Health and welfare in Tower Hamlets
Before 1800, the current area of Tower Hamlets was a cluster of hamlets and villages east of the Tower of London. By the late-19th century, economic growth from the Industrial Revolution and expansion of the shipping industry had attracted thousands of people from rural areas to find employment and settle. The population explosion led to serious overcrowding. People experienced poor conditions both at home and in the workplace. These in turn caused many health issues.
Our collections cover many themes on health and welfare in the borough, including:
- Slum clearances of Victorian (and earlier) buildings classed as ‘unfit for human habitation’ in the 1930s
- Epidemics including plague, smallpox, cholera and flu
Diseases and high mortality rates in children. Explore our sources on education in Tower Hamlets’ which record health and epidemics in schools.
- The development of charities and settlements to aid the mental and physical health of people from poorer communities
This guide highlights key sources including:
- Borough council public health minutes and reports
- Civil parish records including poor relief and workhouses
- Records of welfare charities and societies, both religious and secular
In 2020, in response to the global Coronavirus global pandemic, a COVID-19 archive collecting project was launched by Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives. The collection (ref: P/COV) documents the effect of lockdown restrictions on the people, places and organisations in Tower Hamlets.
Local to Tower Hamlets? We welcome you to submit your own images and documents.
Hospital records often contain patient admission and discharge information, case books and staff registers. They can also include material on medical treatments and site management.
Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives holds no records of hospitals operating in the borough.
Records of local hospitals in Tower Hamlets are retained by successor NHS hospital trusts. Other hospital archives are available at London Metropolitan Archives.
- The National Archives Hospital Records Database
helps trace hospitals and management trusts which have changed name over time
- Barts Health NHS Trust holds archives of the Trust and its hospitals and predecessors. These include the Royal London Hospital as well as charities, training institutions and individuals. Records document some of the patients and staff. Explore their website for details on the collections and access
- London Metropolitan Archives holds over 70 hospital and health authority collections across London. These include records of the Metropolitan Asylums Board which began in 1867.
Pre 1965: Metropolitan Boroughs
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets was formed in 1965 from three predecessors, Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney Metropolitan Boroughs. Each had responsibilities for public health which continued from their origins in civil parishes and local boards before 1900. Examples include:
Minutes of the Public Health Committee, 1901 – 1965, 57 volumes
Housing Act 1930 and slum clearance correspondence, 1930-1935
Medical Officer's journal, 1910-1911
Three maps showing annual cases of tuberculosis in the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, 1961-1963
Returns of cholera and diarrhoea cases in the Whitechapel District, 1866
Parish of All Saints Poplar: Committee of Health minute book, 1831-1834
Minutes of the Public Health Committee 1901-1965, 37 volumes
Report of the Bow and Bromley Health Committee, 9 Oct 1866. This gives details of cholera statistics in Bow and home visits
Subject files of the Public Health Department, including Smallpox, tuberculosis, malaria, maternity mortality and other health issues, 1909 – 1965
Minutes of the Public Health Committee, 1901-1965, 41 volumes
Post 1965: London Borough of Tower Hamlets
The three Metropolitan Boroughs merged in 1965 to form the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The former Borough departments were centralised with new committees formed:
Minutes of the Health Committee, from 1964
- L/THL/A/16 and 27 Minutes of Social Services Committees, from 1965. These include services for older people and residential homes
Minutes of the Welfare Committee, from 1964
Minutes of the Health and Consumer Services Committee, 1980-1986
Public Health Department records 1958-1970. These include correspondence of Dr W C Turner, Medical Officer of Health for Poplar (from 1965 Associate Medical Officer of Health for Tower Hamlets) concerning the treatment of bronchitis, anthrax and "monkey disease" (Kyasanur Forest disease)
Midwifery, Maternity and Child Welfare
Midwives have traditionally been the prime carers for women during pregnancy and confinement before and after birth.
The following is an outstanding resource which documents the role of a local midwife during the Victorian era:
Account book of Millicent Francis (1795-1879)
This is a case book of a midwife operating in Bethnal Green between 1850-1851 and 1861-1875. Entries give the
- Date of birth
- Mother’s surname and address
- Sex of the child/children
- Fee charged and whether it had been paid
- Entries do not give the first name of the child being delivered
- Index to surnames is available
The volume includes details of stillborn births. This unique information is lacking from the official records. Stillbirths were not officially registered until 1927.
Maternity and Child Welfare
Until the early 20th century families faced high rates of infant disease and mortality.
For epidemics in schools, explore our guide to sources on Schools and Education in Tower Hamlets
Borough public health records contain a wealth of information. Highlights include:
Letter Book of the Bethnal Green Health Society 1908-1909
Formed in 1908, this Society aimed to reduce the loss of infant life. It secured the services of health visitors to help mothers with new-born babies in poor circumstances.
Parish of All Saints Poplar: Annual register of poor children, 1767-1777
Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green: Public Health Department file on Maternity Mortality 1929-1935
Metropolitan Borough of Stepney: Minutes of the Maternity and Child Welfare Committee, 1919-1948
Pay lists relating to the maintenance of children born to single mothers, 1801-1816
Papers of Margaret P Ince (nee Rule) on the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, Shadwell, 1953-2004
Records of the Good Shepherd Mission, Bethnal Green and Spitalfields, 1850 – 1977
The Mission began in 1850. Its aims were "to impart moral and religious education to the young, and to alleviate the condition of the 'perishing and dangerous classes,' by affording shelter, food and employment for the most needy and deserving”.
Introduction to Poor Law records
The care of the poor by authorities was based on the ‘Act for the Relief of the Poor’ of 1601. The Act required parishes to provide poor relief, especially for the sick and older people. At the time these individuals were called paupers. Workhouses were managed by each parish.
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 united parishes in England and Wales into Poor Law Unions. Relief was administered by local Boards of Guardians which ran the workhouses. In 1930, a new Local Government Bill created Public Assistance Committees which became responsible for former workhouse institutions. These Committees were managed by the county councils (in London, the London County Council for inner London and Middlesex County Council for north-west London).
Most records of workhouses after 1834 are held in Boards of Guardians archives at London Metropolitan Archives. For the Tower Hamlets area, the Boards of Guardians archives are:
- Bethnal Green (ref: BEBG)
- Poplar (ref: POBG)
- Stepney (ref: STBG).
Explore admission and discharge registers for these Boards of Guardians on Ancestry dataset: London Workhouse Admission and Discharge Records, 1764-1921
Trace a workhouse using the Workhouses.org website.
Explore mainly pre-1834 workhouse and poor relief records in our parish local authority collections. Examples include:
Parish of All Saints Poplar and former Hamlet of Poplar and Blackwall: Minutes of the Workhouse Management/Outdoor Poor Relief Committee, 1817-1821
Parish of St. Mary Stratford Bow: Vestry minute book, 1806-1829. This volume includes a report on Bow Workhouse, 1806, with details of food provided. This complements the Workhouse Committee minutes, 1803-1830, ref. L/SMS/A/2
Liberty of the Old Artillery Ground, Spitalfields: Workhouse Trustees minute books, 1771-1858
Parish of St. Mary Stratford Bow: Registers of ‘Paupers in the Workhouse’, 1806-1825
Parish of All Saints Poplar and former Hamlet of Poplar and Blackwall: Accounts of relief to weekly pensioners, 1814-1836
Parish of St. George-in-the-East: Lists of ‘pauper lunatics’, 1839-1840. Lunatics was a term used at the time to refer to people suffering from mental health conditions.
Parish of St. Mary Stratford Bow: Register of persons receiving out-door relief or admitted to Poplar Union Workhouse, 1859-1865. This volume includes the name, age, abode and cause of seeking relief either at home or in the workhouse.
Parish of St. Matthew Bethnal Green: Workhouse "visiting book", 1792-1799. This volume Gives weekly totals of men, women, boys and girls in the Bethnal Green Workhouse.
The East End was home to many philanthropic organisations both religious and secular. Settlements, like Oxford House (I/OXF), St. Hilda’s East and Toynbee Hall have aimed to improve conditions for the working people of Tower Hamlets. Explore these organisations in our collections.
Religious bodies have also played a key role in community welfare. Churches and synagogues formed charities and societies to provide relief.
Explore the following examples of archives of almshouses, charities, societies and associations dedicated to public welfare in the borough.
Records of Charities
The Red House, Stepney (Incorporated) ran the Little Hoppers Hospital in Five Oak Green, Kent. The collection includes Registers of attendances by patients, 1921-1953. Also related papers of Miss Violet Tucker 1949 - 1980s, ref. P/MIS/44. These include a scrapbook containing photographs, newspaper cuttings and notes.
Records of George Fournier's Charity in the Parish of St. Matthew Bethnal Green
Includes receipts and disbursements book of Fournier's Bequest, 1842-1934, index giving ages, addresses and years of receipt 1842-1869, and examination book of applicants for Fournier's Gift, 1849-1877
Records of the Tower Hamlets Mission, 1876 – 1999
The Mission was established by Frederick Nicholas Charrington in 1885. It was dedicated to helping the poor of the East End.
Records of Societies and Associations
Poplar Medical Association, minutes 1885 – 1929
Records of the Bethnal Green Old People's Trust Fund (formerly Bethnal Green Old People's Welfare Committee), 1963 – 1985
The Bethnal Green Old People's Welfare Committee was formed by Bethnal Green Borough Council in 1948. They provided social clubs, a Day Centre at St. Margaret's House, meal services and arranged holidays and health visits.
In 1965 the new Council took over much of the work through its Old People's Welfare Sub-Committee, which in 1970 became The Bethnal Green Old People's Trust Fund.
Records of the Tower Hamlets (formerly Stepney) Old People's Welfare Trust, 1948 - c 1990
The Stepney Old People's Welfare Association formed in October 1948, becoming The Welfare Trust in September 1965. It provided meals, outings, clubs and visits.
The name changed to the Tower Hamlets Old People's Welfare Trust in the early 1990s, to reflect its borough-wide activities.
Records of The East London Nursing Society, 1877 – 1968. Includes minutes and photograph albums.
The East London Nursing Society was formed in 1868. In 1969 the Council took over direct control of the Home Nursing Service. The Society was renamed the East London Nursing Society Trust, working with borough residents who were sick, convalescent or disabled.
Records of the Central Council for District Nursing in London, 1948 – 1968. Includes minutes which are subject to access restrictions. Contact staff for further details.
Records of Bethnal Green Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) including committee minutes, reports, correspondence, finance and publication on history, 1942-2003.
Based at St Margaret's House, the branch provided free advice to individuals on access to services including health, their rights and responsibilities.
Records of Almshouses
Almshouses in the borough have been run by charities, institutions and livery companies. Their records are usually found in archives of City of London-based organisations which managed them. Some such as for Trinity House almshouses are held at London Metropolitan Archives. Examples we hold:
Records relating to the East India Company's chapel and almshouses at Poplar, 1738-1868
Papers relating to the Norton Folgate Almshouse Charities held within the records of the London Borough of Stepney, 1935-1940
Records of George Green's Almshouses Trust, 1955 – 1975
Stepney Meeting House: Almshouse plans c. 1820s
Records of Religious organisations
St. George's German Lutheran Church, Whitechapel: records concerning relief of the poor and infirm 1849-1968
Minute book of the Rev. J. W. Atkinson's Mission and Relief Work in East London, 1889
Records of Princes (later Princelet) Street Synagogue, Spitalfields, Society for Chanting Psalms and Visiting the Sick 1893 – 1940
Records of The Salvation Army / Christian Mission
The papers of The Christian Mission 1867 – 1878 are held by The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre Archive (ref. CM). They also hold other Salvation Army records.
Extensive references to health and welfare in Tower Hamlets are in our library collections. Explore our books, periodicals, pamphlets, press cuttings, photographs, newspapers and maps. Maps include Charles Booth poverty maps.
Subjects covered include (class marks in brackets):
- hospitals and public health services (621)
- charities and workhouses (370 / 335.1)
- children’s and older people’s welfare and homes and hostels (364, 334.5)
- outbreaks of diseases (610.2)
- annual reports of hospitals and societies
- Dr Barnardo’s children’s homes (100 BAR / 364.1 BAR)
- LC14799 (621.1 BOA) - Nursing through the years: care and compassion at the Royal London Hospital by Loretta Bellman
Book. Contains interviews with over 85 nurses, whose experiences span from the 1940s to the 2000s.
- LCP00162 - The East London Homeless Health Primary Care Team: Annual report and review 1989-1993
Periodical series. Contains audit and statistics of services provided.
- LC7966 (334.5) - Poplar Old People's Welfare Committee: Annual report 1953-1958
- LC10123 (622.1) - The Voluntary Maternity and Child Welfare Centres of Bethnal Green Annual report 1918-1919
- LCM138 / LCM138A / LCM138B / LCM363 - Map of Bethnal Green showing the mortality from four classes of disease in 1838
Map. Shows the parish of Bethnal Green with the houses occupied by tradesmen and shopkeepers, weavers and labourers shown with different shading. Deaths caused by four classes of diseases (contagious and epidemic diseases, diseases of the brain and nerves, diseases of the lungs, and diseases of the digestive organs) are shown on the map with black crosses.
- Charles Booth Poverty Maps. Examples are in our collections.
Search also Charles Booth's London Poverty maps and police notebooks: https://booth.lse.ac.uk/
- LC14646 (370 GOO) - The British Almshouse: New perspectives on philanthropy ca 1400-1914 edited by Nigel Goose, Helen Caffrey and Anne Langley
Book. Features many almshouses in the borough, including Trinity, Whitechapel Parish and Bancroft’s Hospital
- Pathways to access project: We Need You
DVD, 2000, ref. LC15094
A video made to encourage Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets to train for careers in healthcare. Interviews cover:
- Why the individuals entered the health professions
- Job satisfaction
- Why more Bangladeshis are needed in healthcare
- Training routes and entry requirements
- The attitudes of their friends and family
- Uniform issues
- Career opportunities after qualifying.
- Dogs life, Issue one [videorecording]
DVD, 1984, ref. LC15080
A section of this video features an Isle of Dogs history group with older residents talking about healthcare in the 1930s.
- The Philip Mernick digitised postcard collection
A large collection of digital scans of picture postcards of the borough, donated by Philip Mernick of the East London History Society. Many show hospital, mission and children’s home buildings, wards and grounds during the early 20th century. Search our online catalogue with the reference PM/* and building name.