Protecting and Promoting Pupil’s Health in Edwardian Belfast Schools

By Tom Thorpe, Independent

In August 1913, Dr H.W. Baillie, Belfast’s Medical Superintendent Officer of Health delivered his report on the city’s public health for the previous year. During 1912, Belfast reported its second lowest death rate ever but he noted that around 650 children had died from the seven ‘zymotic’ (infectious) diseases such as whooping cough, diphtheria, scarlet fever and measles.[1] The 1911 Census records that in Belfast there were 86,887 children aged under 11.[2] This meant in 1912, around 0.7% of children died of these diseases. Outbreaks of these infections were common throughout the Edwardian period. For example, between April and July 1910 in Belfast, measles and whooping-cough had killed 688 children.[3] Schools were important battle grounds for combatting these diseases as they were the main places where children congregated, mixed and caught disease.

This article explores how schools in Belfast during the Edwardian period (1901-1914) sought to protect the health of their pupils from infectious diseases and other health problems. It compares health measures in two groups of schools. The first group are the National Schools, state-funded institutions that educated the vast majority of the population, predominantly the urban working classes. In 1912, 56,321 pupils attended 388 schools in Belfast.[4] Children could be as young as 3 when they started school and often left to work in the factories and mills before reaching ‘Standard IV’, the academic level expected for children aged 11 to 12.[5] The second group are the fee paying preparatory and secondary schools catering for the children of the affluent suburban middle class elites.[6] Before the Great War, it is estimated that there around 12 private schools that educated an estimated 1,500 pupils and included institutions such as Victoria College Belfast, Royal Academical Institution, Belfast Academy, Methodist College and Campbell College Belfast (CCB). These children would normally leave at 16 but some continued on until age 18.

Private Schools

Health was taken very seriously by private schools. Examining the example of Campbell College Belfast (CCB) illustrates this well. CCB was founded in 1894 as a boys public school for boarding and day pupils and had 155 pupils on its books by 1914.[7] It aimed to deliver a ‘superior liberal Protestant education’ for the sons of the professional and business classes and attracted many boys from ‘middle class Ulster protestant’ families including future children’s author C.S. Lewis.[8] The school had experienced an outbreak of scarlet fever in 1899 that had forced it to close down for two months while it was disinfected. As a result, several parents had refused to send their pupils back to the school.[9] The temporary closure and removal of parents from caused concern that the school expanded its existing sanatorium. It was enlarged and built specifically as a ‘hospital for scarlatina cases’ at the cost of £2,000. In the summer of 1900, it housed nine pupils with that disease.[10] That was not the only disease that the school had to contend with; in 1905, 40 pupils went down with mumps.[11] The headmaster reported in 1907 that ‘parents were showing uneasiness with regard to the outbreak of…spotted Fever [cerebrospinal meningitis]’.[12]

Without pupils, Campbell had no income stream. To allay parental concern, the protection of its pupil’s health became a strong feature in Campbell’s marketing. The 1911 prospectus stressed how the school sought to protect the health of pupils. It declared that ‘special attention is paid to the health of boarders. The Medical Officer visits the school daily, and sees any boys who are on the sick list. Each boarder on joining the school is subjected to a careful and exhaustive medical examination, of which a record is kept for future reference’ [sic].[13] Furthermore, each boy must have a health certificate ‘signed by his parent or guardian’.[14] The prospectus for 1913 added two further elements of health improvement had been added to demonstrate the school’s commitment to well-being. It was stated that the school’s food supply was ‘under the supervision of the Medical officer’ and a health screening form was added asking whether a child had whooping-cough, chicken pox, measles, German measles, mumps, ringworm, scarlet fever or small pox.[15]

Whether this allayed fears shared by parents is unknown but it may have influenced Dr Baillie, mentioned above, who sent his son Herbert to the school in January 1920.[16] Once in the school Herbert and other pupils were subject to regular medical attention. Dr Richard Leslie was the school’s Medical Officer and also a consultant at the Ulster Hospital for Women and Children who attended ‘on a regular basis’.[17] Despite the measures taken by the school, pupils were still affected by disease. For example, in March 1911, Alexander Thompson, was obliged to leave the school because he showed signs of scarlet fever and died of the disease two years later.[18]

National Schools

The story of health measures in National Schools is very depressingly different. The Commissioners for National Education were the statutory agency that administered the state funded education system of National Schools, education policy and curriculum and carried out school inspections to maintain standards.[19] Between 1897 and 1918, inspectors from the Commissioners carried out six visits to Belfast National Schools. The reports they compiled provide an insight into the health of National School students and the measures taken to protect their health.[20] Many inspectors reported positively on pupil health. For example, in 1908, Mr Mangan reported that pupils he saw were ‘as a rule were well-fed, and healthy’.[21]

Six years later, another inspector concluded that ‘pupils on the whole seem robust, wonderfully so, considering the conditions of some of their lives’. However, this inspector noted that ‘in schools which touch the social low-water mark they naturally appear degenerate’.[22] Inspectors picked out a number of health issues. One challenge was the oral health of children; many reported that ‘defective teeth…[were] common in the city schools’[23] In 1913-14, an ‘examination by an expert’ of nearly 200 children aged 6 to 10 found under 5% ‘to be free from any defect’.[24] Of more concern was the frequent ‘epidemics of scarlatina [scarlet fever], whooping-cough, diphtheria and measles’ that were ‘rife’.[25] These outbreaks often necessitated ‘the closing of many schools for long periods’.[26] Schools sought to control infection by ‘spraying the schools daily with strong disinfectants’ but these measures often did little to curb the spread of infectious disease.[27] Others schools sought to exclude pupils to prevent overcrowding to ‘limit the number of pupils on the rolls, in the interest of the health of teachers and pupils’. [28]

The action taken to tackle these problems was mixed. Some inspectors reported progress; for example, Mr Keith noted in 1908 that ‘greater interest has been taken in recent years in the cases of defective sight. Many children needing to wear spectacles’.[29] In other areas, action was limited. For instance, in the 1914-1915 report, it was detailed that ‘a dental clinic has been in operation for many years in the Jaffe National School…at which the children from several schools attend’. However, the report concluded ‘dental treatment of school children has not yet received the attention it deserves’.[30] The area of greatest failure was in the lack of medical inspection in schools. Dr Baillie noted in his 1912 public health report for Belfast that the lack of such inspections was a ‘great drawback from a public health aspect’.[31] Mr Honan, in his 1914-15 report for the Commissioners concluded in that such health inspections would have been ‘most desirable’.[32] Under a system ‘[infectious disease] cases would be detected at once and a remedy applied. The trifling cost to the State would be more than amply repaid in the improved health and vigour of those students that go to form the working element’.[33]

Lack of Progress in National School Health Improvement

Dr Baillie believed that part of the problem was that there was an ‘absurd idea’ that diseases such as diphtheria and measles were ‘simple disease[s] from which all children must suffer’. He warned that they were ‘dangerous and preventable disease[s] and ought to be greeted as such’.[34] There were also many ‘therapies’ in circulation that were probably ineffective in treating such conditions. The local media is full of advertisements for ‘remedies’ that promised instant treatment for various ailments. It is highly probable that many parents turned to such aids because of their promises or that they may not have had the resources to seek medical help. For example, there were many different types of ‘cure’ available for whooping cough. Whether these ‘cures’ did what they claimed is unknown but all made strong assertions for their effectiveness. On 17 October 1907, the Belfast Telegraph carried an advert that using Veno’s Lightening Cough Cure relieves whooping cough ‘in one night’.[35] Another advert on 6 October 1911 boasted that whooping cough could be cured ‘in a few days’ by using Richardson’s Cure available from 51 Donegall Pass.[36] Finally, eighteen months later, Angier’s Emulsion promised that whooping cough was ‘quickly relieved’ by its use.[37]

Added to this, some parents had strong objections to vaccinating their children. These attitudes were complex and wide ranging and can be traced back as far as the late eighteenth century. For example, in 1883 school teacher George Troubridge was prosecuted for not having his child vaccinated. He claimed ‘conscientious objection’ to vaccination but was fined 20 shillings plus costs for not complying with the law.[38] The attitudes of many middle class people believed that disease was a natural part of the working classes’ ‘condition’. The views of Eric Roberston Dodds demonstrates this well. He attended between 1908 and 1912 and in later life became a well-known Oxford Classics professor. In his 1977 autobiography, he would not use public libraries because they were ‘for the use of the Lower Classes only [and]…one might catch a disease from the thumbed and bescrawled pages’ of their books [sic]. This was despite Dodds claiming he was a ‘socialist’ while at school.[39]

These views were not uncommon. One inspector assessing a National School often blamed the families of the pupils for their poor and dirty condition. Mr Kelly reported in 1908 that he had frequently drawn ‘attention to the dirty sate of some of the pupils in the poorer quarters of the city’. His view was that:

The best way to influence the home life of such children is through the medium of the school. If they [children] do not come clean to school they should be required to wash themselves in the school premises, until cleanliness becomes a habit. Apart from the hygienic aspect of the question, the value of soap and water as a civilising agency is not to be despised. The boy who has learned to keep himself clean has ascended a step in the ladder of self-respect.[40]

If infectious childhood disease was to be tackled, then something would have to be done about housing conditions of the working classes and the schools where their children were educated. Inspectors found that in 1912 about a third of National Schools in the Belfast area were ‘overcrowded’ which accelerated the spread of disease.[41] This problem was compounded by the fact that Belfast’s population had risen by 51% between 1891 and 1911 and school expansion had not kept pace with this demographic change resulting in overcrowding.[42]

The ability of schools to cope with infections could be poor. For example, the sanitation arrangements in some schools were primitive. In 1908, Mr Kelly reported one school with no toilet. In another school he visited five months previously, he found the same piece of soap in the bathroom which he believed demonstrated ‘a phenomenon which is to be explained by some other theory than the indestructibility of matter’.[43] In the event of a child being sick with an infectious disease, self-isolating at home to prevent the spread of the disease was required. Baillie reported in 1912 that this was ‘almost impossible’ for working class children as working class families tended live in small crowded houses making self-isolation difficult.[44] The 1901 Census found that the average number of people living in a single house in Belfast was 5.2 and in 1911 it was 5.0.[45]

Ultimately, instituting a medical inspection regime for schools or building new schools would cost money and funded through local rates levied by the Corporation (Belfast City Council). However, given the attitudes of many middle class people towards poverty and those in lower social classes and the sheer size of demographic pressure Belfast National Schools were under, this would have warranted considerable municipal expenditure. Many perceived that improving pupil health was not a priority for the Corporation which had just spent £369,000 (£28,992,145.50 by today’s prices[46]) building Belfast City Hall that was completed in 1906. As a consequence of these factors, improving health provision in schools was not a priority for Belfast rate payers or their elected representatives and this may explain why there was little or no action on the health of National School pupils before the First World War.[47]

Image: Campbell College 1931 © National Museums NI.

From School to Hospital; Campbell College Belfast during the Second World War

During the Second World War, the buildings of Campbell College Belfast, located in the east of the city, was converted from a public school to a military hospital.[48] This narrative article tells the story of the hospital at the school. Before the Second World War, Campbell College Belfast was a boys public school for boarding and day pupils. It had been founded in 1894 through a large bequest from linen merchant Henry Campbell.[49] His will had stipulated that the school should carry his name. As a result, the executors of his will established Campbell College and declared it would deliver a ‘superior liberal Protestant education’ for the sons of the professional and business classes of Ireland.[50] The school was largely successful in that objective and it was noted that it attracted the many boys from ‘middle class Ulster protestant’ families.[51]

In July 1940, the War Office requisitioned the College as the primary location of the 24th General Hospital. The school transferred its pupils, teachers and lessons to the Northern Counties Hotel in Portrush where it remained until 1946.[52] For the British War Office, the Campbell College estate offered much potential as a hospital. Colonel D.T. Richardson, the Deputy Director of Medical Services in Northern Ireland in 1940, noted that the location was ‘well suited and well outside the town.’[53] The school also had a number of satellite buildings which could be used for accommodating  patients and staff.[54] Richardson estimated that the capacity of a hospital on the site could cope with 700 patients and possibly 900 under ‘crisis expansion’.[55] This was a large scale medical establishment that would be significantly bigger than many of the existing hospitals in Belfast. For example, the Royal Victoria Hospital, on the Falls Road in West Belfast, had 538 beds before the war.[56] Number 24 British General Hospital was to be one of four such establishments in Northern Ireland during the war.[57]

The hospital operated a wide range of treatments for varied conditions including respiratory and neurological problems and infectious diseases.[58] For May to June 1944, the surgical division had an establishment of 451 beds housed in 8 wards located and performed 662 operations.[59] For the same period outlined above, a total of 2,155 service personnel were admitted to the hospital and the physiotherapy department saw 4,370 patients.[60] The dominant medical issue for outpatients for July to September 1944 was the treatment of soldiers for VD. It was reported that 1,526 outpatient appointments were held, 23% of the total for the period.[61]The laboratory department (pathology) of the hospital appears to have conducted animal experiments for medical research as they reported in July 1944 an ‘animal house’ was built for ‘use in connection with the laboratory’.[62]

The hospital noted in its regular reports a range of ‘cases of special interest or death’. One tragic case that was reported was that of Gunner Harold Softly, a member of 409th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery. He was admitted to the hospital on 24 May 1944 with a gunshot wound to the left chest. He shot himself with a pistol ‘during a fit of depression after six pints of beer’. He died four days later.[63]

A more successful case was that of A.B. Burridge, an armourer on the escort aircraft carrier HMS Tracker. Burridge’s job was to load munitions onto aircraft that were hunting German U-boats in the Atlantic. When loading a 250lb depth charge, a bomb used to sink submarines, on to an aircraft the lifting gear he was using broke causing the depth charge to fall and damaging his hand. On closer inspection his thumb was ‘almost completely detached’. It was decided to keep the thumb and refrigerate it and treat it with penicillin. Burridge and his thumb were flown to Belfast and he was admitted to Campbell College. Surgeons were able to reattach his thumb and it was reported that he retained sensation and movement in his digit.[64]

As well as treating British and Allied personnel, the hospital also treated a number of captured German combatants. Records suggest that eight German servicemen died at the hospital as a result of their injuries, disease or both. For example, Platoon Sergeant Alfred Rinn, who served with Landesschützenzug 23, an infantry defence regiment, died aged 44 years old on 5th February 1945 from pulmonary tuberculosis for which he was been treated at the hospital. Another instance was German Air Force corporal Gerhard Geier who died after an operation to treat a fractured skull in the same year.[65]

Daily life in the hospital appears to be reasonably quiet. The War Diary, the log of daily events, that the commander officer of the facility was required to keep, lists a routine of inspection visits of different parts of the hospital, meetings with senior management and occasional social activities such as a ‘unit dance’ in the patient’s dining hall.[66] However, the hospital was not without its challenges. During the Belfast Blitz in May 1941, when the Luftwaffe attacked Belfast, the hospital was accidentally bombed. Significant damage was caused to the buildings and 19 medical staff and patients were killed.[67]

Later in the war, staffing became a major problem. For example, in September 1944, it was noted that the work for the X-Ray department ‘too much’ for the two radiographers. It was also reported that three wards were closed ‘owing to a shortage of nursing orderlies’.[68] In the following month, October 1944, it was pointed out that no neurologist had been found to fill the vacant position at the hospital and neurological care was reliant on Major Elliot, Command Neurologist for Scotland, flying in once a month to treat patients in the hospital.[69]

On 2nd October 1945, an order was issued to ‘move Military Hospital, Campbell College to hospital site at Waringfield near Moira, Co[unty] Down’.[70] Over the next few days, all patients, staff and stores were transferred. Six months later, the school returned from Portrush and re-occupied the site. They found that significant restoration and repair work was required to return the estate to educational use. For instance, the parquet flooring in main hall had to be replaced as it had been damaged by constant military cleaning.[71] The school submitted a bill for £33,000 for the repair and restoration of the College after the military had finished with it (estimated at around £1,4m by 2020 prices).[72]

© The Author(s) 2021. Published by the Epidemic Belfast team on behalf of Ulster University. Any unauthorised broadcasting, public performance, copying or re-recording will constitute an infringement of copyright.


[1] Belfast Newsletter (23 August 1913), p. 9.

[2] 1911 Census for Belfast.

[3] Northern Whig (8 August 1910), p. 8.

[4] Belfast Newsletter (23 August 1913), p. 9.

[5] For an explanation of the ‘Standard’ in Edwardian schools see Appendices to Sixty-seventh Report of Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, School Year 1900, Section II, F, Revised Programme of Instruction in National Schools (Dublin: HMSO, 1900), p. 66. In one report in 1915, Miss Kelly noted that ‘Regularity of attendance depends largely on locality. In poor areas, where a hand-to-mouth existence prevails, children come to school only when they must, and leave when they can. Many never reach standard IV [aged about 12] and few get beyond it, before the mills claim them for ‘half-time.’ [In other words, pupils went to work half time in the Mill and attended school for the rest of the week) (Appendix to the Eightieth Report of The Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, School Year, 1913-14. Section I. General Report on The State of National Education by Inspectors and Others (Dublin: HMSO, 1915), p. 51.)

[6] William Maguire, Belfast, A History (Lancaster: Carnegie, 2009), pp.155-7.

[7] K. Haines, Neither Rogues nor Fools. A History of Campbell College and Campbellians (Belfast: Campbell College Belfast, 2003), p. 4. Anthony Seldon & David Marsh, Public Schools and the Great War (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2013), p. 256.

[8] Haines, Neither Rogues, p. 4. Eric. R. Dodds, Missing Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 16.

[9] Haines, Neither Rogues, p. 59.

[10] Haines, Neither Rouges, p. 60.

[11] Haines, Neither Rogues, p. 59.

[12] Haines, Neither Rogues, p. 59.

[13] CCB Prospectus, 1911, p. 2. CCB Archives.

[14] CCB Prospectus, 1911, p. 3. CCB Archives.

[15] CCB Prospectus, 1913, pp. 2, pp. 4-5. CCB Archives.

[16] The Campbell College Register 1894-1999 (Hertford: CCB, 1999), p. 106.

[17] Haines, Neither Rogues, p. 59.

[18] Haines, Neither Rouges, p. 59.

[19] First Report of the Commissioners appointed by the Lord Lieutenant to administer the Funds granted by Parliament for the Education of the Poor of Ireland, 1838, p. 1.

[20] Commissioners of National Education in Ireland: Sixty-Third Report, 1896-97, with Appendices (Dublin: HMSO, 1897); Commissioners of National Education in Ireland: Appendix to the Seventy-Second Report of the Commissioners, for the School Year 1905-06, Sections I, II and III (Dublin: HMSO, 1906); Appendix to the Seventy-Fourth Report of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, School Year 1907-8. Section I. General Reports on the State of National Education by Inspectors and Others (Dublin: HMSO, 1908); Seventy-Seventh Report of The Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, School Year, 1910-11 (Dublin: HMSO, 1911), Appendix to the Eightieth Report of The Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, School Year, 1913-14, (Dublin: HMSO, 1915); Eighty-Fourth Report of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland School Year 1917-1918 (Dublin: HMSO, 1918).

[21] Seventy-Fourth Report, p. 142.

[22] Eightieth Report, p. 51.

[23] Eightieth Report, p. 50.

[24] Eightieth Report, p. 73.

[25] Eightieth Report, , pp. 49-50. Seventy-Seventh Report, p. 61.

[26] Eightieth Report, pp. 49-50.

[27] Eightieth Report, pp. 49-50.

[28] Seventy-Second Report, p. 148.

[29] Seventy-Fourth Report, p. 142.

[30] Eightieth Report, p. 50.

[31] Belfast Newsletter (23 August 1913), p. 9.

[32] Eightieth Report, p. 50.

[33] Eightieth Report, p. 51.

[34] Belfast Newsletter (23 August 1913), p. 9.

[35] Belfast Telegraph (17 October 1907), p. 6.

[36] Belfast Telegraph (6 October 1911), p. 2.

[37] Belfast Newsletter (5 March 1913), p. 5.

[38] Belfast Weekly News (13 October 1883), p. 3.

[39] E.R. Dodds, Missing Persons (Oxford, 1977), pp.17-18.

[40] Seventy-Fourth Report, p. 133.

[41] Belfast Newsletter (23 August 1913), p. 9; Eightieth Report, p. 44.

[42] Percentage derived from 1891 and 1911 Censuses for Belfast.

[43] Seventy-Fourth Report, p. 133.

[44] Belfast Newsletter (23 August 1913), p. 9. Jonathan Bardon, Belfast, An Illustrated History (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1982), p. 139.

[45] Bardon, Belfast, p.139; 1911 Census.

[46] As determined by the British Libray’s Currency Converter 1270 to 2017. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/#currency-result Accessed 4 November 2021.

[47] Bardon, Belfast, p. 205.

[48] Location of British General Hospitals, The National Archives (TNA), WO 222/1568.

[49] Haines, Neither Rogues, p. 4.

[50] Haines, Neither Rogues, p.4.

[51] Dodds, Missing Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 16.

[52] Haines, Neither Rouges, pp.205-6. See also ‘Campbell at Portrush, 1040-46’, Campbell College Archives.

[53] Colonel D.T. Richardson’s Medical Quarterly Report (Jul 1940 to February 1941), TNA, WO 222/494.

[54] WO 222/1568.

[55] Colonel D.T. Richardson’s Medical Quarterly Report (Jul 1940 to February 1941), TNA, WO 222/494.

[56] Richard Clarke, The Royal Victoria Hospital, A History 1797-1997 (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1997), p. 93.

[57] Location of British General Hospitals, TNA, WO 222/1568.

[58] Quarterly Report for Quarter ending 30 June 1944, Lt Col C.M. Valliant, TNA, WO 222/897.

[59] Quarterly Report of the Surgical Division of the Military Hospital, Campbell College, April to June 1944, TNA, WO 222/897.

[60] Quarterly Report, OC, Military Hospital, Campbell College, 18 July 1944 & Physiotherapy Department, Quarterly Report for 2nd Quarter, 1944, TNA, WO 222/897.

[61] Out-patients’ Department, Returns for July, August, September 1944, TNA, WO 222/897.

[62] Quarterly Report of Command Laboratory Northern Ireland, Major John O. Oliver, 5 July 1944, TNA, WO 222/897.

[63] Quarterly Report of the Surgical Division of the Military Hospital, Campbell College, April to June 1944, TNA, WO 222/897.

[64] Quarterly Report of the Surgical Division of the Military Hospital, Campbell College, April to June 1944, pp. iv-v, TNA, WO 222/897.

[65] https://wartimeni.com/location/belfast/east/belmont-road/campbell-college/ Accessed 16 June 2021

[66] See War Diary for March to June 1944, TNA, WO 177/979.

[67] https://wartimeni.com/location/belfast/east/belmont-road/campbell-college/ Accessed 16 June 2021.

[68] Quarterly Report of the X-Ray Department, Military Hospital, Campbell College, for the Quarter ending 30th September 1944 & Report for Quarter Ending 30th September 1944 by Lieut. Col Bernard Day, TNA, WO 222/897.

[69] Quarterly Medical Report of the War, 18 October 1944, TNA, WO 222/897.

[70] See War Diary October 1944, TNA, WO 177/979.

[71] Haines, Neither Rogues, pp. 218-19.

[72] Haines, Neither Rogues, p. 219. See https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetary-policy/inflation/inflation-calculator for 2020 calculations.

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