1914: The Health of Batley School Children Generally, with a Particular Focus on St Mary’s School Children

In March 1915 Batley’s Medical Officer and School Medical Officer, George Harper Pearce, presented his annual Medical Inspection of School Children report to the Borough Council Education Committee. The report followed the medical examination of a sample of elementary school children across Batley in 1914.

Cover of the Report – Credit: [Report 1914] / Medical Officer of Health, Batley Borough. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Schools inspected included Healey, Brownhill, Carlinghow, Field Lane, Batley CofE (parish church), Park Road, Purlwell, Staincliffe, Warwick Road, Gregory Street, Hanging Heaton, Mill Lane and St Mary’s. The total accommodation across these schools was for 6,051 children. The average attendance was 4,667. St Mary’s R.C. Mixed had accommodation for 406 children, with an average attendance of 295. Their infants section accommodated 169 children, with an average attendance of 136.

Although the report covered the early months of what the Medical Officer described as ‘a great war’, the town was described as ‘exceedingly prosperous’. Production of Khaki cloth and other materials for the British troops and their allies had resulted in a plentiful employment and a trade boom. In fact many mothers of school children were employed in the textile trade. According to the report 16.2 per cent of mothers of children inspected went out to work in 1914, although it was acknowledged that this was not exact because some parents refused to give information, and others gave false information. Therefore, at this stage, the children were unaffected by any privations resulting from the war.

Some background about how the school inspection was organised. When the School Medical Officer notified a school about an intended inspection, the head teacher notified the parents of every child to be inspected and asked them to provide answers about any previous illnesses the child had suffered. The headteacher completed information about the child’s age, educational standard and attendance, as well as details about cleanliness, clothing and footgear. A classroom was set aside on inspection days for the medical examinations to be undertaken. Teachers undertook preliminaries such as weighing and measuring. The School Nurse tested eyesight and hearing. The average time taken for the School Medical Officer to inspect a child was five minutes. Parents could opt to be present.

In addition, throughout the year in the course of their duties, Batley’s two Attendance Officers regularly notified cases of illnesses affecting children, which the School Nurse would follow up.

The children examined in 1914 fell into the following categories:

  • Those newly admitted and under the age of five;
  • Those children whose fifth birthday fell during 1914;
  • Children between 12 and 13 years of age; and
  • Children over 13 who had not already been examined after reaching the age of 12

As mentioned, only a small number of children, out of the overall total of Batley schoolchildren, were selected for the 1914 routine medical inspection. Across Batley 885 children underwent the inspection, a shade over 14 per cent of the total. These comprised of 215 boys and 218 girls in the 12-13 and upwards category; 226 boys and 226 girls in the aged five group; and 139 newly admitted under fives.

Tables 1 and 2 below show the heights and weights of the St Mary’s boys and girls examined, as compared with the average for Batley as a whole, the Anthropometrical Committee’s Standard for the normal height and weight of a healthy children of a similar age in the country, and the figures for 800,000 children in England and Wales obtained in 1913. I have not included the 13 and upward statistics as no St Mary’s children examined fell into this age bracket.

From this it can be seen that the St Mary’s boys at age 5 were below both the Batley school average (over the 13 schools) and the national Anthropometrical Committee’s standard in terms of height and weight. Whereas although the St Mary’s age 12-13 boys were below in height on both comparator measures, on weight they were above the Batley school average – though this is skewed by the absence of stats for two schools.

In terms of St Mary’s girls at age 5, they were taller than the Batley school’s average, but weighed less. At age 12 to 13 they were below the Batley school’s average both in height and weight. And on all age counts they were below the national Anthropometrical Committee’s standard.

In fact on all age counts the average height and weight of Batley schoolchildren was below that of the national Anthropometrical Committee’s standard.

Using the information on the On Average website (no date given for the figures) the modern comparison is:

  • Boy’s Average Height, Age 5: 3ft 7in (109.2cm)
  • Girl’s Average Height, Age 5: 3ft 6.5in (107.9cm)
  • Boy’s Average Height, Age 12: 4ft 10.7in (149.1cm)
  • Girl’s Average Height, Age 12: 4ft 11in (149.8cm)
  • Boy’s Average Height, Age 13: 5ft 1.5in ( 156.2cm)
  • Girl’s Average Height, Age 13: 5ft 1.7in (156.7cm)
  • Boy’s Average Weight, Age 5: 2st 12.6lb (18.4kg)
  • Girl’s Average Weight, Age 5: 2st 11.7lb (18kg)
  • Boy’s Average Weight, Age 12: 6st 4lb (39.9kg)
  • Girl’s Average Weight, Age 12: 6st 7.5lb (41.5kg)
  • Boy’s Average Weight, Age 13: 7st 1.9lb (45.3kg)
  • Girl’s Average Weight, Age 13: 7st 3lb (45.8kg)

These are slightly higher than the Royal College of Paediatric and Child Health 50 centile figures for boys and girls from 2012.

Children were also examined for what were termed ‘defects’. This included a wide range of issues from clothing and footwear, to cleanliness problems, and physical concerns about teeth, hearing, eyesight or wider health weaknesses.

Tables 5 to 7 illustrates the St Mary’s health examination results. I have also included the schools with the highest and lowest percentage of children with defects excluding defective teeth in each category. Table 8 shows the combined totals for all 13 schools to give some indication of how St Mary’s compared.

Some general remarks from the report. Verminous conditions (nits and lice) affected more girls than boys. Certain families across schools were known to be almost always infested and caused the greatest trouble because their parents were usually indifferent to the matter. Summonses could be issued against parents and magistrates could impose fines.

A section on poor eating habits sounds very familiar today, although perhaps the recommended foods might fall short of today’s healthy eating advice:

Many of these children are allowed by their parents to have whatever peculiar kind of diet they may fancy. It is quite common for school children to consume at each meal large quantities of tea which has been standing in the teapot for a long period by the fire-side. Chipped potatoes, tinned salmon, polony, pork pies, and similar articles regularly form the staple diet, whilst good soup made from bones, peas or lentils, suet pudding, milk, cheese, herrings, bread and beef dripping, and such like, although much cheaper and of great benefit for nourishing growing children, are never thought of. Green vegetables are regularly lacking in their diet although most beneficial.

Some health problems could be traced to infectious diseases or unsanitary conditions in the home. The report highlighted some of these. Eye problems such as blepharitis were a legacy of measles, and dirt in homes aggravated the problem. Corneal opacities were largely caused by tubercular conditions. Scarlet fever could leave hearing problems. In almost every instance of heart problems, rheumatism was the cause. Around 1 per cent of Batley children examined were suspected to be suffering from tuberculosis. Impetigo was the main skin disease, associated with dirt and unsanitary conditions.

Affordability of healthcare impacted. Around 60 per cent of Batley children examined had normal vision. If parents then obtained a prescription for glasses for their children, Batley Education Committee had an arrangement whereby these could be bought more cheaply through them at a cost of 1/11 to 3/6 per pair. Even this could be prohibitively expensive, and where sight defects were found many parents preferred to take no action.

The condition of teeth was a perennial problem and, as a result, in March 1915 Batley Borough resolved to establish a school dental clinic.

Infectious diseases were a problem across Batley schools, not only confined to St Mary’s. Although only one Batley scholar suffered small pox in 1914, the disease was prevalent across the town and caused the exclusion of children from school from the weeks ending 1 May to 19 June 1914. Scarlet fever and diphtheria caused a number of absences. Whooping cough and chicken pox were present more or less throughout the year. Measles was similarly present throughout the first half of 1914, but from 10 July to 31 December no children were affected. Mumps was around from March to August, with May seeing the highest number of cases. This was a general Batley schools picture.

In terms of problems with infectious diseases specific to St Mary’s, the school had an outbreak of contagious ophthalmia in December. Special precautions were taken with regard to towels and appliances used by the children, and disinfection and cleansing of the school premises was undertaken. 51 children were treated for this very contagious infection 424 times, with efforts made to get them to attend the School Clinic free of charge twice daily. Most parents did ensure their children attended, but a few still did not comply even though it was free. As a result one St Mary’s child almost lost their sight and the matter was referred to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Table 9 shows the total cases of illnesses reported to the Medical Officer of Health from the schools between 1910 to 1914.

Table 10 shows the classification of illnesses reported by teachers to the School Medical Officer during 1914.

Table 11 shows the classification of illness reported by the School Attendance Officers to the School Medical Officer during 1914.

As mentioned earlier, though the notifiable infectious diseases of scarlet fever, diphtheria, enteric fever and small pox were reported during the year they were not broken down by school.

I will be doing further posts about medical inspections of St Mary’s school children, looking at any changes in the period 1914 to 1921.