Wellcome Library online archives reveal 125 years of life and death in London

By Adela Ryle | 28 October 2013

More than 5,000 documents providing insights into the lives and deaths of Londoners over a century and a quarter have been published online by the Wellcome Library for the first time.

A black and white photograph of a seated clown surrounded by a circle of young boys.
An image from a dental health campaign in Tower Hamlets (1967)© Wellcome Library, London
The reports, collected annually by the Medical Officers of Health working for the local council boroughs, detail everything from the use of ultraviolet “canned sunshine” on Barking schoolboys in the winter to the removal of 68 trunks of putrid Haddock from Columbia Road Market in 1870.

Covering the period from 1848 to 1973 and containing more than half a million pages of text, the searchable database, London’s Pulse,  gives unparalleled access to the details of Londoner’s daily lives.

The more colourful accounts include information on fast food preferences (oysters were a favourite), trades such as pigeon-fatteners and hair-merchants, prescriptions for ice-cream in Finsbury and the discovery of “about 70 dead cats without their skins” under Vauxhall Bridge.

London’s Pulse allows users to search by time, subject or borough, enabling them to trace their own parish, uncover individual stories behind the statistics or simply indulge in ghoulish curiosity.

There’s certainly a macabre fascination in delving through the reports, which include “22 instances where corpses were kept in inhabited rooms for prolonged periods so as to be a nuisance” and one of “murder by drowning in a homicidal wash-tub”.

But there’s a serious side to the data as well. The site showcases the often overlooked work of the MOH, who were among the most influential agents of social and medical reform in the city, and bears testament to the appalling living conditions, lack of food standards and high infant mortality rates of the time.

Their annual reports recorded vital statistics of births, deaths and illness and give a comprehensive account of how and where London’s vast population were living, working and dying, outlining for the first time the discrepancy between rich and poor.

The Wellcome Library holds the largest collection of MOH reports across the UK, with around 70,000 in its holdings. With the help of Jisc, a public body for the promotion of technology in education who supported them in digitising London’s Pulse, they hope to make the rest of this huge resource available to the public.

Paola Marchionni, digitisation programme manager at Jisc, expressed excitement about the project. “I am quite sure that future researchers will find as yet undiscovered gems within the archives,” she said.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:

A black and white photograph of a Public Health Department van with five young men on the back campaigning against lung cancer.
Carnival float, Fulham campaigning against lung cancer (1964)© Wellcome Library, London
A black and white photograph of two women involved in the Stepney meals on wheels campaign.
Meals on wheels in Stepney© Wellcome Library, London
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