9-15 May 1916: The Medical Officers of Health

Every fortnight the Medical Officer of Health prepared a report on the health of the borough. This included summaries of births and deaths, causes of death and dealing with insanitary conditions across the borough.  It also gives a good idea of what concerns there were about the public health of the borough and sometimes an insight into the conditions people lived and worked in.

In the two weeks covered by the report, 264 houses had to be disinfected by the Council, with a further 52 having their drains flushed with disinfectants following infectious disease and 93 having disinfectant supplied. 78 cases of infectious disease were reported and 1815 items were disinfected.  This may seem somewhat over the top, but this was before antibiotics and vaccines so many infectious diseases were fatal.  21 people died of measles in this period, all were under the age of 15 – and only 2 were over 5.  The report made to the Council includes an instruction from the Board of Education that children under 5 should be excluded from public elementary school and that if children had siblings under 5 then they should be excluded from classes infected with measles.  In order to try and combat the heavy mortality associated with measles, the Council was to seek permission from the Local Government Board to employ an additional female sanitary inspector and health visitor.

Anyone suffering from particular infectious diseases had to notify the Council, presumably so that disinfection could take place. Scarlet fever was the most common notifiable disease with 24 notifications, followed by chicken pox, both mainly in children and all over the borough.  The statistics given also include “Infectious Diseases Contacts at the Reception Shelter” (14 for the fortnight), which presumably was how the Medical Officers team were notified.

Library bye-laws stated that anyone who had a library book and came into contact with infectious disease had to notify the library. This meant that in the May 1916 accounts, there as a charge of £3 and 4s for books destroyed after cases of infectious disease – charged to the Health Committee.  The Health Committee also spent 17s on disinfectant from Sanitas Co Ltd and £96 14s and 5d on disinfectant from Newton, Chambers & Co.

Medical Officers of Health annual reports for across London are available via the Wellcome Library – the Heritage Service has the reports for Wandsworth and Battersea but as neither produced annual reports during the war years, these can only be traced through the Council minutes.  They are a fantastic resource for information about life in the borough and challenges faced by those who lived here.

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26 January – 1 February 1915: Losing the Medical Officer of Health to the Armed Forces

The minutes of the meeting of Batttersea Borough Council on 27 January state that the Medical Officer of Health – Dr G Q Lennane – had been gazetted as a lieutenant and therefore would be required to give his full service to the Forces in the near future. It was then referred to the Health Committee to appoint a locum to fill his post, a decision which was an amendment and had to be voted on. The Council also agreed to pay him the difference between his salary and the salary awarded by the Army, a proposal which the South Western Star reports caused much debate. The chair of the Health Committee, Cllr Willis, formally disagreed with the proposal and a lengthy debate followed over whether or not the Council should allow Dr Lennane to go.

Medical Officers of Health had wide-ranging responsibilities for the health of the borough. They provided statistics on birth, deaths and infectious disease – which was part of a responsibility to contain it rather than merely to take notes. This extended to duties including inspecting housing which could be unfit for human habitation, checking on sanitation and considering provision for maternity and child welfare. The 1913 Annual Report also shows that he was responsible for the protection of the food supply and for enforcing the 1901 Factories and Workshops Act. Dr Lennane was a senior member of staff with a Public Health department working for him, so he was not solely responsible for this, but it was an important job in the borough.

The Councillors who objected to his going made clear that they were non un-patriotic, but that they had the interests of the borough at the forefront of their minds. Others argued that duty was to the country first, then to the borough – one councillor who was also a local employer said that 40 of his men had enlisted and had not asked his permission first – and that a good senior member of staff would have his department working in such a way that he could go for a time. Eventually the Council agreed to let Dr Lennane go when necessary and for the committee to look into a locum, a debate which the minutes do not reflect. Dr Lennane went to France as a Captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps later in 1915, he returned after the war and remained with the Council until 1932.

Less contentious was the decision to set aside a section of Morden Cemetery for the graves of servicemen, at the lowest possible cost. There are over 70 burials from the First World War in Morden Cemetery listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, although they are in several areas of the Cemetery. The full list can be found here and includes burials from both wars.

Battersea Borough Council minutes, ref: MBB/1/15

South Western Star, 1915, available on microfilm

Medical Officer of Health reports are available online from the Wellcome Institute, or in hard copy at the Heritage Service.