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Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 109
Last updated: 10 March 2008

1. Introduction

This information research guide is intended as a general guide to records related to health and social welfare policy during the inter-war years from 1919 up until the beginning of the Second World War in 1939. The inter-war years were a period during which economic events and crises shaped official policy on the social provision of health, such as levels of unemployment, poverty, maternal and infant mortality, health insurance, and mental health. The system of means-tested benefits brought hardship with consequences for the health of individuals. The increasing lobbying of central government by interest groups on health and social welfare issues was also a feature of the period.

2. Health before 1919

The National Archives hold the records of the Ministry of Health from its creation in 1919. The registers of circulars and their indexes related to the Ministry of Health and its predecessors can be found in record series MH 10. The functions of the poor law authorities can be found in MH 68 and their successors in MH 52. For records information related to health before 1919 refer to the research guide Health: nineteenth century public health and epidemics.

3. Public assistance

The public assistance bodies succeeded the poor law authorities in 1930. The information on the administrative papers related to public assistance and predecessors including poor law out-door relief can be found in MH 57. The public assistance papers cover children's training and employment, pensions in respect of relief, medical relief for paupers, and vagrancy. The minutes and papers of the Committee on the Relief of the Casual Poor can be found in MH 57/79 to MH 57/93. There are papers in respect of relief related to various unemployment and hunger marches, strikes, industrial disputes, distressed areas and emigration. During successive governments unemployment influenced official thinking on economic, social and political practice and theory. The system for insurance provision in place at the end of the First World War proved inadequate for meeting the inter war levels on total unemployed. The entitlement to public assistance related to family size was raised by eugenicists in the 1930s and some surviving papers can be found in MH 51. The administrative reports on out-door relief 1936-1938 can be found in MH 52/434. The Parliamentary Papers contain reports relevant to health, unemployment and poverty, and copies of the reports are available at The National Archives.

4. Food, diet and nutrition

Official interest in diet and nutrition affecting the population was given some importance and relevant papers can be found in MH 56. The series includes minutes, reports and papers of the various committees concerned with nutrition, and papers related to reports and investigations on nutrition. The investigation into diet and nutrition undertaken by the Greenwood Committee between 1933 and 1934 was in response to the 'Hungry England' report published by the Week-End Review. The minutes and papers of the committee can be found in MH 56/40 to MH 56/53. The British Medical Association Committee on Nutrition report and papers can be found in MH 56. There are general papers related to diet and nutrition with concern for malnutrition in MH 56/212 to MH 56/245. There are figures related to family income and proportion of income spent on food in MH 56/214. The committee papers and minutes of the Advisory Committee on Nutrition are in MH 56/266. These generally date from the mid-1930s and included are papers on nutrition and relevance to maternal mortality. From the early 1940s the minutes and papers of the Standing Committee on Medical and Nutritional Problems can be found in MH 56/267 to MH 56/275.

5. Family planning and the distressed areas

The papers of the Commissioner for the Special (Distressed) Areas relate to discussion on making provision for ante-natal care centres for women living in the special or distressed areas. The discussion considered such clinics being provided under local authority control or through the voluntary sector. There was also consideration of the moral and social issues on birth control, including abortion, and religious opinion on the matter of the provision of such clinics. The papers can be found in MH 61. The papers include internal correspondence between officials and externally between officials and various organizations lobbying for reform. Some papers on birth control related to the local authorities can be found in MH 52.

6. Mother and child welfare

The concern with 'national efficiency' linked to the degenerative effects on the nation of poverty, malnutrition, illegitimacy and mental deficiency was debated by lobby groups. The records related to mother and child welfare for some London boroughs up to 1919 are in MH 48/61. The records for mother and child welfare over various dates from 1919 are in MH 52/556-569. There are records related to maternal mortality 1933-1934 in MH 52/244, mother and child welfare for various years in MH 52/411-425 The records in relation to the tuberculosis outbreak 1922-1925 are in MH 52/231, and incidences at various towns, such as Huddersfield in 1935 in MH 52/297, at Lincoln 1930-1935 in MH 52/310, and at Manchester 1926-1929 in MH 52/331. Sources related to diseases and epidemics generally are described below.

7. Mental health

The Board of Control was successor to the Lunacy Commissioners which had been established under the Lunacy Act of 1845. The Board of Control was set up in 1913 under the terms of the Mental Deficiency Act of that year, with responsibility over admission, detention and discharge of psychiatric patients in respect of institutional supervision. The Board had powers to inspect institutions provided for the supervision of those considered for psychiatric care. Under the Mental Treatment Act of 1930 to the Board of Control was also transferred some of the powers held by the Minister of Health. Many of its powers were lost to the Minister of Health under arrangements creating the National Health Service in 1948. The correspondence and papers of the Board of Control can be found in MH 51 including papers related to the Departmental Committee on Sterilization of 1932 and 1933. The minutes of the Board of Control can be found in MH 50.

8. Sequestration, sterilization and euthanasia

The degenerative diseases both physical and mental were of interest to eugenicists both in Britain and abroad, involving discussion on voluntary and enforced sequestration, sterilization and euthanasia. The British government corresponded with representative groups associated with eugenics, social welfare and professional medicine who favoured legislation on sequestration, sterilization and euthanasia of individuals suffering degenerative diseases. No such legislation for legalizing sterilization and euthanasia was introduced in Britain, but Sweden and Germany did introduce and enforce such measures. The report on the illegal sterilization undertaken in Britain at the Gateshead School can be found in MH 79/291. The papers of the departmental committee and discussion on sterilization can be found in MH 58. There is relevant information among the Annual Reports of the Medical Research Committee and its successor the Medical Research Council in FD 2. The series of records of the Medical Research Council contains information related to links with other medical institutions, organizations and hospitals.

The Foreign Office's General Correspondence printed indexes includes a number of instances mentioning cases for sequestration of individuals with mental diseases, including individuals with British or dual nationality, some papers of which survive and can be found in FO 371. Many papers referred to in the printed indexes do not survive. The Foreign Office printed indexes are available in the Open Reading Room. Reports on enforced euthanasia and genocide associated with laws regulating social and racial hygiene in Germany in the late 1930s and the 1940s can be found among intelligence reports in HS 6. Similar general reports on genocide can also be found in FO 371.

9. Diseases and epidemics

While advances in medicine reduced the levels of diseases to which the population remained at risk, serious outbreaks involving deaths were not unusual although epidemics were increasingly rare. The commonest diseases to which many people remained susceptible were smallpox, typhoid, poliomyelitis, diptheria, tuberculosis, measles, and, although extremely rare, plague. The papers related to the outbreak of smallpox at Ashington 1926-1927 are in MH 52/211, typhoid at Bath 1928-1929 in MH 52/225, at Bexhill 1926-1937 in MH 52/228, at Brighton 1930-1934 in MH 52/252, the outbreak of poliomyelitis at Broadstairs 1921-1926 in MH 52/268 and at Chipping Norton 1932 in MH 52/376, at North Cotswold 1935 in MH 52/391, at Okampton 1922-1923 in MH 52/392, at Spilsbury 1930 in MH 52/397, diptheria at Chichester 1935-1936 in MH 52/272, tuberculosis at Gateshead 1920-1925 in MH 52/281, at Leicester in 1927-1931 MH 52/309, plague at Liverpool in 1920 in MH 52/316A, and again 1920-1 in MH 52/317 and 318, at Elstree 1921-1924 in MH 52/370, at Blackwell 1934-1935 in MH 52/372, and measles at Manchester 1930-1940 in MH 52/625.

10. Further reading

Anne Digby and John Stewart (eds) Gender, Health and Welfare (Routledge, 1996)

Anne Digby, British Welfare Policy. Workhouse to Workfare (Faber and Faber, 1989)

Jane Lewis, 'Gender, the Family and Women's Agency in the Building of 'Welfare States': The British Case', Social History, 19 (1994)

Dorothy Porter, Health, Civilization and the State: a History of Public Health from Antiquity to Modernity (Routledge, 1998)

Pat Thane, Foundations of the Welfare State (Longman, 1996)

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 109

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