What was Croydon like in 1914?

By - Monday 15th September, 2014

As the nation marks one hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War, Sean Creighton investigates Croydon in 1914

Report on 1914 from Croydon’s Medical Office of Health and the School Medical Officer.
Image by Wellcome Library London, used under Open Government Licence.

The Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for 1914 gives us a fascinating picture of the county borough.

Croydon a century ago did not cover the same area as now – in fact, 1914 is a key year of change in local government. The Croydon Rural District had covered Addington, Beddington, Coulsdon, Merton, Mitcham, Morden, Sanderstead, Wallington and Woodmansterne – but in 1914 Surrey County Council sought to abolish the Rural District. The County Borough of Croydon appealed to take in most of Beddington, Coulsdon, Sanderstead and Woodmansterne, but lost. Reorganisation took place in 1915.

350 girls slept in eight dormitories at a convent school

The estimated population of the county borough in June 1914 was 181,956, up from 169,551 in the 1911 census. In 1911 the majority was female: 92,492, compared with 77,059 males. The number of inhabited houses had risen from an estimated 34,363 to 39,224, and at 10.9 per 1,000 head of population Croydon’s death rate was low compared to the national average of 13.7.

Due to concern at high infant mortality rates an enquiry was held in 1913. Although Croydon’s infant death rate had been falling, diarrhoea was a major killer. There was a serious outbreak of scarlet fever among the approximately 350 girls who slept in eight dormitories of the school at St Joseph’s Convent, Upper Norwood. After an enquiry the Council approved the introduction of chlorine to improve water purification.

4,185 house-to-house inspections were made, particularly of houses in which infectious diseases were notified, including tuberculosis. Eighty-one cases of overcrowding were discovered, mostly in the poorer neighbourhoods; notices were served on tenants and landlords.

188 visits were made to factories, 110 in reference to sanitary arrangements. The borough had fourteen registered slaughter houses plus the Municipal Slaughter Houses at Pitlake and destroyed 17,821 tonnes of animal carcasses as unfit for human consumption. Action was also taken in respect of the adulteration of food on sale, particularly milk.

“Verminous conditions” had arisen among the men

The outbreak of war in August 1914 put local health services under strain.

The Royal Naval Brigade was stationed at the Crystal Palace and troops were billeted in the area, bringing the problem of infectious disease along with “verminous conditions which have arisen amongst the men” which required disinfection and cleansing of personnel and their possessions.

The control of tuberculosis was important. 623 people were referred to the newly-established Tuberculosis Dispensary and 374 were found to have TB, including 126 children.

Croydon had 34 schools for 26,929 elementary age children, with 25,613 on the register. Several thousand medical inspections of children carried out during the year revealed 3% suffering malnutrition, 73 with spinal deformities and 306 heart defects.

The Medical Officer of Health was concerned about the “fairly large number of boys” employed by shops as errand boys. Employment of children was controlled under the 1903 Children’s Act. ‘As a result of the special attention directed’ by MHO staff to offences “there has been a considerable reduction in … illegal employment of children”.

This report is an intriguing snapshot of our past. To learn more about what life was like in Croydon a century ago, click here.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Anne Giles

    Presumably these were all working class families.

  • Stephen Giles

    Very interesting.