|Medical Officer of Health Reports
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - September 2009
Mention has been made in earlier issues of the creation of Union Workhouses as being an early form of local government. By the latter half of the nineteenth century each union was required to appoint a Medical Officer of Health and for the first time central government, the Local Government Board was able to get an overall picture of the health of the country. This enabled them, gradually, to develop policy, and react to political pressures. The reports they received at the centre were also of use in drawing up recommendations as to best practice in improving the health of the population.
Each MOH was required to submit to their Rural Sanitary Authority an annual report summarising the health of the locality, and included proposals for action to improve matters. Many reports date from the 1870s but for Lexden and Winstree the series held in the Essex Record Office does not start until 1890. The MOH Jno W Cook MD, notes, in the opening paragraphs, that
"having only been in charge for the latter 6 months of the period (1890) you will understand I have had some difficulty in getting matters arranged so that I could give you a report satisfactory to myself".
The area he was responsible for consisted of 36 parishes with an estimated population of 24,530.
Our three parishes are included in the 36 but it is not possible to split the figures down for each year apart from the number of deaths. The MOH reported that while the death rate was better than that for England and Wales, or for the County, the death rate for infants (under 1 year old) was high at 113.4 deaths per 1,000 babies born. He noted that he would "endeavour ... to see what means can be adopted to reduce these rates". Of particular concern was the incidence of diphtheria and scarlet fever neither of which was a great danger to infants.
Turning to more general public health concerns, he found that the:
"General conditions of privies and ashpits on cottage premises very bad and many wells are shallow and dirty. Some owners are reluctant to act and it may be necessary for you to prosecute a case or two for the sake of example."
In 1892 the report notes that generally the water supply came from shallow wells although a brewery on Tiptree Heath had a bore hole. Spring water was in good supply and 30,000 gallons a day flowed from one in Pods Wood but was, presumably, running to waste. Sewers were few and far between but although privies were being improved much had to be done. During the year there had been 35 cases of diphtheria and 15 of scarlet fever which was present throughout the year.
The incidence of infectious diseases led to the introduction, in 1894, of a portable isolation hospital. Tents were erected in a meadow in 1895 when seven scarlet fever patients
"were most comfortably and successfully treated in them, the van acted admirably as a kitchen and the large supply of hot water constantly available proved most useful for baths etc. For the first few days the tents were in use the weather was summerlike, but one night it suddenly became very cold, and continued so for some time; however, by the aid of small paraffin stoves the tents were made beautifully warm, and the inmates expressed themselves as having been most comfortable. Our hospital was, I may say, the first of its kind".
As more information became available to central government so "best practice" was being directed back to local government. The importance of a clean water supply was of concern and the 1900 report had an analysis, parish by parish, as to the position. Birch - "shallow wells are the usual mode of supply, except at Birch Hall where the water is pumped by ram". Layer Breton - "in this parish the houses are supplied from shallow wells, but some houses, and those of a good class, are without any supply. There has been, for many years, a well on the waste land by the roadside, near the Quaker Chapel, and, about a year ago, this was improved by sinking two large stoneware pipes below the inlet of the water, which flows from a bed of gravel in the clay, so as to form a reservoir; there is now enough water for the cottages in the immediate locality".
In Layer Marney - "this parish is not well off for water. At Duke's Farm, water is brought by a pipe some distance, which gives a very insufficient supply. A deep well has been sunk into the chalk at the Towers, which gives a good supply, at a depth of 500 feet. Other houses have shallow wells".
Those parishes fared much better than Salcott and Virley with "no supply except from ponds and ditches".
Having identified problems with the water supply another target was sewage and drainage. Privies have already been mentioned but, along with household refuse, it was very much left for residents to make their own arrangements for disposal. In 1902 an attempt was made to get a system of drainage into field ditches adopted. The MOH thought this was antiquated and, after a local meeting, the plan was dropped. Clearly a case of "Not in My Back Yard" but possibly discouraged as the cost of such schemes would have fallen on local rate payers.
The annual reports are revealing but in a number of aspects hide possible anomalies. Much was made of infant mortality rates and comparison of the rates found in various places might indicate possible ways for reducing the rate - improved sewage and refuse disposal for example. Within Lexden and Winstree the figures are quite small but nothing is contained in the reports to indicate why, in 1902, the rate in the Stanway area was twice that in Wivenhoe.
Efforts made to control infection are highlighted in the reports. In Dedham, in 1902 three cases of amallpox were swiftly moved into the portable hospital at Stanway and all recovered. The next year a case occurred in Inworth and was found to have come from a travelling navvy working on the "Crab and Winkle" line. Another case, in Layer Breton, involved a woman who had visited a town where the disease was prevalent. In both cases the patient recovered.
Gradually the work required of the MOH expanded and by 1905 he was reporting on the building work carried out by the new owner of Layer Marney Tower in adding to, and restoring, the property, including the "sanitary arrangements" which would obviate the pollution of Layer Brook. The same year inspection of school premises was noted. At Birch School water was brought in 2 tanks on wheels from a pump at the Old Workhouse and jugs were supplied for the drinking water. At Layer Marney water for drinking came from the Rectory and was kept "in the mistress's house", soft water for washing, presumably rainwater, was held in a tank.
In 1906 it was noted that, in Birch, "Hollington's have a small clothing factory with 11 hands plus 20 outworkers". Altogether in the Lexden and Winstree area there were said to be over 900 outworkers.
Four years later pollution of streams was reported on and Layer Brook was the worst in the area suffering from Tiptree effluent and Thorn's Brewery, Messing. Thorne had lost a lawsuit recently and, consequentially, there had been some improvement.
What a difference a century makes?