How the ‘Speckled Monster’ lived on...

How the ‘Speckled Monster’ lived on...

By Gareth Dennison | 05/01/2021

How the ‘Speckled Monster’ lived on...
These posters were put up all over Rawmarsh and Parkgate early in 1926 to inform the inhabitants of the dangers of smallpox.


IN THE 16th century smallpox was called the Speckled Monster and accounted for between ten and 15 per cent of all deaths.

It was known and feared as a killer disease for hundreds — and was fatal in up to 40 per cent of child cases.

But things changed in the late 18th century when a way of vaccinating people against it was discovered.

Dr Edward Jenner was the man responsible — and by 1801, 100,000 people had been vaccinated in England.

Some 1.7 million had been protected from smallpox in France by 1811, and the figure hit 4.2 million in Russia the following year.

Historian Tony Dodsworth (below), who has researched the subject, said: “It was an international sensation.

“Knowing these figures, it’s very difficult to understand large outbreaks of smallpox killing people throughout the 19th century and astounding to discover that there was a major outbreak in Rawmarsh and Parkgate in late 1925 and early 1926.

“This is especially so if you then discover that this was the first ‘killer’ to be completely eradicated from the UK by 1934 and across the world by 1979.

“Just eight years before its disappearance in England, it was rampaging through the Rawmarsh area and mainly because so many people there had forgotten about the need for vaccination and so had no protection.

“Fortunately it was a relatively mild strain of the disease and no-one died. But by its end in the spring of 1926 it had affected nearly 500 people locally.

“The Advertiser did not hold back in its criticism of those people who refused to be vaccinated. There was no softly, softly approach from the Advertiser.”

A comment column in this paper on January 16, 1926, said: “Official Rawmarsh is still appealing to the inhabitants of the urban district to protect themselves against the ravages of smallpox.

“Up to the present the appeal has met with a poor response — so poor, in fact, that the position of Rawmarsh has become alarming.

“Either from ignorance or prejudice, or it may be from sheer stupidly and a complete disregard of the dangers which surrounds them, the people of Rawmarsh will have nothing to do with vaccination.”

This onslaught, aimed at Rawmarsh, continued for weeks within the Advertiser’s coverage.

Christmas parties and entertainment were blamed for the growth in cases at the end of 1925 and Dr GH Menzies, medical officer for the area, was not pleased.

He found “a certain section of the community rather indifferent to the seriousness of the position”.

Homes were searched in what he called “a thorough comb-out” and 15 unreported cases were found. These properties were disinfected after the patient was moved to hospital and other family members — called “contacts”, just like we have referred to during Covid-19 — were placed under observation.

Tony, who set up Rawmarsh and Parkgate Local History Group, said: “Specific instructions were given with regard to going to the pictures and all local cinema proprietors agreed to refuse entry to any children under 11.

“All the Sunday schools in Parkgate and Rawmarsh were closed until further notice and a debate raged over whether the schools should be re-opened after Christmas or not, with echoes again of what we’ve seen in 2020.

“Some people held the opinion that the reporting of new cases among the children would be more likely by the teachers than by their parents.

“The area was flooded with red-lettered posters warning of the dangers of smallpox, the ways it was spread and the precautions that needed to be observed by a patient and their family.”

Rawmarsh had the Fever Hospital near Rosehill Park, the Rectory Field Hospital used in 1887/88 and a temporary hut erected quickly next door — but could not meet the demand for isolation beds.

More than 60 patients were sent to Lodge Moor Hospital in Sheffield. This cost Rawmarsh Urban District Council £6 2s 6d a week per person — and added up to a hefty £6,000 bill by the end of the outbreak.

By February 20, 1926, there were 15 patients from Wath and Swinton in Wathwood Hospital and cases had been reported in Greasbrough, Harley, Kilnhurst and Rotherham.

A letter Tony unearthed at Rotherham Archives to the hospital committee showed that smallpox had been around here a couple of years before the Rawmarsh outbreak.

It was written by sanitary inspector James Whitehead, who visited the Rectory Field Hospital on July 9 with Dr McDonald to ascertain its condition should it be required at short notice. This was in light of smallpox in Dalton and other places.

Their visit discovered a range of problems — the hospital needed lime for scalding, repairs to the doors and windows, new bedding, crockery, bed pans and cutlery.

They also noted that the road from Netherfield Lane was so worn that it would cut the tyres of an ambulance.

Tony said: “The archive records also provide an astonishing post-script to the story of the smallpox outbreak in Rawmarsh.

“The records include a whole series of letters to the Rawmarsh Urban District Council from a variety of other district councils asking about the availability of isolation accommodation for their own smallpox patients in the Rawmarsh hospitals in the period between 1927 and 1929.

“The letters came from local councils such as Kiveton Park, Conisbrough and Wombwell as well as more distant ones such as Goole and Tadcaster.

“Rawmarsh’s extended capacity and expertise in the treatment of smallpox from the earlier outbreak meant it was seen as a way out for other councils short of isolation accommodation in their own areas.

“The letters inquired about the number of beds available and, perhaps more importantly for them, the cost per day.

“There are lists of all the names of people who were isolated in Rawmarsh between January 21 and the end of June 1927 from several areas in and around Doncaster and particularly Mexborough, Conisbrough and Denaby.

“The list runs to several hundred names and includes the length of each patient’s stay and the cost. A typical stay of 20 days cost £17 10s.

“In total the Doncaster and Mexborough Joint Hospital Board filled the coffers of Rawmarsh Urban District Council with an amazing sum of £6,512 15s.”

The isolation hospital near Rosehill Park — opened on September 10 at a cost of £8,000 — might well be remembered by some older readers.

It featured buildings for admin and the treatment of scarlet fever, typhoid fever and diphtheria. The mid-20s saw it cleared to take smallpox patients due to the size of the outbreak.

One person Tony interviewed was Joan Pearce, who had vivid memories of her time spent there when she had diphtheria in August 1930. Her brother had died from the condition shortly before and she was just four.

Dr Menzies saved her life by performing a tracheotomy operation on the family’s kitchen table, after which she was taken to the isolation hospital and treated in a room by herself.

“She particularly remembered the two nurses who treated her, Nurse Brooksbank and Nurse Oxley,” said Tony. “The matron at that time was Miss Elizabeth Ellis.

“Joan clearly remembered the steam kettle constantly boiled to keep the atmosphere moist and of jumping up and down on her bed, presumably after some recovery time! She would shout “on duty”, mimicking the nurses.

“She never forgot this dramatic time in her life and from an early life determined to follow a career in nursing. In 1941 she left home to start her nursing training.

“One major problem which had to be overcome if she was to become a nurse was that she needed to be vaccinated against smallpox but her father was vehemently opposed to this.

“She remembered him saying: ‘There is no need for that filth in your body’. She had to have her vaccination secretly and not in her arm, where her father would have seen it.

“She worked in the Northern General in Sheffield and treated German POWs from Lodge Moor as well as British casualties from Arnhem.

“Joan also remembered that if the black fever ambulance went past you on the road in Rawmarsh you spat on your finger and drew a cross on the sole of your shoe.”

Opposition to vaccination against smallpox was a major cause of meetings and demonstrations in the latter part of the 19th Century, with Leicester being a particular focus of opposition.

“This was often due to the false and outdated views of people like Joan’s father,” said Tony. “The Government made vaccination compulsory but, due to the opposition, eventually had to agree to a ‘conscience clause’ allowing parents to refuse vaccination for their children if it was against their conscience.

“This, surprisingly, is where the term ‘conscientious objector’ entered the English language, not linked to opposition to war.”

* POSTERS and other literature carried detailed procedures for residents to follow after a case of smallpox was discovered in their home.

The guidance went as follows: “After removal of the patient to hospital, the room and the contents must be disinfected.

“The bedding, clothing and other unwashable articles should be removed to a proper chamber for disinfection by steam and useless articles for destruction by fire. If there is no disinfecting chamber available, the whole should be burnt.

“All washable articles should be well boiled in water with plenty of soft soap. The room should be sealed by completely closing the fireplace and the crevices of the windows with paper and paste.

“A couple of pounds of sulphur for every 1,000 cubic feet in the room should be lighted and burnt in an iron pan over a bucket of water.

“The crevices of the door should be pasted over with paper and the room remain closed for six or eight hours.

“After re-opening the door and windows and thoroughly ventilating the room, the walls should be stripped and cleansed, the paper burnt, the ceiling lime-whited and all the wood and paintwork, floor and furniture, washed with hot water and soft soap.”