‘…in this land of abounding wealth, during a time of perhaps unexampled prosperity, probably more than one-fourth of the population are living in poverty…There is surely need for greater concentration of thought by the nation upon the wellbeing of its own people, for no civilisation can be sound or stable which has at its base this mass of stunted human life’ [B. Seebohm Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life [York], 1901, p.304]
In 2018 Explore York Libraries and Archives received funding from Wellcome for a 24-month project to catalogue the records of the York Poor Law Union and Workhouse, York Medical Officer of Health, Department of Health, and Department of Housing and Environmental Health. Dating from the 1830s through to the early 2000s, these archives document changing approaches to the provision of healthcare and alleviation of destitution in York over two centuries.
The collections comprise a wide range of records including inspection reports, legal papers, administrative records, correspondence, photographs and case papers. Covering an extraordinary range of topics – such as vagrancy, poverty, mental health, sanitation, infectious diseases, child welfare, and housing – this material shows how York’s administrators struggled to improve the health and wellbeing of a town that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries experienced chronically high levels of poverty.
While each collection forms a substantial resource on its own, there is also significant overlap between the records of the Poor Law Union, the records of the city’s Medical Officer of Health, and the records of the Departments of Health and Housing and Environmental Health. The material at York also complements healthcare and poor law collections held at other Yorkshire archives, particularly the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. At the completion of the project users will be able to explore all the relationships between these collections and adopt a holistic approach to their research.
The complexity and richness of these records ensures that, once catalogued, they will provide a significant resource for research into the development of healthcare and welfare support for the poor; the interaction between hospitals, local authorities and poor law unions; and the impact of environmental, health and poor law policy on individuals and communities.
Over course of the two years project, we researched, catalogued and conserved these collections in order to make the history of health and poverty in York accessible to all.
Our aims for the project were to:
– devise a classification system for the material
– catalogue the collections to item and file level, and make descriptions for over 1400 volumes and 60 metres of archives available online for the first time
– provide name and subject access points to the collection in order to enhance resource discovery
– compile finding aids to enable staff and users to navigate the collections with ease
– repair and conserve items damaged by damp, mould and insects with the help of a dedicated professional conservator
– clean, package and number items
– enlist volunteers to help us achieve our aims
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