Monday 15 February 2021

Archive in a Pandemic A-Z: Q is for...


Quarantining items has become a part of our normal routine in the Archive since we re-opened to the public in August 2020. 

Each day our used archives are placed on a separate trolley and that trolley is wheeled away and stored in a Strongroom for 72 hours. 

A label is placed on the trolley telling other staff when the quarantine period will be over. 

Once the time is up, staff can either put the items away or produce them for another customer 

Each morning a staff member goes to check the three trolleys and puts away the archive items from the trolley that is out of quarantine. The trolley is then washed with warm soapy water and placed out in the searchroom again. The staff wear gloves or wash their hands before and after handling the archives as an added precaution. 

So far this routine has worked well and we have not had many incidents when an item has been unavailable for another user. 

All this separation has meant that we have had to find other space for items which are to be used by the same customer on consecutive days. A cupboard near the searchroom has been reorganised for this. 

And we have also had to find more space for archive staff who need access to the same items on consecutive days. The top of a map chest in one of the strongrooms has been cleared for this. 

To think, we used to pile everything on the same trolley every day!


"To Perform their Quarantine"

My esteemed colleague Archiver has been researching the Cholera pandemic of the 1830s and discovered this letter in the Kirkwall Town Council minutes which mentions proposed quarantine measures by Samuel Laing, the Provost of Kirkwall. 

page from Kirkwall Town Council Minute book 1823-1850 


Copy Letter from the Provost to the Town Clerk referred to in the foregoing minute:-

Edinburgh, Hill side Crescent

8 November 1831

Dear sir,

In consequence of the cholera having made it appearance at Newcastle and Sunderland the Magistrates of touns in Scotland are making arrangements to prevent if possible the disease from spreading within their jurisdiction; and we would be justly blamed in Kirkwall if our Magistracy and Council were remiss in meeting and taking such precautionary Measures as are within their power.

I would beg leave to suggest to the Magistrates and Council

1. That no Vessel coming from Sea should be allowed to run inside of the Pier head but should bring upon the Roads until the Custom house officers are satisfied of the Health of the Crew and Port that the Vessel last sailed from. Vessels from Shields and Sunderland are to perform Quarantine by order to the Custom House Department from Government and to prevent illegal communication it might be proper to request the Custom House authorities to send such Vessels to Deersound to perform their Quarantine.

2. It would be proper to appoint a Committee to act with the Medical Gentlemen of the place and with the Committee of the Destitute Sick Society in enforcing cleanliness in the lanes, closes, yards and suburbs by removing brevi manu[i] all rubbish, dung heaps and dirt collected for Manure within the precincts of the Toun.

3. It would be proper in case of need to point out some House – say the Old Manse to which the Medical Gentlemen could order a patient to be removed if they judge it necessary to do so for preventing the disorder from spreading in any crowded neighbourhood, and to authorize all necessary expences. The details of such measures can only be left to a Committee acting with the Medical Gentlemen and authorized to give at once every aid under their sanction.

As far as I can learn measures similar to these viz. the appointment of two Committees – one for enforcing cleanliness and one for acting with the Medical Gentlemen in separating the infected from the healthy, if the disease break out and each with the fullest powers to act and incur the necessary expences – are the measures taking in other Towns. I lose no time in submitting the subject to the consideration of the Toun Council. – As Individuals we may feel satisfied that there is in Orkney no great reason to apprehend any infections disorder of the nature of Cholera, but we are bound to act as others differently situated think it necessary to act for the security of the Public Health.

I remain, Dear Sir, Yours very sincerely, [signed] Samuel Laing

[i] brevi manu – meaning without delay

Monday 8 February 2021

Archive in a Pandemic A-Z: P is for


Image  BBC

Remember in Pride and Prejudice when they kept asking each other if their families were well? And poor Mr Woodhouse getting in a tizzy about draughts and open windows in case his dear daughter Emma got sick?

Much of the pre-20th century correspondence in the Orkney archive (and much after that, actually), begins with an enquiry about the receiver and their family's health and a thorough breakdown of the various aches, fevers and pains experienced by the sender and their family. 

In March, after receiving and sending similar electronic queries/updates to our family and friends, the archive staff had a better understanding of how these people must have felt. With no immunisations, antibiotics or even basic knowledge of how infections spread, health was a constant concern.

Reading through a series of archives from 1831-1832 documenting the approach of the 2nd cholera pandemic, some of the events and feelings expressed felt very familiar, others less so:

OA reference D2/2/14

On the 21st November 1831, Captain William Balfour of Elwick was concerned about 'the extreme probability of it being brought here by some of the vessels so frequently passing...' and outlined the measures already undertaken by the inhabitants of Kirkwall; a Board of Health had been set up and a committee appointed, the town had been divided into districts and the Old Manse had been cleaned and outfitted as an infirmary. 

The town was 'keeping a watch over vessels coming from infected places until the wind permits their proceeding to the quarantine station.'

Printed leaflets were also circulated to the public advising of symptoms and treatments.

Money was an issue. A subscription was to be set up amongst the wealthier inhabitants but a recent downward turn in the kelp trade was expected to limit contributions. 'Medical men' were apparently prepared to offer their services for free but assistants were required who 'must not only be paid, but paid highly or they will not be got in a place like this.'

OA Reference D1/182/1/15

By 22nd January 1831, James and Graham Leask wrote to their son in Wapping to reassure him that. despite rumours in London that 'the cholera morbus is in Kirkwall, and that there have been cases of it and two died...'. that it not only was not in the islands but that 'severall preventive boats' had been stationed to stop any sick travellers disembarking.

OA Reference D2/20/11

It had reached East London by the 15th of January 1832 according to a letter written to William Balfour by his Uncle John. 

'P.S. You will hear soon by the newspapers that the cholera has reached the Eastern parts of this metropolis, it has hitherto made small progress'.

Later that month, Rev. William Logie of Daisybank, Kirkwall, wrote to William G. Watt to discuss the latter's suggestion that the 'Orkney bairns' (presumably those children at school in the city) should be brought home from Edinburgh to save them from the epidemic:

OA Reference D3/400 - click to enlarge.

 Rev. Logie recognised the fact that 'the attendance and assistance required might be made more promptly and effectively rendered by affectionate relatives' but thought that the danger of the winter journey home was equal to the risk of the disease, especially when there were far more doctors and a good hospital in the city.

He ended the letter with the opinion that it was best 'just to leave our young people to the care of providence.'

The Kirkwall Justice of the Peace records for May 1832 include a meeting discussing the necessity to train up constables and station them at ports in order to stop 'vagrants' bringing disease to Orkney and 'and compel them to return to the places from whence they came':

OA reference JP/34/2/2

The 'chollera' had reached Thurso and Wick by October 1832 but the Leasks still had faith in the 'preventive boats' stopping 'straglers or strangers' alighting:

OA reference D1/182/1//22

There was an air of fatalism in many of the letters and a hope that providence and The Lord would continue to keep Orkney safe. There was also a feeling of gratitude for the lack of pestilence in the islands, something which Orcadians felt during 2020 following a relatively low incidence of disease:

OA reference D1/182/1/23

'thankful to God and also that the Lord is slaid (slayed) the plague from amongst you and also is hitherto kept it from entering into Orkney'

Another similarity with today's experience was the dissemination of false information. We found this leaflet asserting that cholera could be treated merely by administering spoonfuls of clarified butter:

Papers - Medical (Misc.) 610Y - Orkney Room

These documents were a result of a quick search between enquiries and I have not yet ascertained how badly Orkney suffered during the cholera pandemic. Some town council minutes would be useful and it would also be interesting to find out where the quarantine station was. Stay tuned...