Measles, Epidemics and a College Sanatorium

The COVID-19 crisis isn’t the first time that academic work at Reading has been disrupted by an epidemic. In 1917, University College Reading and its campus at London Road were closed due to an epidemic of measles.

The Annual Report and Accounts for 1916/17 reads as follows:

‘An outbreak of measles, which occurred during the Session, necessitated the closing of the College a fortnight before the end of the Lent Term. The inconvenience thus caused led to the consideration of a scheme for establishing a College Sanatorium. The Council have accordingly rented a house, No. 20, Shinfield Road, which has been opened for the reception of students. A small additional fee charged to each student in residence will, it is hoped, make this Sanatorium self-supporting.’  (p.3).

The Report of the Council the following year confirms that the scheme had gone ahead:

‘A sanatorium for the use of students in halls of residence and recognized houses has been provided, and has proved of great service in times of epidemics.’  (p.4).

One wonders just how many epidemics had occurred between 1917 and 1918. Spanish flu springs to mind but I have found no mention of this in the Calendars or Annual reports. Nevertheless, epidemics including Measles and Spanish flu were common in Reading as documented by Margaret Ounsley in her chapter on ‘health, medicine, illness and death’ in the Coley area: child fatalities from measles were frequent, and Coley School had to close twice in 1918 because of Spanish flu. There are papers in the University’s Special Collections that deal with a proposal for students to do social work in Coley, and there were fears about students bringing infections to their hostels despite the fact that Education students were already doing teaching practice in Coley.

Interestingly, the ‘small additional fee’ mentioned above must have been very effective because the accounts for the following year include this item:

‘The College Sanatorium—Suspense Account .. £193 3s 5d.’  (p.17).

According to the Bank of England’s Inflation Calculator that could be as much as £12,000 nowadays.

                                                                     20 Shinfield Road Today

University College Reading continued to rent the house until 1922 when premises for a new sanatorium became available at 60 Northcourt Avenue.

So what happened to the original sanatorium? The house is still there, opposite Queen’s Drive. But for how much longer? At the time of writing, 20 Shinfield Road is the target of a planning application that could mean its disappearance:

‘Demolition of existing house and erection of a new, detached building to provide 4 x 3 bedroom apartments, together with associated car parking, bin and cycle storage, access and servicing arrangements, and landscaping improvement.’ (Planning Application No. 201879).

Local residents are fighting the proposal. One of the many reasons given in comments from the Northcourt Avenue Residents’ Association is its historical significance:

‘This house is a direct link to the early history of Reading University — and in a curious twist of fate at a time of an epidemic similar to current events. Demolishing the house would break yet one more link to Reading’s heritage in a direct assault on Reading’s Local Plan which emphasises the importance placed on the protection of the historic environment.’ (Letter to the Planning Dept).

20 Shinfield Road was the first of three sanatoriums at Reading that were the forerunners of the current Health Centre.  These will be the subject of future posts.                                                     

Sources

Holt, J. C. (1977). The University of Reading: the first fifty years. Reading: University of Reading Press.

Northcourt Avenue Residents’ Association. Letter to the Planning Department, Reading Borough Council, 19th June, 1921.

Ounsley, M. (2021). Coley talking: realities of life in old Reading. Reading: Two Rivers Press.

Reading Borough Council. Planning Application No. 201879.

University College Reading, Annual Report and Accounts, 1916-17 & 1917-18.

University of Reading Special Collections. Uncatalogued papers relating to women students. Reference UHC AA-SA 8.

The header image of the University College in London Road is from the University of Reading Special Collections Photographic Archive (History of the University: London Road architecture).

Thanks

I am grateful to Simone Illger, Chair of the Northcourt Avenue Residents’ Association, for allowing me to quote the extract from correspondence with the Planning Department of Reading Borough Council.

Thanks also to Sharon Maxwell, University Archivist, for tracking down the material about women students and social work, and to Margaret Ounsley for information about epidemics in Coley.

4 Replies to “Measles, Epidemics and a College Sanatorium”

  1. Thanks for the work which has gone into this very interesting post. It’s good to have a platform to learn about the history of the university, especially when elements overlap with the present.

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