Not such splendid isolation when smallpox hit Rotherham

Not such splendid isolation when smallpox hit Rotherham

By Gareth Dennison | 23/12/2020

Not such splendid isolation when smallpox hit Rotherham
Photo by Shaun Flannery


LAST week great-grandad Tom Drury-Smith made local history by becoming the first person in Rotherham to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

And the 94-year-old (pictured) will be spending Christmas with family after nine months in isolation this year.

Until 2020 arrived, it was easy to forget that infectious diseases have been a part of life and isolation hospitals were active in Rotherham until relatively recently.

The shielding tactic protecting many of us from coronavirus this year is little different to the strategy used against the likes of cholera, typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever and smallpox for hundreds of years.

Older readers might even recall reading the noticeboards displaying daily lists of people who had died in isolation hospitals. There was no visiting, of course, but you might catch sight of your relative through a window.

Local historian Tony Dodsworth said: “Smallpox is a disease that has largely been forgotten as it has been eliminated all over the world.

“But in the past, it killed such notable historical figures as Joseph Stalin, Queen Elizabeth I, Pocahontas, Mozart and Abraham Lincoln.

“King William of Orange died of it along with his father, his mother, his wife, his uncle and two cousins.

“Many others survived the disease but were left disfigured by pockmarks. When I was exploring the history of Rawmarsh and Parkgate in the 1920s I was shocked to discover that both places had been seriously affected by outbreaks of smallpox as late as the 1920s.

“This was especially surprising because ways of protecting people from the disease were known about since the 18th century.”

The Advertiser has played its role in warning and informing readers.

A July 1872 letter by William Shaw, a nail-maker of Barrell’s Row in Westgate, saw him complaining about his smallpox treatment at the workhouse hospital.

He went there believing it was the right thing to prevent the disease spreading — but was taken to the infectious ward and put into an unchanged bed on which another smallpox patient had been lying less than an hour before.

Shaw described how the bed had “scales” in it which had fallen off the hapless previous occupant.

The sheets were only changed once in the eight days Shaw spent on the ward.

An enquiry was set up and, a few months later, the newspapers carried an advertisement for a new medical officer of health.

Troubles with the disease in this region a few years later caught the eye of the national press.

On January 7, 1888, a story in the Times said: “Yorkshire, and indeed a great portion of the North of England, seems likely to be involved in the epidemic of smallpox that is now running its course in Sheffield and the neighbourhood.

“Isolation, unfortunately, has failed in Sheffield, or rather the disease spread so rapidly that sufficient means of isolation could not be provided in time.

“The result was that the outbreak spread into every quarter of the town; and so far from the disease having abated, the number of fresh cases has increased month by month until, by December, over 800 additional cases were reported to the authorities.

“The disease has now existed in Sheffield nearly nine months... Sheffield is credited with having spread the disease into the towns and villages surrounding it. Some of the villages near Sheffield have suffered severely, such as Rawmarsh, Wath and Swinton.

“During the course of the epidemic it has been pretty well proved that vaccination in infancy is an almost complete preventive of smallpox during the first 12 to 15 years of life, and that a second vaccination is a perfect preventive during the remainder of life.”

The number of cases in Rotherham during 1888 meant that by September a temporary wooden structure was erected on common land opposite Badsley Moor Farm.

It consisted of two wards for 20 patients and the Mayor of Rotherham, Charles Stoddart, thanked the public through the Advertiser for their generous donations of books, pictures and clean linen.

For a while, there was a weekly charge of two to three guineas to be treated there — beyond the means of many, who stayed at home for treatment.

The Tiser had first reported on smallpox cases in Rawmarsh and Parkgate in September the year before, noting cases on Albert Road and Bear Tree Road and claiming some were “attributed to the insanitary condition of the dwellings and to personal carelessness.”

Tony, of Rawmarsh and Parkgate Local History Group, said: “By December 1887, 15 cases were reported in Dilks’ Buildings, near the railway in Parkgate, and 27-year-old Jesse Wesson had died of the disease there.

“Dr Smith, the medical officer of health, reported to the Rawmarsh Local Board that 41 cases had come to his knowledge, with four deaths caused by it in December.”

The doctor visited each of the cases, as required by the Public Health Act, but saw some who had not made the “slightest attempt” to isolate.

He said: “In several cases, I have found the infected person sitting about in the same room as other members of the family, the neighbours and their children having free access to where they were.

“The infectious hospital, which is now approaching completion, will no doubt be of great service in isolating fresh cases but the disease is now so distributed through the parish that the time for staying its progress has gone.”

By January, the Advertiser was calling the situation at Parkgate an epidemic.

One story said: “Alarming rumours having become prevalent as to the spread of the smallpox epidemic in the Rawmarsh Local Board District. Our representative had an interview with Dr WJ Smith, the Medical Officer of Health, on the subject.

“The doctor stated that altogether from the outbreak of the disease up to the end of December, there had been 88 cases in the district.”

The area’s sanitary inspector had himself caught the disease while placing the body of a child victim into a coffin, but was able to recover.

Meanwhile, a hospital was created for 20 people in the Rectory field, well away from housing. It was labelled as Fever Hospital on maps from about 1900.

It was converted by the Local Board in just three weeks from two cottages and some farm buildings, the Advertiser reported.

And it was well isolated. About an acre of land was enclosed within high wooden fencing and the only entrance was through gates opened only to authorised people.

The nursing staff consisted of William Henshaw and his wife and daughter — all of whom had been “re-vaccinated”.

Tony (below)?said: “There are echoes of the Nightingale hospitals set up this year. The hospital was designed for 13 men and seven women and the separate wards were spacious and well ventilated being up to 15ft high.

“There was also a convalescent ward. Also provided were what the Advertiser described as two very good baths with hot and cold water and the best lavatory accommodation.

“By this time it had become apparent that a single vaccination was not always sufficient protection against the disease so re-vaccination was strongly advised.

“There was, however, throughout the country, and especially based in Leicester, a strong anti-vaccination movement, another similarity to Covid pandemic times.

“It is interesting to note that William Henshaw had been a coal miner in the 30 years previous, so perhaps not too much tender loving care from him! Perhaps he relied on his wife Mary Ann to provide that!

“Richard Walker, a member of the Local Board, provided materials for the comfort of patients, helped by a few subscriptions from friends.

“The men had been provided with tobacco and pipes (yes, you have read that right!) and games were also provided for the amusement of the inmates.

“In addition they had daily and weekly newspapers and literature contributed in response to the published appeals of the board.”

Smallpox spread to Swinton too in 1888, the first case arriving from Kilnhurst in February — and a well-known landmark became a crucial part of the response.

Dr Jones, medical officer to the Swinton Local Board, had acted on the outbreak in Parkgate very quickly and by December 1887 had overseen the preparation of a building for the isolation of smallpox cases.  

The Sheffield Independent reported: “The place selected for the infectious cases is a disused building on Swinton Common, known in years gone by as the Swinton or Rockingham Pottery.

“With commendable promptness and admirable dispatch during the past seven days, an excellent hospital had been provided at the reasonable cost of £160. Provision has been made for 14 beds.

“The width of the building, which is circular in shape towering to a point, is 30ft, and it has been partitioned off so as to form two separate chambers, each 13ft in height.

“In addition a wooden structure has been erected, adjoining the hospital, containing accommodation for a nurse.”

Tony said: “When I first found this out, I was appalled thinking of the poor patients suffering the agonies of smallpox while virtually entombed in a brick pottery kiln with no windows, but I then discovered all was not as bad as I was imagining.

“Apparently Boyle’s patent 3ft air pumps were used in the wards, 50ft in height, to provide a continual current of air throughout the building.”

The air of the kiln was renewed every 15 minutes and a steady 70 deg F temperature could be provided if required. Light was provided by four large duplex paraffin lamps.

A music concert was held to help pay for the Swinton Fever Hospital on the field beside Cliff Field House in July 1888.

The music featured the works of Haydn, Mozart and Handel and about 100 voices took part, accompanied by local bands.

“It was reported that the people who had been patients were expected to contribute what they can reasonably afford,” said Tony.