Who Do You Think You Are?
The annual reports produced by the Medical Officer of Health for a town, city or district can provide fascinating details about where your ancestor lived, says Michelle Higgs
Uncover fascinating details about your relations’ lives with the reports of the local Medical Officer of Health
Britain’s rapidly expanding Victorian towns and cities were insanitary with overcrowded dwellings, dirty water, and a lack of drainage and sewers. So it is no wonder that they very quickly became hotbeds for such deadly diseases as cholera, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid and typhus.
The 1848 Public Health Act gave powers to local authorities to establish local boards of health in England and Wales, and to set up water supplies, sewers and public baths. They could also appoint a Medical Officer of Health (MOH) for their area. However, the legislation was only permissive, so local authorities rarely used these powers because of the financial implications. Progress was slow, except in innovative cities such as London and Liverpool.
From 1872, it became compulsory for English and Welsh local authorities to employ an MOH. After the 1875 Public Health Act, councils were compelled to make improvements including providing a clean water supply, proper drainage and sewers, and clearing slums. In Scotland, there was permissive public health legislation from 1867, although Glasgow and Edinburgh employed MOHs well before this. It became compulsory for county councils to appoint medical officers under the 1889 Local Government (Scotland) Act.
Once appointed, the MOH had to produce an annual report for his district. At first, the documents were not standardised and they reflected the personality, interests and expertise of the writer. There were statistics on birth and death rates, infectious and other diseases, and infant mortality, plus information about the general health of the district’s population. The content of the reports changed over time. For example, by the 1930s there was data about how many children with tuberculosis attended openair schools, and the amount of free milk dispensed.
Using The Reports
These reports can help you understand the area in which your forebears lived. Did an ancestor die of an infectious disease? The documents can confirm if there was an epidemic at the time. Perhaps there is a high incidence of children dying young in your family tree. The statistics include the rates of infant mortality in the district over the years. The MOH’s remit also included housing and living standards, which is particularly interesting when streets are named. It’s fascinating to see how an area changed over the years, so the reports are useful for local historians as well.
The MOH reports for specific districts can be viewed in local and national archives across the UK, and thousands of documents have also been digitised online. ‘London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports 1848– 1972’ is the Wellcome Library’s flagship collection for the capital ( wellcomelibrary.org/moh). You can search the reports for a particular word or phrase, such as a street or disease, or simply choose a location to look at. To narrow the search, reduce the date range using the slider and put the search term in quotation
of infant ‘The statistics include the rates the years’ mortality in the district over
marks. You are also able to browse boroughs or a decade of reports at a time.
For places outside London (including many in Scotland), navigate to wellcomelibrary.org/ search-the-catalogues. In the search box, key in ‘medical officer of health’ and the town or borough that you’re interested in. You should see a list of reports in date order, most of which are online; you can search within individual reports for specific phrases.
Thousands of the library’s MOH reports can also be viewed for free via the Internet Archive at archive. org/details/medicalofficerof healthreports?tab=collection. Obviously, the earlier a district appointed an officer, the greater the number of reports. Those for most provincial cities do not start until the 1880s or 1890s, and there may be gaps in coverage. Sometimes, more personal information can be found in the reports. For example, the 1860 report for St Mary,
Islington, highlights two unvaccinated infants who died from smallpox: a sevenmonth-old boy on Elder Walk and a one-year-old girl on Graham Terrace.
After the 1893 Isolation Hospitals Act, the reports may also name people fined for not reporting themselves or their relations for having a notifiable infectious disease, as well as people running ‘nuisance’ workshops or bakeries (ones that might contribute to the spread of disease).
MICHELLE HIGGS is the author of Tracing Your Medical Ancestors (2011) and Life in the Victorian Hospital (2009)
‘More personal information can be found in the reports’