How to look for records of... Health and social policy 1919-1939

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

This guide will tell you how to find records about health and social welfare policy and administration between the wars.

The Ministry of Health records at The National Archives are wide-ranging and cover many aspects of the development of health policy in Britain. They show the ways successive governments tried to tackle social and health problems.

For information on healthcare before and after this period, see our guide, Public health and epidemics in the 19th and 20th centuries.

2. Essential information

Search Parliamentary papers for reports relevant to health, unemployment and poverty. These are available online at The National Archives and many libraries and academic institutions. You can:

  • search for papers using the paper number and the year
  • browse by century, year and volume
  • browse the 19th century subject catalogue – for instance: health and housing; public health and sanitation; infectious diseases; cholera

3. Background

In 1919 The Ministry of Health took over the powers and duties of the Local Government Board and the National Health Insurance Commissions for England and Wales, together with powers of the Privy Council under the Midwives Acts.

There was a rise in lobbying of central government by groups with an interest in health and social welfare issues, and policy on health care provision was affected by the economic events and crises of the period such as:

  • unemployment
  • poverty
  • maternal and infant mortality
  • health insurance
  • mental health

4. How to search for records

Use our catalogue to find records relating to your research.

Our catalogue contains descriptions of the records we have. Some records can be viewed online and the catalogue description will say where this is the case.

To view most of the documents that you find references for, you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. Alternatively, you can pay for research.

Look for mentions in this guide of

  • department references such as MH (Ministry of Health) or PC (Privy Council)
  • series references such as MH 98 or PC 1

These will help you to focus your search for relevant records using the advanced search option in our catalogue.

For more tips on how to search the catalogue effectively, use the help page.

5. Public assistance

High unemployment levels between the wars were a major influence on economic, social and political practice and theory.

The existing insurance system was simply inadequate to deal with the increased number of people out of work at the end of the First World War, and successive governments sought new ways to address the problems of widespread poverty.

To find relevant records, use the advanced search option in our catalogue and search within department reference MH, or click on the following series references to search for records within each respective series, using keywords such as public assistance, casual poor and welfare.

Use some or all of the following records to get started:

  • MH 10 – registers of circulars related to the Ministry of Health
  • MH 68 and MH 52 – functions of the poor law authorities
  • MH 57 – poor law outdoor relief covering children’s training and employment, pensions in respect of relief, medical relief for paupers and vagrancy
  • MH 57/79 – minutes and papers of the Committee on the Relief of the Casual Poor
  • MH 57/93 – relief related to unemployment and hunger marches, strikes, industrial disputes, distressed areas and emigration
  • MH 51 – papers on entitlement to public assistance related to family size, an issue raised by eugenicists in the 1930s
  • MH 52/434 – administrative reports on outdoor relief 1936-1938

6. Food, diet and nutrition

The key records relating to food, diet and nutrition are in record series MH 56. Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to identify specific records from this series or from across all the records in MH.

Search using keywords such as food, diet, nutrition, malnutrition, children, families – or combinations of these.

Click on the following series references to search for records within each respective series:

  • MH 56/40-53 minutes and papers of the Greenwood committee which investigated diet and nutrition in response to the ‘Hungry England’ report published by the Week-End Review
  • MH 56/214 – figures on proportion of family income spent on food
  • MH 56/266 – papers of the Advisory Committee on Nutrition including papers on nutrition and maternal mortality
  • MH 56/267-275 – papers of the Standing Committee on Medical and Nutritional Problems

7. Family planning and the special or distressed areas

The key records relating to family planning and the special or distressed areas are in MH 61 which has the papers from the Commissioners for Special Areas. The catalogue description for this record series gives useful background information.

The records consist of internal correspondence between officials and correspondence with organisations lobbying for reform. They show discussion of the planned ante-natal care centres for women living in the special or distressed areas and cover issues such as:

  • whether clinics should be provided by the local authority or the voluntary sector
  • moral and social questions relating to birth control including abortion
  • religious opinion on the provision of such clinics

To find relevant records, use the advanced search option in our catalogue and search within MH 61 or across all records within MH, using keywords such as:

  • birth control
  • abortion
  • distressed area

8. Mother and child welfare

The effect of poverty, malnutrition, illegitimacy and mental deficiency on the efficiency of the nation as a whole was debated by lobby groups.

Correspondence between the Ministry of Health and local authorities in MH 52 is a key source of information relating to mother and child welfare.

Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to search within MH 52, or across all records within MH, using keywords such as

  • maternity
  • maternal
  • mortality
  • child welfare or infant

9. Mental health

The key record series relating to mental health are MH 50 and MH 51. These contain correspondence, papers and minutes from the Lunacy Commission and Board of Control which had responsibility over admission, detention and discharge of psychiatric patients and had powers to inspect asylums.

For more information about the Lunacy Commission, Board of Control and relevant record series, read the administrative background to MH Division 14 in our catalogue.

Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to identify specific records. Search using a place name and a keyword such as lunacy, asylum or hospital.

Some correspondence mentions individuals so you can try searching for people by name.

10. Diseases and epidemics

Advances in medicine reduced levels of diseases, but serious outbreaks 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 key records series relating to diseases and epidemics is MH 52 which contains correspondence between the Ministry of Health and local authorities.

To identify specific records from this series use the advanced search option in our catalogue and search by name of a disease and/or a place name.

11. Sequestration, sterilization and euthanasia

Physical and mental degenerative diseases were of interest to eugenicists both in Britain and abroad.

The government corresponded with groups who favoured legislation on sequestration, sterilisation and euthanasia of people suffering degenerative diseases.

No legislation for legalising sterilization and euthanasia was introduced in Britain, but Sweden and Germany did introduce and enforce such measures.

Use some or all of the following records to get started:

  • MH 79/291 – report on the illegal sterilisation undertaken in Britain at the Gateshead School
  • MH 58 – papers of the departmental committee and discussion on sterilisation
  • FD 2 – annual reports of the Medical Research Committee and its successor the Medical Research Council
  • HS 6 – intelligence reports on euthanasia and genocide in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s
  • FO 371 – Foreign Office correspondence (see below)

The Foreign Office’s General Correspondence printed indexes, available at The National Archives in Kew, include mention of cases for sequestration of people with mental diseases and also some general reports on genocide. Many papers referred to in the printed indexes do not survive, but those that do are in FO 371.

12. Further reading

The following recommended publications are available in The National Archives’ Library. Where indicated a publication is also available to buy at The National Archives’ Bookshop.

  • 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)