In between the First and Second World Wars and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Middlesbrough and Stockton-On-Tees experienced 50% unemployment, inadequate housing and an overabundance of life-threatening diseases including tuberculosis, pneumonia and rickets.
Doctor George Cuthbert Mura M’Gonigle was the town’s Medical Officer for Health (MOH) between 1924 and 1939, and he went out of his way to improve the lives of Middlesbrough and Stockton’s poorest residents.
He carried out field studies into the effects of poverty on health in Middlesbrough and Stockton. One of his reports, titled ‘Poverty, Nutrition and Public Health’, outlined how mortality rates increased when people who had originally lived in slum dwellings were moved to new-build housing in an effort to alleviate poverty.
The reason why poverty was still ongoing, Dr M’Gonigle found out, was that new housing cost more to rent and reduced households’ funds for food.
In 1936 M’Gonigle and another doctor, John Kirby, published a study, ‘Poverty and Public Health’. At the time people believed that high mortality rates were caused by the lower classes not knowing how to provide themselves with a balanced diet and enough food – M’Gonigle’s studies proved otherwise, and that poverty had resulted from a society which did not pay the lower classes enough wages and welfare benefits to sustain themselves, and had nonetheless expected them to pay more to live. This report brought this to the attention of politicians and social reformers.
At the time this study was of great importance and was used both within and outside of government to campaign for better standards of living. Today it appears to have been largely forgotten, but also seems to reflect on our own state of welfare today.
In addition to carrying out this study, M’Gonigle opened the Ragworth Open Air School in Norton in the 1920s, which took in many sick children and made great efforts to nurse them back to health with lessons held outside, regular meals and daily doses of medicines, milk and fruit. He also ran the Infectious Diseases Hospital on Durham Road, and the Robson Maternity Home.
George M’Gonigle is still remembered today. In 2012, Durham University named one of their lecture theatres at Queens Campus in Stockton after him, and there are two commemorative plaques in his honour, one at Stockton Town Hall and the other at Norton Library.