by honest industry for the maintenance of their families, and that in going to and returning from their work they are necessitated to pass along the street of Hungate several times every day, that being the principal way to the centre of the City.

That the memorialists have contributed to the rates of the City Commissioners with great cheerfulness , although many have not derived any benefit from paving or draining near their respective dwellings, and therefore have a stronger claim on the consideration of the Board of Commissioners’

Sources: Victoria County History of York; Papers of York’s City Commissioners


Fever, flagstones, and flushing: an introduction to York’s health care records

The cataloguing strand of the Past Caring project has now reached an important juncture. In April I completed work on the records of York’s Poor Law Union and Workhouse. With the help of our magnificent project volunteers, we have created over 2700 entries, which will be available on our online catalogue next year. The Poor Law archives have now been handed over to Tiffany, our Project Conservator, for specialist conservation treatments and repackaging (as you will know already if you have been a regular reader of our blog!).

As Project Archivist my next task is to tackle another important set of records that make up the Past Caring collections, namely, the archives of York’s Medical Officer of Health and Department of Health. The first step in dealing with any uncatalogued collection is to carry out research – who created the records, what did they do, and how did they do it. As a cataloguing archivist you need to know the answers to all these questions and to be able convey that information through your catalogue.  This enables our archive users to gain an understanding of the collection quickly, without necessarily having to ask for guidance from a specialist (although we are always there if anyone needs us!).   So for the last few weeks I have been getting up to speed with the history of the various officers and departments that dealt with public health in York over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And while they may not be glamorous, the public health records are proving to be both fascinating and eye-opening.

Who dealt with public health in York?

MOH records_report on lodging houses_1879

Report of York’s first Medical Officer of Health, Dr North (1873-1894)

In 1873 York appointed its first Medical Officer of Health and Chief Sanitary Inspector. Essentially, these two officers were responsible for improving the health and hygiene of the city and its inhabitants. Their work was carried out first via York’s Urban Sanitary Authority, then in 1900 the Health Committee was formed, which continued as the main body charged with looking after York’s health until 1974.


The project team have also made the decision to catalogue the records of two bodies that preceded the Medical Officer of Health, the Improvement Commissioners (1825-1850) and the Local Board of Health (1850-1872).  These two bodies were not part of York Corporation proper, but their activities laid the foundation for great improvements that took place in the city in the later nineteenth-century. By including their records we will have a more complete picture of how York developed the infrastructure that transformed it from a small Georgian town into a modern city.

What did they do?

The various bodies dealing with Public Health in York had changing duties over time, and I will be blogging about this in detail as I go through the collections. In the meantime the list below will give you some idea of their responsibilities:

  • prevention of infectious diseases
  • notifications of births
  • disinfection
  • housing inspection and slum clearances
  • street cleaning and improvements
  • abatement of public nuisances
  • improvement of sewerage and drainage
  • ambulances
  • midwives and maternity services
  • control of livestock and trade

How did they do it

Inspection, reporting, legislation and planning are the main ways that public health officials brought about change in York, and luckily for us this resulted in lots of interesting records, such as:

  • Records relating to house inspection and overcrowding: some of these records include information on who was living in the house as well as where they slept. The image below reports a family of nine living in just two bedrooms.

    Overcrowding report

    Report of overcrowded conditions, 1908

  • Minuted orders for street improvements, including the laying of flagstones, improving lighting and employing street cleaners.
  • Reports of children with verminous hair
  • Notifications and reports regarding outbreaks of disease, such as typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea
  • Records relating to the clearance of unsanitary housing, particularly in Walmgate, Hungate, and the Groves: included here are reports, orders and correspondence
  • Records relating to the enforcement of national Acts and local orders, which includes some interesting public health posters
  • Records concerning the provision of various health services such as ambulances, maternity services, and accommodation for the elderly
  • Planning and implementation records for health care provision during World War II
  • Drainage inspection records: these records cover the period in the early twentieth century, when York’s officials were encouraging the installation of W.C’s. Prior to this most people simply had a hole in the ground in an outside privy – a real problem in an overcrowded urban environment.
  • Nuisance abatement and complaints: health officials had to deal with the many complaints relating to foul drains; excessive smoke; rubbish; fly infestations; diseased meat; and foul smells from people keeping rabbits, pigs and poultry in the centre of the city.

    Don't spit poster

    York public health poster from the early 20th century

As you can see, York used to be a pretty filthy place. Cataloguing these records is going to be an interesting journey, but be prepared for a very unsanitary history of York!

Remember you can get more frequent project updates via Twitter @pastcaringyork