Dora B. Montefiore, New Age January 1903

Women’s Interests

The Teaching of Hygiene and Sanitation to Women.


Source: New Age, p.74-5, 29 January 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


I am glad to see that Bedford College and the Sanitary Institute are organising a course of scientific teaching of hygiene and sanitation for school teachers in our elementary and secondary schools. When, a few years ago, I attended the National Health Society’s course of training in Berners Street, Dr. Schofield, one of the lecturers, told his students that women needed above all others thorough training in sanitation and hygiene, as they, in their homes – as it was then hoped in Local Government administration – should be the natural and practical authorities on such subjects, Many women, hoping later on to be of service to their fellow citizens either on School Boards or Town or Borough Councils, went through thorough scientific courses of study in ventilation, in sanitation, in the question of food supply and food preparation, and in elementary physiology, first, aid, and nursing. The practical work included amongst other things visits to steam disinfecting establishments, the inspection of buildings in which drains were being laid down on the most modern and hygienic principles; the watching of the laying of damp-proof courses, etc.; the inspection of soap-boiling works, and visits to the Victoria Tower, Westminster, where the sytem of ventilation for the House of Parliament was explained. The knowledge gained by such courses of study is naturally of extreme value in the practical affairs of life; but knowledge without the power of putting it to practical we is only one more of the wasted opportunities our existing competitive system forces on the community, and which our present contemptible Government emphasises. Most undoubtedly it is the trained mother heart and mind which can grapple with horrible evils of overcrowding, bad feeding, and insanitary conditions in which the bulk of our people live. What, however, we may ask is the use of “Applied sanitation for School Teachers” when the conditions which prevail in the homes of the people are so deplorable and unspeakable; and when the only trained and conscious Mother influence in public administration has, within the last three or four years, been removed by Act of Parliament.

Where Women Administrators Should be Appointed by the People.

At Southwark, Mr. A.P. Graves, one of H.M. Inspectors of Schools, stated at a meeting that “one fifth of the school-children of Southwark could be said to be in a chronic state of health, and to remedy that state of affairs the first thing that must be looked to was the better housing of the people.” Dr. Millson, the medical officer of the borough, added that “if Mr. Graves meant that the children were not in a state that would enable them to grow up strong and healthy men and women, then the proportion mentioned was considerably under the mark.... In one ward in the borough there were 281 people to the acre, and in the ward in which the Vestry Hall stood there were 266 to the acre.” A morning paper last week, in a paragraph headed “Profits of Low Class House property,” tells how six families, consisting of 26 persons, among whom were 15 children, occupied seven rooms in a house which was unsanitary and unfit for human habitation. An architect of Great Ormond Street valued the property at 1,700. Let out in weekly tenements this property (admittedly unfit for human habitation) produced 2 7s. 6d. a week! It was to try and remedy some of these crying evils that women were sent to the Vestries by the mandate of the people, and many women were already doing valuable work, even under the restricted powers which the old vestries exercised. But the present Government has seen to it effectually that the Mother’s voice shall be silenced on the new Borough Councils and on the new Education Boards, and the training which many women underwent in matters pertaining to practical administration has been thrown away.

National Health and Motherhood.

The nation has through its Government refused to stand for the Mother-principle in Administration, and has hardened its heart when face to face with the too oft repeated tale of the misery of its badly-fed and badly-housed children; but it winces immediately its pocket or its national efficiency is called into question, making hysterical attacks on the ignorance of the working-class mother, or spasmodic attempts to make already overburdened teachers do, in the schools, what should be rendered unnecessary by proper administration outside. In an article in the Contemporary Review by Sir Frederic Maurice on National Health, he tells the tale of the average young army recruit of the day, broken down and patched up again in health before his life work has begun. “For many years,” he writes, “out of every five men who wish to enlist, and primarily offer themselves for enlistment, you will find by the end of two years service there are only two men remaining in the army as effective soldiers.” He then asks for an exhaustive investigation throughout the country into the causes of this unfitness, and amongst the points he raises is “How far physical deterioration can be traced to the average working-class woman’s ignorance in the matter of the proper feeding of infants.” Is it fair, I ask, that the working-class mother should be held answerable for the quality of food supplied to her children, when it is impossible even to get milk which has not been treated with boracic acid and other preservatives? I ask any fair-minded person to look at the food – especially the meat – exposed for sale in a working-class quarter, and say truthfully that they believe healthy bodies can be built up from the unwholesome, tainted, adulterated, and preservative-soaked stuff which is what working-class mothers are forced to buy because their local administration will not see to it that pure food shall be provided. Just as the working classes are obliged to overcrowd, are obliged to breathe foul air, and to do without the natural disinfectant – sunshine – in their homes, so also they are obliged to feed on decaying fish fried in cotton-seed oil, on doctored butter, permeated with chemical acid, and on meat, the mere sight of whose flabbiness and unnatural colour makes one shudder, and which, if not saturated with preservatives, would be as offensive to the smell as it is to the eye.

DORA B. MONTEFIORE.