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

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Accidental archives

We are now into the fourth month of the Past Caring Project and 2017 is shaping up to be a busy year getting York’s healthcare and poor law records sorted and catalogued. In a few months’ time we will be joined by a professional conservator, who will have the job of ensuring that all these fabulous records are repaired, cleaned and ready for use when the collections are open to the public in 2018.

In the meantime, I have been busy cataloguing the collections of the York Poor Law Union (1830s-1950s) and thought I would share some of the accidental archives I have been discovering as I go through the records.

The phrase ‘accidental archive’ is by no means a recognised term in the archival profession (a more technical term is ephemera), but I think it aptly describes the chance survival of the scraps of notes, letters and other records that I have been finding between the pages of the official Poor Law Union records. The majority of these bits and pieces of paper were inserted into official registers by the Victorian clerks and other officers who worked for the York Poor Law Union. They acted as reminders, references, or simply page markers. Most of these notes and letters were certainly not intended to be kept and placed in a 21st-century, environmentally-controlled archive store! However once inserted between the pages of official records, these notes were forgotten and so have survived by chance.

Most of these chance survivals are not going to result in ground-breaking research papers, but I think these records have a charm all their own – not least because they provide a glimpse of the working processes and daily grind of the officials that staffed the Poor Law Union. And in some instances these accidental archives do contain significant and quite fascinating details not recorded elsewhere.  But perhaps the best way to describe them is to show you some examples, which you can see below.

     Notes and letters found in an Application and Report Book, 1842

application-and-report-book-1_1842-1

In the image above you can see the various bits of paper found in the front of this Application and Report Book. These books were the official records of the York Union Relieving Officer, who recorded details of individuals applying for relief (welfare)rough-draft-of-applications2-1842.

The scrappy notes placed in the front of this book include: a letter from someone asking for money, a note to send another individual to the Vagrants’ Office of the workhouse, and a rough working list of applications for relief (see left image).

I found this rough list of particular interest as its shows the working processes of the officer; it is also a reminder that those lovely neat official records from this period are often the final version of very rough drafts in rather illegible handwriting!

 

Invoice for stationery from between the pages of an Application and Report Book, 1842

application-and-report-book-2-1842

mary-moxon-invoice

Above you can see another example of the chance survival of a working record of the  Relieving Officer.  This invoice (see close-up image right) lists the various items necessary for his daily work including foolscap paper, pen holders, blotting paper, and – something that every self-respecting Relieving Officer would not be without – copies of the Poor Law Act.

The items were ordered from a stationer’s store on Pavement, and the invoice not only tells us the name of the Relieving Officer (Mr Leafe), but also reveals that the store was run by a woman, Mary Moxon, who styles herself as ‘Printer, Bookseller, Stationer, and Genuine Patent Medicine Vender’.

 

Correspondence inserted into a Vaccination Register, 1899

 

vaccination-letter-rev-morrissyVaccination registers were maintained by the York Union’s District Medical Officers. A number of the registers that survive include letters, often from the parents of the child being vaccinated, supplying some reason why vaccination should be delayed or not carried out.

In this example (see left image), the Medical Officer has received a note from a Rev Morrissy in Cork, Ireland, stating that William Waterhouse (the father of the child to be vaccinated) has gone to South Africa and that he has no knowledge of the child being vaccinated. I was slightly puzzled why a York Medical Officer was receiving correspondence from Ireland about child vaccinations, but all became clear when I checked the entry in the Vaccination Register itself. The entry told me that William Waterhouse was  a private in the York and Lancaster Regiment. It seems he left York after the birth of his child, was stationed in Ireland for a time, and then went to South Africa with his regiment, which took part in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). So you can see how this short piece of routine correspondence helps to fill in some important details for the life of William Waterhouse, and his child. It also shows extent to which the Medical Officers chased up people in their effort to improve vaccination rates.

I could go on, but hopefully the above examples give you a flavour of just some of the accidental archives emerging from the York Poor Law Union records.

Something to do with everything

Well, here we are at the end of my eighth week on the Past Caring project. It has been a busy time, with my first few weeks spent meeting lots of new people, getting to grips with project goals, and getting my head around a new set of collections!

Over the last few weeks I have also been deeply immersed in the York Poor Law Union and Workhouse collections, which form the first tranche of records in the project. I am now more or less conversant with the intricate administrative workings of York’s Board of Guardians (who headed the Union), and their underlings, such as the Relieving Officers and District Medical Officers.  Researching these records has led me to the realisation that, like Dickens’ Circumlocution Office, the Poor Law in the nineteenth century really had ‘something to do with everything’.  Infectious diseases, schooling, rate collection, mental health, sanitation, and welfare – the Guardians’ rather extensive remit touched on most people’s lives in one way or another.

If you have been following me on Twitter you will know that I have been carrying out a detailed survey of the Poor Law collections over the last fortnight or so. And given this survey is now complete, I thought I would share some of my findings in a little more detail.

Having worked in a number of local authority archives, the first and most striking impression I had of the York Union records is their sheer variety. And this impression has only been confirmed by the survey. Vaccination records, title deeds, registers, minutes, indoor relief, outdoor relief, staffing records, correspondence, statistics, rate books, medical relief books, invoices – the list goes on. And the possibilities for using various combinations of these records to answer all sorts of research questions seem virtually endless at the moment.

Another feature of the York Poor Law records, and one that is probably common to many Poor Law Union collections, is the extent to which these records relate to and complement collections held at other institutions. To get the most out of these records many researchers will need to visit other archives in order to trace the administrative flow of information between, for example, the Union and the various hospitals in the region, or the Union and the central Poor Law Board. Like assembling a jigsaw puzzle that has been dispersed, information from various sources can then be put together to provide a fuller and more nuanced picture of the past.

Certain records in this collection are also striking for the snatches of often disturbing details they provide on individual lives. One series of records, known as Application and Report Books, records the circumstances of paupers receiving ‘outrelief,’ which could be any form of relief, such as money, food, clothing or medicine, granted to poor people outside the workhouse. Reasons for applying for relief were many and varied, ranging from ‘lunacy’ to ‘disabled from childbirth’, or simply ‘want of work’.  In the image below you can see an entry from 1838 in which the 13-year-old Bradley Hawkswell, illegitimate, deserted by his mother and with his putative father recently dead, applied for relief as he has been ‘partially disabled from a blow on the head’. This is more than just a run of extraordinary bad luck, but the setting out of a string of conditions that probably condemned Hawskwell, through no fault of his own, to a life of poverty and dependence.

1838_application-and-report-book-l

1838 Application and Report Book

I’m afraid however that my survey of the poor law records has also confirmed the poor physical state of some of the records. Many of the volumes in the collection are suffering from an advanced case of red rot, a form of deterioration that affects vegetable-tanned leather, and which causes the covers to disintegrate into a fine powder. When working with the collection for any length of time I have to get fully kitted out in protective clothing, including gloves, coat and face mask (a somewhat alarming vision for any visitors to the archive!). Help will soon be at hand however when we are joined next year by a project conservator whose job it will be to halt the advance of the red rot, thereby ensuring that future researchers will be able to use these records without getting covered in a fine cloud of red dust!

For more images of the collection and updates on my progress don’t forget to follow our project Twitter account.

Thanks for reading, Julie-Ann

New season, new staff member, new project

project-archivistHello everyone

Autumn is well and truly upon us and for Explore York Libraries and Archives the new season brings with it an exciting new project, and me, the latest staff member to join the team. I’m Julie-Ann and over the next two years I will be researching and cataloguing the poor law and healthcare records of nineteenth- and twentieth-century York under the banner of the Past Caring Project.

This means, I’m afraid, that my official title is Project Archivist (Past Caring) – best to get that out of the way early on! I should point out that the pun is actually intended, as the title refers not only to the historical provision of healthcare, but also to attitudes towards the past and to the records that constitute our historical memory.

The Past Caring project has been made possible through a generous grant of £156 560 from Wellcome, the world’s largest charity supporting research into health and wellbeing. Over the course of the next two years we will be cataloguing and conserving the records of the York Poor Law Union and Workhouse, the York Medical Officer of Health, the Department of Health, and the Department of Housing and Environmental Health. All of these bodies struggled in various ways to alleviate and improve the welfare and health of York’s population, and the records in these collections offer a compelling glimpse into the poor standard of living endured by some individuals and communities. You can find out more about the project by visiting our dedicated pr page above.

For me, there are two standout reasons why this project is important: first, these collections document and give a voice to sections of society that are otherwise largely absent from the historical record; second, we will be approaching this material in a thematic way rather than looking at individual collections in isolation; that means we will be exploring links between the various offices dealing with poverty and health in York, as well as researching connections with other health archives held in the region. I like to think of it as a holistic approach rather in the vein of Dirk Gently – and like Dirk we are interested in the ‘interconnectedness of all things’!

There are a couple of ways to keep up to date with the project: I will be posting to this blog about once a month; but you can get more frequent updates by following our new twitter account dedicated specifically to the project.

Over the next few months I will be working with the records of the York Poor Law Union and Workhouse, so there should be plenty of interesting material cropping up!

Thanks for reading,

Julie-Ann