Monday, 22 February 2016

Parochial Officers of Health in pre-Famine Dublin by Ciarán McCabe

In this month's blog Dr Ciaran McCabe, an Irish Research Council funded postdoctoral fellow  (NUI Galway), considers the oft-neglected figure of the parochial health officer and his role in the prevention of contagion and fighting fever epidemics in early nineteenth-century Ireland. In 2011, Dr McCabe successfully completed a MA thesis at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, UCD, on the impact of the 1817-19 and 1826-27 fever epidemics on the Cork Street Fever Hospital, Dublin. 

Preventing the Danger of Contagion and Other Evils

The Fever Act of 1819 empowered parish 
vestries to elect unpaid officers of health
From the middle of the seventeenth century, civil parish vestries in Ireland carried out functions which we would today associate with local government services: fire-fighting, tree planting, public lighting, and the repair of roads. Parishes also undertook to provide some assistance to local parishioners in distress and this relief included the support of local 'foundlings', the purchase of coffins for local paupers, payments of cash to widows and the maintenance of an alms-house, typically inhabited by local widows. Parish vestries were of such importance as units of local government that it was upon them that powers were bestowed for the prevention of contagion in response to the 1817-19 fever epidemic. The 1819 Fever Act empowered parish vestries to elect unpaid officers of health, who had the authority to direct that tenements, lanes and streets be cleaned, and that nuisances be removed from the streets. These officers also had the power to apprehend and dismiss from the parish 'all idle poor Persons, Men, Women, or Children, and all Persons who may be found begging or seeking Relief' in the interest of 'preventing the Danger of Contagion and other Evils'.1

Officers of Health: Respectable Parishioners

The positions of officers of health were filled by respectable parishioners, who also typically served as churchwardens, sidesmen and overseers. To these men (and they were invariably men), such voluntary service gave them an opportunity to display their civil responsibilities, as well as asserting their prominence within the community. Toby Barnard has argued that 'as in England, so in Protestant Ireland, a willingness regularly to assume the burdens of parochial office may have helped the middling sort to define and so distinguish themselves from the lower ranks'.2 Among the officers of health in St Michan's parish in the 1830s were Mark Flower of Old Church Street and merchant William Hill of 47 Pill Lane, who also served together as sidesmen and overseers of licenced houses.3 In some instances, parishioners who were qualified medical practitioners  were elected to serve as officers of health, such as David Brereton MD in St Michan's in 1831.4 In St Thomas's parish in 1828, four of the ten elected officers of health were medical practitioners.5

The Fever Act (1819)

A notice issued by the officers of
health in St Werburgh parish,
November 1831
The Fever Act was passed in June 1819, by which point the nationwide fever epidemic had petered out. With the emergency over, parishes were slow to fill the positions of officers of health, which, while not encompassing any salary, required the levying of a parish cess to cover expenses. Shortly after the legislation was passed, the Head of Police wrote to each of the Dublin parishes, reminding them of of their duties to elect officers under the new Fever Act.6 In St Catherine's the first officers of health were appointed two months after the legislation was passed while it took nine months for the first officers to be appointed in St Werburgh's parish.7 Such delays could be criticised, yet on the other hand, given that the worst of the epidemic had passed, parishes were understandably reluctant to assume additional expenditure on unnecessary undertakings.

Cholera Epidemic

Freeman’s Journal, 17 November 1831. The parish vestry 
of St Anne’s in Dublin city appointed officers of health in 
late-1831, following reports that cholera had reached
 England and was believed likely to spread to Ireland
For the first decade after the enactment of the 1819 fever legislation, many parishes avoided filling these positions. Parish expenditure had to be raised through the taxation of local parishioners, who, in some cases in Dublin city, paid up to sixteen different taxes to various local authorities.8 The significance of the 1819 Fever Act, empowering parish vestries to spearhead the local responses to epidemic disease, was not realised until more than a decade after its enactment, when cholera made its first appearance in western Europe. In late-1831, when reports reached Ireland that cholera had been identified in England, parish vestries throughout the country held emergency meetings, drawing on their powers under the 1819 act and rapidly appointing officers of health as a measure to prevent – albeit unsuccessfully – the introduction and propagation of cholera.

To Guard Against Contagion

In St Andrew's parish in December 1831, a cess was levied on parishioners to enable the work of the officers of health by means of 'cleansing & whitewashing the dwellings of the poor in order to guard against contagion'.9 Two weeks earlier in St Catherine's parish, the sum of £50 was levied on parishioners following reports 'that a pestilential has raged in several parts of Europe form sometime under the name of Cholera Morbus, which it is feared may shortly extend its ravages to this Kingdom'.10 Cholera eventually reached Ireland in the spring of 1832 and throughout the epidemic, parochial officers of health carried out measures to mitigate the impact of the contagion. A question which remains unanswered is how the parochial officers of health interacted with other authorities, such as the state-run Board of Health. The rejection in October 1832 by officers of St James's parish of the Board of Health's right to interfere in parochial matters suggests the existence of inherent tensions between these parties, yet the extent to which this single instance is representative of a wider trend is as of yet unclear.11

A dead cholera victim in Sunderland, 1832. Following the outbreak of cholera in north-east
England, Irish parish vestries rushed to appoint officers of health. Wellcome Images

The Decline of the Parochial Officer of Health

Some parishes continued to appoint officers of health throughout the 1830s but the practice declined by the 1840s; yet there are some instances of officers being appointed by parishes in Ulster into the 1850s.12 The power of parish vestries to appoint officers of health was repealed by the 1866 Sanitary Act,13 which extended earlier legislation for England to Ireland and was passed at the height of yet another cholera epidemic. Responsibility for sanitary regulations was transferred to a new Public Health Committee, which operated under the auspices of Dublin Corporation.14 As well as reflecting wider developments in public health reform in this period, the decline of the parochial officer of health was also a symptom of the gradual removal of civil functions from Irish parish vestries. Although constituting relatively short-lived positions with limited powers, and whose efficacy in mitigating the impact of contagion is difficult to gauge, parochial officers of health remain an interesting and neglected part of the social and medical landscape of nineteenth-century Ireland.

Dr Ciarán McCabe

Dr Ciarán McCabe is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland postdoctoral fellow at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. In 2015 he was awarded a PhD by Maynooth University for his thesis which examined begging and alms-giving in pre-Famine Ireland. He is currently writing a monograph arising from his doctoral research. Dr McCabe holds a Masters in the Social and Cultural History of Medicine from the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland (CHOMI), UCD and also serves as compiler for Irish History Online.

1 An act to establish Regulations for preventing Contagious Diseases in Ireland', 59 Geo. III, c. 41 (14 June 1819).
2 Toby Barnard, A New Anatomy of Ireland: The Irish Protestants, 1649-1770 (New Haven and London), 2003), p. 242.
3 St Michan's parish, Dublin, vestry minute book, 7 April 1828 (Representative Church Body Library (RCBL), St Michan's parish, Dublin, vestry minute books, P 276.05.5; ibid., 23 December 1828; ibid., 9 April 1832; 20 April 1835. Hill also served as churchwarden: ibid., 4 April 1836.
4 St Michan's parish, Dublin, vestry minute book, 23 November 1831.
5 St Thomas parish, Dublin, vestry minute book, 7 April 1828 (RCBL, St Thomas's parish, Dublin, vestry minute books, P 80.5.2).
6 Saunder's Newsletter, 19 August 1819.
7 St Catherine's parish, Dublin, vestry minutes, 24 August 1819 (RCBL, St Catherine's parish, Dublin, vestry minute books, P 117.05.7); St Werburgh's parish, Dublin, vestry minutes, 25 March 1820 (RCBL, St Werburgh's parish, Dublin, vestry minute books, P 326.05.2).
8 Jacinta Prunty, Dublin Slums, 1800-1925: A Study in Urban Geography (Dublin, 1998), p. 67.
9 St Andrew's parish, Dublin, vestry minutes, 12 December 1831 (RCBL, St Andrew's parish, Dublin vestry minute books, P 059.05.2).
10 St Catherine's parish, Dublin, vestry minutes, 28 November 1831.
11 The Pilot, 12 October 1832.
12 Belfast Newsletter, 28 August 1851, 14 April 1852, 3 May 1854.
13 'An act to amend the Law relating to Public Health', 29 & 30 Vict., c. 90, s. 69 (7 August 1866).
14 Prunty, Dublin Slums, pp 70-71.

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