Here, Robin Longbottom looks at how a veteran of the First World War went on to spearhead improvements to people’s health and living conditions

ONE of the most respected and well-known figures in Keighley during the mid 20th century was Dr Harry Holt.

Born in Malton in 1893, Dr Holt came to Keighley in 1929 when he took-up the post of the town’s medical officer for the Board of Health.

He had studied medicine in Leeds in the years leading up to the First World War.

When war broke out he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, which was a non-combatant unit. However, he was anxious to get to the front to play his part with the fighting troops and so he transferred into the East Lancashire Regiment. He saw action during the Battle of the Somme, but the army decided that his greatest potential lay with the Medical Corps and he was transferred back into his old regiment in 1917. He was subsequently posted to Mesopotamia, now Iraq, and then to India from where he returned to England in 1921.

He left the regular army in 1923 with the rank of captain but continued to serve in the Territorial Division of the RAMC, eventually attaining the rank of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel.

On his return to England, he became the assistant medical officer for Hull and in 1929 was appointed the medical officer for Keighley. He worked tirelessly for the next 30 years to improve the health and living conditions of the working classes in the town.

Dr Holt was at the forefront of combatting disease in Keighley. He promoted a programme of vaccination for children to combat diphtheria – now almost forgotten it was then the third leading cause of death in children – and smallpox, now eradicated worldwide.

Despite his efforts some sections of the population were slow in responding to calls to vaccinate their children. In 1938 he frustratingly reported that “it would appear from experience that the only stimulus which creates a demand for immunisation is a second epidemic of diphtheria”.

He sought to combat now-forgotten diseases such as scarlet fever, typhus and catarrhal jaundice by improving drinking water, sanitary conditions and household hygiene.

Tuberculosis was still a major concern and he had farms regularly inspected to ensure that their milk was pasteurised before leaving the dairy, in order to avoid the transmission of bovine tuberculosis to humans.

Childbirth and childcare were among his major concerns and he sought to improve maternity care. He was active in promoting the education of young women in motherhood and the importance of breast feeding, writing a paper on the “Clinical Aspect of Breast Feeding” in 1929.

Following the Housing Act of 1930 he oversaw the programme of slum clearance in Keighley.

He reported on the unsanitary living conditions of slum dwellings, particularly in the area known as Westgate, in the locality of the present Royal Mail sorting office.

He illustrated the plight of the poor by bringing specific cases to the attention of the public and corporation, deploring the living conditions of a family in Westgate where the parents and eight children had to share one bedroom.

He publicly chastised the private housing sector for their failure to provide new and adequate housing for working people and saw through a programme of new council houses to enable slum clearance to go ahead.

By 1938, large areas of sub-standard housing had been cleared and the former occupants rehoused in three-bedroomed dwellings with bathrooms and internal toilet facilities. He continued to push the programme through into the post-war years and oversaw grants to improve existing housing conditions.

Dr Harry Holt worked relentlessly to improve the health of the people of Keighley and was a keen advocate and supporter of the welfare state and the National Health Service during the post-war years.

He died at his home in Steeton in 1962, aged 69.