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What was Happening to Ice Cream Shops in the Medical Officer's Annual Reports?

The Lothian Health Service Archive holds a number of records relating to medicine and public health in the city of Edinburgh. One of the collections they have digitised and made available online are the annual reports of the city's Medical Officer of Health. Although not all of the reports held by LHSA have been digitised, in total you'll find 64 annual reports available from 1900-1965.


Image: Public Health Administration, City of Edinburgh (1910) Annual Report of the Public Health Department of the City of Edinburgh


The reports of the Medical Officer of Edinburgh give an overview of the medical landscape of the time. Each year the structure of the report is slightly different to reflect the changing health concerns and public health campaigns and acts underway. They generally include a register of births and deaths occurring in each of the streets of the respective wards of the city, as well as notification and mortality in connection with certain infectious diseases.

Contents of the 1910 Report

In 1910 Alfred Maxwell Williamson who was the medical officer at that time used his introduction to report the major changes in that year's statistics. He began with a plea for more frequent population counts after a major difference emerged in the population count of the census and what was predicted based on registered births and deaths.


On the matter of infectious diseases, Williamson noted a small outbreak of Diptheria, a concerning rise in measles cases, and a plan to distribute 20,000 calendars the following year to poor districts of the city. These calendars would contain a small leaflet with 'some hints on precautions to prevent the spread of consumption' thanks to funding from a generous individual.

He also noted that infant mortality that year reached its lowest level of 103 per 1000 and gave credit to a large body of 'Voluntary Lady Health Vistors', around 300 in number, who 'devote much of their time in keeping under constant supervision infants under one year of age' by visiting the houses of the poor and giving them kindly hints and instructions.


These reports would provide a great resource to those interested in medicine and public health in Edinburgh during the early 20th Century, however, they also provide an insight into the working lives and commercial history of the city as well.

Ice Cream Sellers

The 1910 report notes a continued fall in the number of ice cream shops in the city, going from 83 at the start of the year down to 72 with no new shops opening. At the beginning of 1909, there were 94 shops on the register representing a decline of 23 per cent in 2 years.

Image: Public Health Administration, City of Edinburgh (1910) Annual Report of the Public Health Department of the City of Edinburgh. Table showing statistics related to ice cream shops in Edinburgh.


Rather than legislation, Williamson claims it is the result of dull trade which has gotten rid of the lesser quality establishments. This legislation was not just the Food and Drug Acts, but also the Acts on Sunday Trading. The 1906 Joint Select Committee on Sunday Trading had held long debates over opening hours and subsequent impacts on ice cream shops. These parlours were seen by some as places of vice citing them as meeting spots for boys and girls, and where young people were exposed to not always sober customers from nearby public houses, combined with their late Sunday opening hours. These accusations were mixed with xenophobia towards Italian business owners.

The ice cream parlours which had been booming in the first half of the decade were now in decline.

Changing Working Conditions

Another focus that year had been ensuring the Shop Hours Act was being followed and premises were providing seats for shop assistants. Legislation in 1886 had limited working hours in retail for those under the age of 18 to 74 hours per week.


An inspector has been assigned specifically to ensure this was followed and conducted a total of 4205 visits across the year.


The report notes a few places had to be reminded, but on the inspector's return, each had fixed the problem. Williamson states he was 'very satisfied to record' that only one contravention of the act required legal action.


The offending party was a hairdresser who was employing a young person for 85 hours a week (11 hours more than the limit). William states this case was "further aggravated by the fact that the accused had worked his assistant for a period of 6 hours on a Sunday"!

The fine for this crime was £2, 2s and 6d.

The acts and checks on compliance show improving working conditions for people in the city of Edinburgh, although there were still many changes to come, the following year the Shops Act would introduce a required half day off in each working week.


Better Bakehouses

Matters of food hygiene also fell under the parameters of the Medical Officer's annual report. In the 1910 report, Williamson also asks for the medical officer to be given the power to ensure people working with food meet minimum standards of personal hygiene.

On the report of the bakehouses of Edinburgh Williamson states there continue to be a number of objectionable practices that while 'need only be briefly mentioned' are still listed including -

  • Depositing dust or sweeping into the ingredients

  • Having animals in the bakehouse

  • Kneading bread with your feet - a practice Williamson states is 'objectionable to the highest degree'!


LHSA has made these collections available for access via Open Books, they ask that researchers note that the documents may feature derogatory terminologies and attitudes reflecting the time of their creation. Such descriptions are no longer acceptable and will be upsetting to some researchers.

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