HAHG Lecture: Looking After the Masses

The Henley Archaeological and Historical Group’s new season of lectures got off to a great start with this fascinating talk by Dr Margaret Simons. The early 20th century saw some radical changes in the areas of healthcare and housing, contributing to marked decreases in mortality and increases in life expectancy.  In Reading mortality rates were 13-21 per thousand in the late 19th century and fell to only 10-12 per thousand in the 1930s. Deaths in childhood contributed significantly to this in the 19th century, mainly from diseases such as measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria and whooping cough.  Illnesses were diagnosed by the family using handbooks and advice from neighbours and treated using folk remedies or over-the-counter medicines containing harmful ingredients like laudanum or chloral hydrate.

More formal approaches to treatment were introduced on a charitable basis – sick clubs, established around a dispensary, or voluntary hospitals, which offered treatment based on the level of subscriptions made.   The poor (for example a family applying to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in 1907 with an income of less than 25s per week in 1907) were eligible for charitable treatment. Others would have to receive treatment privately – at their own expense. Contributory schemes, such as that introduced by the Royal Berks Hospital in 1922 and a similar scheme introduced later in Henley , eased the situation somewhat, but were still inadequate.

A connection was made between poor health and inadequate housing, overcrowding, poor sanitation and unsuitable water supply. New planning restrictions in the 20th century (the Town Planning Act 1909) stopped the building of ‘back-to-backs’, but those already in existence (such as Warren Place in Reading) were still required, as demolition would worsen the situation. The Housing Act of 1919 gave the new Ministry of Health responsibility for housing. The involvement of local authorities was formalised by the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act of 1924, which encouraged the building of rental housing (with running water, bathrooms and flushing toilets) for low-paid workers.

These changes of the first 3 decades of the 20th Century laid the foundation of the 1948 Welfare Reforms.