Responding to public health emergencies

With the UK currently in lockdown due to the Covid-19 emergency and school closed to most staff and children, we decided to take a look at what the archives can tell us about other times school life has been disrupted.  None of these previous events are quite the same as the current situation, but school has been closed for extended periods in the past for public health reasons and in times before widespread immunisation or access to treatment with the National Health Service.

Illnesses such as whooping cough, smallpox, diphtheria and measles were common infections that are well treated today but, in the past, they spread very quickly and with some serious outcomes.  Action was usually taken to limit the spread of illnesses in a serious outbreak and school was closed to stop children passing infections between themselves and also to adults at home.  Just five years after opening North Street School, an epidemic of measles and whooping cough closed the whole Infant School for a month and resulted in almost 200 absences in the Juniors.

John Harper, first headmaster at North Street Board School.

A longer closure was necessary in 1901 when North School was closed for nine weeks to tackle an outbreak of diphtheria in Colchester.  John Harper records in the log book on 11 July:

“I have this afternoon received a notice from the Sanitary Authority requiring the schools to be closed for a period of 6 weeks from this date on account of the continued prevalence and spread of diphtheria. Therefore please dismiss your school as early as possible tomorrow.”

Most of the initial closure period coincided with the school summer holidays, but when school reconvened on 24 August to start the new school year it was promptly dismissed for another three weeks until 16 September.  When school finally reopened, 14 children had had the infection and needed to be certified as healthy and no longer contagious by Dr Cobbett.  Children were unable to continue their school work at home and a period of going over previous learning was required when classes resumed as John Harper notes:

“Owing to the long absence, the teachers are beginning with a revision of the work of the second period [term?]”

A year earlier trials had taken place in Essex of a treatment for diphtheria referred to as an ‘anti-toxin’ which some local doctors admitted to viewing with scepticism at first but changing their minds after seeing it in use.  Dr Thresh said “I never saw such a thing in my life – the diphtheria melted away like snow before the sun.” (The Diphtheria Outbreak at Colchester, Chelmsford Chronicle, 2 November 1900).  However, this anti-toxin was a treatment and not a prevention.  In 1899 North School were already aware of the need to limit infection and had stopped using slates in lessons partly because of the risks associated with cleaning them.  John Harper explained on 12 May:

“It seems almost impossible to counteract the disgusting and

Writing slate

unsanitary habit of spitting on slates, and even if sponges are used we have found that they become dirty and evil smelling.”

Another very serious epidemic affected North Street School, Colchester and the whole country in 1918.  School attendance began to dip in July because of an “alarming influenza epidemic” that is now often called Spanish flu.  In July 1918, Colchester’s Acting Medical Officer told the Borough Council of a “rather peculiar type” of flu that was quickly effecting the military and town populations.  Initially the school was closed by the Education Committee for five days but after the summer holidays another closure of all schools was enforced.  When children arrived for school on 22 October 1918 they were told to go back home:

“so that without formally opening school the children were told of the state of things and dismissed.”

This flu not only closed schools, but businesses and shops too.  Cinemas and theatres were disinfected after every performance and in an effort to control the spread, Colchester Town Council banned children and teenagers from going to them altogether.  People queued daily for disinfectant at the health office on Stanwell Street and an all-over spray was  recommended by the medical officer, an equivalent to our alcohol based hand sanitisers. 

By the time school reopened on 4 December 1918, nearly a quarter of students were absent due to the effects of the virus.

There were other disruptions to education to come, but not until 2020 and the situation we find ourselves in today was school closed again for an indefinite period due to public health.  Today, children are able to stay in touch with their learning and their friends remotely and are staying safe by staying home.

Classroom at North County Board School. cxxv005

Primary sources

Chelmsford Chronicle, ‘The Diphtheria Outbreak at Colchester’ (2 November 1900)

North Street School log books

Secondary sources

Phillips, Andrew, Colchester in the Great War (Pen and Sword, 2017), 161-3

Rusiecki, Paul, The Impact of Catastrophe (Essex Record Office, 2008), 268-9