LHSA Outreach – Talks

LHSA receives frequent requests from local history organisations, Women’s Guilds and others to give talks about the Archive and its records. This week I gave a talk to Portobello Local History Society where I used our Public Health records to build a picture of life in Portobello and Edinburgh from 1900 to 1950.

Edinburgh appointed its first Medical Officer of Health, Henry Duncan Littlejohn, in 1862. When Portobello became part of Edinburgh in 1896, responsibility for public health there fell under the jurisdiction of the Edinburgh Public Health Committee (PHC). It collected lots of information in its quest to improve living conditions and reduce disease; the annual reports produced by this body provide a fantastic snapshot of conditions at the time including birth and death rates, causes of death, and the results of inspections of public premises such as ice cream parlours. The records show that in 1900 the ward of Portobello East had the highest death rate of the entire city at 27.16 per 1,000.

One of the PHC’s biggest concerns was the quality of the housing stock; up until at least the end of WWI, a large number of residents lived in overcrowded and dirty conditions in tenement buildings which contributed to the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. From the 1920s Edinburgh City Corporation undertook a massive building programme to move residents into more sanitary housing which helped to prevent illness in the first place and reduce the spread of infectious diseases that did occur.

I discovered one of my favourite quotes that I’ve ever come across in the Archive in the PHC Annual Report for 1930 (pictured below). It likens housing stock to a gun, and the responsibility for its cleanliness to the person holding the gun!

Public Health Committee Annual Report, 1930. LHSA reference: LHB16/2/31

The talk was very successful and has introduced our records to a new group of people, several of whom are now enquirers using the records to conduct their own research.

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