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

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.

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

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


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



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.