Taking the Long View of Contagion, Compassion and Community Response

Temporary Spanis Flue hospital 1918 ii
Temporary hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918

In these unsettling times it might seem as though history has little comfort to offer us. When we look back for reassurance, we tend to light on the scale of the Spanish Flu pandemic, the horrors of the Black Death, or the ravages of smallpox through the ages. Yet despite the hardships and, for some, personal tragedies that have followed in the wake of Covid-19 it is important to maintain a sense of perspective, and one way we can do this is by recognising just how resilient and resourceful we are, and always have been, in the face of epidemics and communicable diseases. From the early modern period onwards, we have built on empirical observations and experimental science to understand the best ways to mitigate and even halt the spread of deadly diseases; but, individually and collectively, we also have a rich history of compassion and public spiritedness when  it comes to protecting vulnerable groups and supporting those most affected by epidemics. Nowhere are all these tendencies clearer than in the stories that emerge from the correspondence to the Poor Law Commissioners across the 19th century.

Hampstead Smallpox Hospital ii
A Ward in the Hampstead Smallpox Hospital, 1871

In 1893, for example, Charles Wills, the medical officer of health for the Southwell Rural Sanitary Authority, wrote to the Local Government Board that a case of smallpox had been discovered at the union workhouse. The affected man, Henry Jackson, had tramped from Manchester (where he was believed to have picked up the disease) and arrived on the 27 January. The authorities swiftly determined that he had shared the vagrant ward that night with a further 18 men, and this was communicated to the Local Government Board with an account (as far as possible) of their ongoing movements. The ward was then closed, and Jackson was placed in isolation with another male inmate to act as his nurse. His companion was chosen specifically because he had previously survived the disease and was therefore assumed to be immune. The Guardians took further measures to stop the spread of the disease by vaccinating or re-vaccinating all inmates over the age of 10 who would allow it. As a result of their swift action, Jackson’s was the only recorded case on this occasion: he seems to have recovered by late March, and his ‘key worker’, Robert Rushton, who nursed him for a full seven weeks, was later given a guinea by the Guardians as a reward for his efforts, which enabled him to discharge himself from the workhouse. In a postscript to the case, the Medical Officer, Charles Wills, wrote that there were many isolated cases of smallpox in Derbyshire and Yorkshire at the time, and that it was bound to be exported to neighbouring districts. In response, he proposed that some semi-detached cottages should be built on property adjacent to the workhouse in order to improve facilities for isolation if it reached Southwell again (it is not known whether the Board chose to act on his recommendation in this instance)  (TNA MH 12/8544, 9547).

If all of this sounds remarkably familiar, then it’s hardly surprising: the very fact that epidemics were a constant threat before the refinements of modern medicine meant that rapid responses and empirical methods of containment were at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and many of the public health measures that were instigated from the 1830s onwards were, of course, specifically aimed at achieving this outcome. Crucially, the newly centralised and bureaucratised structures of the poor law were an ideal forum for applying these measures. So it was that when Richard Pugh, the clerk to the Watford Union, reported in 1849 that there had been a fatal case of cholera in the town, the Guardians were well placed to put in train a series of measures to ensure that it was checked at source. These included a house-to-house visitation of infected localities, and when a case was discovered in the Workhouse Infirmary it involved daily testing and examination of all workhouse inmates to ensure that timely treatment could be applied as soon as symptoms manifested themselves (TNA MH 13/197).

Indeed, large parts of daily workhouse practice were specifically aimed at stopping the encroachment of communicable diseases from gaining a foothold in these institutions, and from spreading more widely if detected. The oft-noted practice of removing a person’s clothes for ‘purification’ (usually by boiling) when they were admitted and replacing them with workhouse dress was done for precisely this reason. It is a subject that has often caused controversy in the literature, because contemporaries, and most historians, have chosen to interpret it simply as a way of enforcing a degrading uniform; but, in fact, it was a very effective way of checking the spread of disease. As the president of the Poor Law Board explained to Parliament in 1849, “the rule now in force [was] introduced on considerations suggested by the necessity of securing cleanliness,” and he added that “by enforcing it, the cleanliness and health of the establishments [has] been very materially promoted” (Bath Chronicle, 28 June 1849). When common sense measures such as these were not followed, paupers themselves were the first to complain. In 1867, for example, J. Smith, an inmate at Bethnal Green workhouse, wrote that the nurses from the sick wards were carrying their dirty washing through the day rooms, which were used predominantly by elderly and infirm inmates, and that this laundry was likely to be contaminated from contact with infected patients. He complained that it was a practice which was “injurious to health and not to be tolerated,” and he suggested that the only reason nurses were not allowed to go the “proper way” to the laundry was because the Master was fearful lest his own children “should catch a disease, as they would have to pass his apartments” (TNA MH 12/6854).

This focus on the workhouse poor brings us back full circle to the situation we face today with Covid-19. Thankfully, here in Britain, as in many countries where it has made such rapid progress, things have begun to stabilise and, though obviously still of great concern, the overall number of cases and deaths seems to have plateaued. One of the areas of increasing anxiety, however, relates to care home residents, and we still have little understanding of just how devastating it will turn out to be for the institutional care sector as a whole. Clearly, many of the practical measures outlined above were specifically designed to protect workhouse populations from mass outbreaks. But the authorities were also acutely aware that other measures that we are now becoming all-too familiar with could make a crucial difference in preventing institutional tipping-points. So, for example, when Widow Granger, a resident at Barnet workhouse, asked permission to go out and visit her dangerously ill granddaughter, the Guardians “refused [her request] in consequence of the complaint being the small pox” (G. Gear (ed.), The Diary of Benjamin Woodcock: Master of the Barnet Union Workhouse 1836-38 (Herts. Record Society, 2008), p.98). This entry tells us that Widow Granger would, under normal circumstances, most likely have been allowed out on compassionate grounds; something that, in itself, challenges many of the standard narratives about workhouse life. But it also tells us that officials in the 19th century were constantly grappling with the competing needs – emotional, psychological and medical – of those under their charge in exactly the same way as those who are currently trying to manage the spread of Covid-19 in care homes. The question of how to protect the physical welfare of vulnerable residents, while ensuring that they are not denied the life-affirming contact and support of loved ones, is clearly not a new one.

These are extraordinary times, unprecedented for most of us: but alongside the uncertainty and inevitable anxiety that comes with a situation like this, we also have the opportunity to reflect on the great sacrifices that ordinary people – from key workers to coordinators, and from community volunteers to self-isolaters – are making for the public good. It is, perhaps, some comfort to know that we have such deep reserves of selflessness and rapid response to draw on. This last example, from the Board of Guardians’ Minutes of Mitford and Launditch Union in Norfolk during the last great epidemic of smallpox in 1871, is a wonderful case in point (TNA MH 12/8484).

The attention of the Guardians was particularly directed to the case of William Cory, of Great Dunham, Labourer, who, with his Wife and family of six children, had recently been deprived of their usual Harvest earnings by reason of the state of Quarantine imposed upon them, for 5 or 6 weeks, in consequence of the existence of Small Pox in a Cottage adjoining his Dwelling house and under the same roof: And it being shewn to the satisfaction of the Guardians that this insulation of Cory and his family has tended to prevent the spread of the disease but that he had thereby incurred a loss of Five pounds and upwards, it is unanimously resolved that he be allowed the sum of Five Pounds, either under the provisions of the Sanitary Acts, or by way of gratuity under the special circumstances as the Local Government Board may approve.






So ran the headline in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 12 March 1864. Overnight a catastrophe had struck, one of the biggest man-made disasters in British history. The story of the bursting of the Bradfield dam has a particular resonance today, with the memory of events at Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire fresh in our minds.


On the Sheffield flood, Samuel Harrison, a local journalist and editor, wrote that:

“On Friday, March 11, 1864 at exactly midnight, a calamity, appalling and almost unparalleled, occurred along the course of the river Loxley, and the banks of the Don, where it passes through the town of Sheffield. An overwhelming flood swept down from an enormous reservoir at Bradfield carrying away houses, mills, bridges, and manufactories, destroying property estimated at half a million sterling in value, and causing the loss of about two hundred and forty human lives.”

A new reservoir constructed in the hills seven miles to the north west of Sheffield had burst when the dam holding the water back failed. A huge volume of water cascaded down the valley of the river Loxley, destroying everything in its path until it joined the waters of the river Don which runs through the centre of Sheffield. Much was written about the flood at the time: it was reported in newspapers around the country, and was the focus of major inquiries – particularly into the culpability of the Bradfield Waterworks Company, which owned the reservoir. But the role of the Workhouse, its inmates and the Master and Matron, in the story of “Great Inundation” is not so well known.

Map showing location of the workhouse. Blue shading represents the extent of flooding in the vicinity of the workhouse. (Source: http://www.arcgis.com/apps/StorytellingSwipe/)

The problem was that Sheffield Workhouse was located close to the banks of the Don and found itself right in the path of the flood. The inmates were completely unaware of impending disaster when they went to bed on the Friday evening: the workhouse was locked up for night and the inmates were already “tucked up”. The Master, James Wescoe, reported to the Board of Guardians several days after the event that the initial alarm was raised by a young inmate who looked after the boiler. (MH 12/15478/10364)

George (who Samuel Harrison later described as an “imbecile” inmate) had been in the boiler house when he first became aware of water rushing in. So frightened was he that he climbed onto the roof of the boiler house as the waters rose. From here, according to Wescoe, he shouted and whistled to raise the alarm. Harrison’s account is not so flattering: in his telling, George got on top of the boiler house for his own personal safety, and lacking the sense to raise the alarm, he sat there “whistling for his own comfort”. Whatever the reason for George’s actions, he awoke the Master and the Matron (Miss Rebecca Day) from their slumbers, and they immediately sprang into action.

On seeing the extent of the flooding, they decided to leave the women inmates where they were on the upper floors (locking them in to avoid confusion and panic, according to Harrison) and selected “a score” of able-bodied men to help evacuate the ground floor rooms. The men were sent across the flooded yards to rooms which housed sick children and women with venereal disease. “In these rooms”, reported Wescoe, “the water had arisen to the beds but happily no lives were lost”. Harrison’s report, though, described a more frantic scene:

The task of these men was one of great peril, as they had to wade through the water, which was not only exceedingly cold, but also a considerable depth. When the men reached the sick wards they found such of the women and children as were able to get up, standing or kneeling on their beds in a state of the greatest alarm. The men carried the women and children, who had nothing on but their night dresses, through water to the upper rooms of the female hospital. There were many narrow escapes; but happily no lives were lost.

Many others in the flood area were not so lucky.

view from ball street bridgeii

Ball Street Bridge, which was situated just upstream from the Workhouse, was badly hit as the flood waters careered past it, destroying its structure and the sides of houses and factories which lined the river bank.

By 3am, the bodies of the drowned were being brought to the Workhouse and “continued arriving during the whole of the day and every succeeding day during the ensuing week”. In total, 124 bodies were taken there. According to the Sheffield Telegraph (19 March 1864), they presented “a distressingly appalling sight”. One journalist’s description conveys the horror of the scene:

Forms of strong men are there…Their arms were twisted in strange shapes – many of them were fearfully cut and disfigured…We have seen and been familiar with death…under many different circumstances, but anything so fearfully sickening as the long rows of dead bodies lying side by side at the Workhouse we have never seen before, and trust we may never see again.

No workhouse inmates died, thanks to the quick thinking of the Master and Matron, but much damage was done to the buildings, and more particularly to the stores. Wescoe’s report detailed the extent of losses sustained including large quantities of dietary supplies, such as 10 hundredweight of suet, 15 stones of meat and 70 gallons of beer.  Clothing and bedding was also lost or damaged beyond repair. In total the Master estimated that goods to the value of £110 8 shillings 8 ½d had been destroyed.

Wescoe concluded his report with high praise for the Matron. The workhouse cellars, yards and ground floor rooms had all been flooded and as the water receded it left behind a stinking slime of mud and sewage: the Workhouse had been doubly inundated, with flood water from the river and by overflowing sewers. But by the time of writing his report (12 days after the event) the Workhouse was habitable again thanks to the efforts of Miss Day, which he acknowledged in no uncertain terms: “I can bear witness generally as to the great energy & cleverness of the excellent matron subsequent to the night of flood”. He also praised the Guardians who assisted him in “some of the saddest and heaviest portion of my duties for 3 or 4 successive days”.  He admitted that without their support “I should have been utterly unable to cope with the difficulties of my situation during this trying time”. No mention was made of the impact on the inmates, however.

On 14 March (the Monday after the catastrophe) John Manwaring, Poor Law Inspector at Doncaster, visited the neighbouring unions to see if there was anything they could do to facilitate “proper administration of relief in cases of destitution caused by the calamity, or whether they can afford any assistance…for the purpose of alleviating the distress arising from this lamentable catastrophe” in Sheffield and the surrounding area. (MH 12/15478 9099/A) His first call was on the guardians of the Wortley Union which included the location of the reservoir within its boundaries, and was one of the most badly affected areas.  The fact that he reported that the Guardians at Wortley did not think they would be faced with “an excess” of applications in consequence of the flood because work was plentiful and men could earn good weekly wages suggests that was little concern about the distress caused by the flood for many of the poor who had lost everything.

In a similar vein, the Sheffield Guardians reported that “We are now doing nicely as regards applications for relief”, but they worried that they might be subject to criticism by the Poor Law Board, because “On Tuesday and Wednesday last we were threatened with a great pressure and we were obliged to give relief freely and without the usual precaution by enquiries etc.” (MH 12/15478/9766). The clerk sought to allay the Board’s fears that this may get out of control, by reassuring them that trade was good, men generally were in work and the poor people could “look about and help themselves”. Later, the Guardians confirmed that they had given un-sanctioned relief in 221 cases, at a total of £55  and one shilling. The Poor Law Board wrote back briefly, stating that it sanctioned these payments under the circumstances. (MH 12/15478/13268) The Relieving Officers had been tasked with ensuring no-one had been overlooked and were confidant this was the case. “On the whole”, he concluded, “I hope we shall get over the fearful disaster, & as the funds of the Union are affected, pretty well”. (MH 12/15478)

At their meeting of 23 March, the Sheffield Board of Guardians entered into the minutes a note of thanks for the able and efficient manner with which the Master and Matron had carried out their onerous duties in dealing with the recent inundations. (MH 12/15478/11031) The Poor Law Board responded by thanking the Guardians for forwarding their Minute and concurring with the sentiment it expressed – although it appears that this is as far as their close interest went. Although early estimates put the death toll at ca.240, it is probable that over 250 people died as a result of Sheffield’s “Great Inundation”. Nonetheless, the workhouse was cleaned and fit for use again in a matter of days, and it was reported that everything in Sheffield’s Poor Law organisation was back to normal. One suspects, however, that the emotional scars took a lot longer to heal.

    • Our thanks to Dr Sue Hawkins, ITOW’s Record Specialist, for this account of the “Sheffield Inundation” of 1864!



“REPTILE THIS IS TO GIVE YOU WARNING”: Anti-Vaccination Sentiment, 19th Century-Style

Anonymous letter sent to the Keighley Vaccination Officer, John Gott, in 1882 (TNA MH 12/15177)

This month, ITOW project member Dr Sue Hawkins takes the long view on a subject hitting the headlines at the Conservative Party Conference: compulsory vaccination, and the strength of opposition to it.

At the recent Conservative Party Conference, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced he was “looking very seriously” at making vaccination compulsory for state school pupils. In the last year the UK and several other European countries have lost their measles-free status and public health officials blame ‘anti-vaxxers’ for the declining vaccination rate, which has allowed measles once again to regain a foothold.  The anti-vaxxers spread their message through social media, urging parents to boycott vaccination of their children using, in extreme cases, aggressive and even frightening language. As one American anti-vaxxer tweeted recently:

If some sick psycho hated kids he might stick razor blades in Halloween candy. If he wanted to go big with spreading his ‘catalogue of horrors’ around he could stick needles with MMR into babies on the threshold of life.

In the US, the anti-vaccination movement has been so successful that public health bodies are once more in fear of measles epidemics, and since summer 2018 the MMR vaccine has been made compulsory in all states for enrollment of children in public (state) schools.

The anti-vaccination movement is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the practice of vaccination itself, which began in a systematic way in the UK with the Vaccination Act of 1840. Following a major epidemic of smallpox in the late 1830s, the government was forced into action, passing the Act which established a system of free public vaccination against smallpox, to be administered by the Poor Law authorities and funded through the Poor Rate.[i] Although the scheme was open to all, it is unlikely that the better-off deigned to make use of it due to the stigma attached to the Poor Law, opting instead to pay their own medical practitioners to do the deed.

The public were suspicious and the level of vaccination uptake was disappointing. Many Boards of Guardians ignored the order, and many poor people refused to bring their children forward for vaccination. By 1853, after further outbreaks of the disease, it was decided that the only way to ensure all children were vaccinated was to make vaccination compulsory, and a new Act, the 1853 Vaccination Extension Act, was passed. This made it a legal requirement for all children to be vaccinated within three or four months of birth. It also mandated that each vaccinated child should return to the medical officer within eight days of the operation, for inspection and confirmation of the procedure’s success.

Although some recalcitrant parents were paraded through the courts and fined anything up to 20/- for their refusal to co-operate, the law had no real teeth and was often ignored, even by the authorities who were supposed to implement it. An extension to the Act in 1867 made provision for parents to be repeatedly fined for continuing to refuse to have their children “poisoned” in this way, and also provided incentives (by means of threats) for the authorities, who, through laziness or deliberate action, refused to comply with their obligations. By the end of the 1860s, the anti-vaccinators were organising into leagues and committees in order to fight the law, including the influential Anti-Vaccination League founded in Leicester in 1869.

Keighley, a small town in West Yorkshire, had a reputation for being vehemently anti-vaccination. In the mid-1870s seven of its guardians had been sent to gaol for a month for refusing to prosecute parents whose children were not vaccinated, and it was described in the newspapers as “one of the worst vaccinated towns in the UK” (Bradford Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1882). In the same year, an inspector was sent to Keighley to investigate the state of vaccination there. What he found appalled him, and he was particularly shocked by the letter above, which had been sent anonymously to the town’s Vaccination Officer, John Gott. It was just one example, he reported, of the type of “hate mail” John Gott had been receiving.

It is impossible to say who sent the letter. It was written in block capitals, probably to disguise the handwriting, which suggests it could have been a well-known member of the community whose hand would have been recognised. It could even have been one of the Guardians themselves: in addition to being gaoled, at least one had been before the magistrates charged with refusing to have his own children vaccinated. The spelling and vocabulary suggest it was sent by a reasonably literate person, while the scattering of colons and stops (which sometimes seem to indicate sentence breaks but sometimes do not) give the letter a feeling of barely suppressed anger. The language, however, makes that anger very clear.  The writer described Gott as a “reptile” and “a mean venomous, skulking toad”, who should be “shot for a nuisance when your flesh drops off your bones”. The writer was prepared to inflict that horrible death him or herself:  “You have been nearer your death than you imagine … There is a lot of us that have taken an oath to do for you”.

The letter alluded to several of the common prejudices which existed against vaccination. The references to “blood sucking vampires” and “wading through the blood of innocent children” might refer to the practice of taking fresh lymph from the pustules of vaccinated children for use in future vaccinations, which some parents found objectionable. The letter-writer also cited religious objections, demanding: “Do you think that God almighty has sent us into a world in an unfinished state”.  Echoing modern-day anti-vaxxers, who accuse ‘Big Pharma’ of making huge profits from vaccination, the writer accused Gott of doing his job solely for the money: “I hope that every pound you get will sink you a thousand miles farther into hell and heat it ten thousand times hotter”. In fact, Gott earned only £20 a year for his trouble. The letter is delightfully illustrated with images of vile death by several means (a pile of dynamite, a pistol and a dagger), a coffin with Gott’s name on it and finally a medicine bottle containing, presumably, the same “poison” he injected into his child victims. The message is clear!

There is an irony in Gott’s position, though. An Inspector from the Local Government Board interviewed Gott and reported back that his views “as to the necessity of vaccination are apparently not very pronounced … he regards the advantages of the operation from a very lukewarm standpoint”; and in fact his doubts must have been public knowledge as the letter-writer accused Gott of hypocrisy: “You do not believe the cursed system any more than I do”. This is an unusual position for an official whose only purpose was to enforce the law and, curiously, both his predecessors were also described as “violent anti-vaccinators”. The Inspector acknowledged that Gott was labouring under “overwhelming difficulties”, but he was hardly complimentary, describing Gott’s physical appearance as “being of defective physique with a narrow chest”, and as suffering from some pulmonary complaint. Perhaps it is not surprising to find that John Gott, under such stress and abuse, and already ill, died of bronchitis two years later (in 1884) at the relatively young age of 48. An obituary in the Bradford Telegraph described him as “a much-abused official” who was badgered by some guardians for not doing his job aggressively enough, but who was hampered from doing so by the “open hostility of the anti-vaccinators on the Board”.

Strangely, despite the volume of correspondence between Keighley Union officials and the central authorities about the “Vaccination Question”, as it came to be known (you can almost hear the sigh as it was introduced on agendas), there was no contribution from the poor whose children were (or were not) being vaccinated. No complaints of compulsion, or of difficulties in getting their children vaccinated, have been found in the central correspondence files or in any local newspapers. Given the very high numbers of unvaccinated children in Keighley it seems reasonable to assume that the poor joined in the revolt, taking the lead from their social superiors and simply refusing to comply with the law.

By 1898 the Government was relenting (slightly) and introduced “conscientious objection” as a reason for non-compliance. The compulsory element of the law was finally lifted in 1948, and vaccination against smallpox was stopped entirely in 1971, with the World Health Organisation declaring the virus completely eradicated in 1978. That journey from tentative steps towards vaccination, to the complete eradication of smallpox took nearly 150 years. A measles vaccine has been available for only 50 years, so a certain level of nervousness today about a re-emergence of measles epidemics is hardly surprising; and it is not hard to see similarities in argument between 19th century anti-vaccination activism and the modern-day anti-vaxxer outpourings on Twitter.


  • [i] It had been possible to vaccinate against small pox since the late 1700s, following William Jenner’s discovery that infection with cow pox, a mild form of the disease, could confer protection against its far more dangerous cousin. But its use was patchy and subject to great cynicism.