A century ago, at the start of World War I, Poole’s newly appointed Medical Officer of Health, Dr. A.T. Nankivell M.D. D.P.H. produced his first report under the grand title Report for the Year 1914 on the Health and Sanitary Circumstances of the Borough and Port of Poole. Its detailed paragraphs and tables make rather grim reading and give us a picture of a town very different from today.
In his team Dr. Nankivell had an Inspector of Nuisances, two Sanitary Inspectors, a School Nurse, the Matron of Alderney Hospital, a Disinfector, three clerks and a Laboratory Assistant. The duties of the department included inspection of drains, factories, shops and workhouses, emptying of cesspools and pail closets, notification of infectious diseases (humans) and contagious diseases (animals), advising on water supply, drainage, sewerage and waste disposal and monitoring the health of school children.
The population of the Borough at the time was 41,880 having increased by over 227% in the previous 30 years. Today, over 148,000 people live in Poole and the population is still increasing although at nothing like the same relative rate. Infant mortality which currently is around 4 in every 1000 births then stood at 77, half of which Dr. Nankivell believed were caused by pre-natal conditions where the child was ‘born tired or diseased’. Pneumonia, measles and diarrhoea were responsible for many deaths of newly-born babies and syphilis was thought to have caused 19 infant deaths and still births as well as 23 adult deaths.
Large areas of the Borough including Hamworthy, Sandbanks, and parts of Upper Parkstone, Branksome and Newtown were still without sewers and instead used cesspools and pail closets which had to be emptied by Council employees. Schemes were being drawn up to extend the sewerage system to these neglected districts. In 1914, 163 cesspools were emptied on 1,435 occasions and 8,632 pails were also emptied. Soil carts and back yard privies were still very much a feature of the town.
Household waste was also removed by Council workmen and disposed of in ‘tips’ at Bourne Valley Pottery, Baiter and the Ladies’ Walking Field (to a modern way of thinking, very close to residential areas). The refuse was covered with road sweepings and soil to keep down flies and other pests. The report considered this to be a suitable solution, remarking (rather enigmatically) that ‘only one complaint was lodged, and that one apparently for sentimental reasons.’
The condition of housing in the town was considered to be reasonable and ‘no part of the District merits the application of the word “slum”.’ During the year, the Council had acquired property in the old town including 58 houses, 53 of which had been demolished. Today we would probably have a different view.
In the poorest properties, access to basic facilities such as a water supply was limited. Mrs. Nellie Bowering grew up in Scaplen’s Court at a time when it was occupied by several families, some families living in a single room. ‘To me it was old, draughty and ugly. . . . I can only remember one sink and that was out in the back garden. It was used by us and all the other tenants. If the weather was reasonable, all the washing had to be done out in the open, but if it was too bad, bowls of water had to be carried inside.’
The School Medical Service had the job of inspecting schools and in 1914 found some of the older ones to be ‘in many ways undesirable’. The School Nurse carried out a basic inspection of 13,000 school children with follow-up treatment for those with medical problems. A minority were undernourished, insufficiently clothed or ‘unclean’ and the report warned of insanitary home conditions, ‘moral and physical overcrowding, lack of fresh air and sunlight and insufficient sleep.’ (A special appendix gave advice to parents – see the end of this post). Children with the signs of tuberculosis were sent by the Poole Guild of Help for a ‘country holiday’ in cottages at Broadstone and Higher Lytchett.
Inquiries found that many children held paid jobs as well as attending school. A few were working 30 to 40 hours in addition to school hours, some for as little as 2 shillings [10p] per week. Some did housework or were errand boys, paper boys or lather boys (for barbers). Bob Russell, whose reminiscences are recorded in the Poole History Centre, worked as a lather boy for a barber in High Street, lathering the customers who came in for a shave. He worked before and after school, in the lunch hour and all day Saturday earning half a crown [121/2p] a for a 34 hour week. Other occupations listed in the report were working as a chocolate boy on the pleasure steamers, digging shingle at Old Harry Rocks and operating a machine at the Poole Electric Theatre!
One of the duties of the department was notification of infectious diseases. During the year there were 66 cases of diphtheria, of which 43 sufferers were removed to hospital, 64 cases of tuberculosis and 51 of scarlet fever, 22 of which were hospitalised. To treat any infectious diseases there were two isolation hospitals at Alderney and Baiter. The 28 bed Alderney Hospital consisted of an administrative block and two wards, a brick built one for scarlet fever cases and one constructed of wood and corrugated iron for diphtheria and other cases. There was also stabling, an ambulance and a steam disinfector. There were plans to enlarge the hospital, improve the laundry and provide better accommodation for the nurses who had to sleep in the duty rooms of the wards. In the summer, open air treatment was used at the hospital and had produced beneficial results. Children treated there often improved in general health because of receiving a better diet than they could get at home.
The Baiter Hospital was described as being ‘in Poole Harbour joined to the mainland by a narrow causeway over which the waves break when the tide is high and the winds are strong’. It had 16 beds which were kept ready to receive smallpox cases or cases from the port. The daughter of the matron, Nurse Guy, remembered the building as a very primitive structure with no electricity or mains drainage. As the report mentioned, discharges from the hospital passed ‘almost directly into the harbour’ making it unsuitable for enteric fever cases.
The war had yet to have much impact on the town. Unemployment had been feared but had not happened. The number of people receiving relief from the Guardians of the Poor had varied between about 1400 and 1450 (3.5 % of the population) during the year. Around 600 Royal Engineers had been billeted in Branksome since September.
In 1915, Dr. Nankivell signed up to join the Royal Army Medical Corps and his post was temporarily filled by Dr. William Gosse. In the next few years, marriage and birth rates remained low because of the war but infant mortality was still high. There were, for instance, 58 deaths in 1917 (91 per 1000 births). Housing was required for workers as new industries were set up but any plans to improve housing conditions or extend the sewerage system had to be put on hold. Inspectors of the Port were concerned with the destruction of rats infesting the ships and Poole’s marine stores. The town’s many stores for grain and oil cake were a magnet for rats and on one occasion, Councillor Evan Gambier, the landlord of the King’s Head, counted 250 rats on the roof of the corn store opposite, owned by Bradford and Sons.
At the end of the war, Dr. Nankivell returned and took up his post again. Many pre-war plans had been put on hold and conditions had deteriorated giving the Borough had a major task of reconstruction. The report for 1919 was more critical in many areas. A scheme for extending the sewerage of the Borough was urgently needed. The waste tips at Bourne Valley and Whitecliff were considered a breeding ground for flies and the water of the harbour was found to be contaminated with sewage which was thought to come from the open sea. The harbour oyster beds were heavily polluted although it was said that the oysters could be purified by relaying at Shipstall Point near Arne. Cases of infectious diseases were still high and venereal diseases had increased since the war. The housing stock was in a poor condition and many properties needed to be closed but this was impractical because of the acute housing shortage. Altogether, Poole was not a very prepossessing place for returning servicemen, although the same could probably be said of many towns.
With the economic depression of the 1920s and ‘30s, conditions were slow to improve but people’s standard of living did gradually get better. Certainly reading this report of 100 years ago shows us how well off we are today and prompts us to count our blessings.
Extracts from Appendix 3 – Instructions sent to Parents concerning the Cleansing of their Children
All underclothing and washable articles of dress must be washed and boiled for at least half-an-hour. All other garments must be washed and exposed to the open air and sunlight for several hours.
Instructions for Cleansing Heads – 1. Soak the hair in a mixture of equal parts of paraffin oil and olive oil and tie up the hair in a handkerchief for about twelve hours. 2. Wash the head with warm water and soap, comb while wet with a fine toothed comb, and brush the hair with a stiff nail brush. 3. If the nits cannot be removed by the above process, the hair must be cut short.