Gardens & wildlife

Smallpox cases in Brighton

by Jenn Price from The Round Hill Reporter June 2003

two die from Tivoli Laundry in Crescent Road.

So ran the headline in the Brighton and Hove Herald on the 30th of December 1950. Britain had been free of the disease since 1935 so this news was unexpected and potentially very frightening. Apparently the infection was brought from India by an RAF man on leave at his fiancee’s house in Kemp Street. Her father, a taxi driver, had already died and several others were ill.

To quell public fears,the paper quoted the Brighton Medical Officer of Health who said that all known contacts had already been traced, but anyone who felt worried should go to their doctor for vaccination. He assured the readers that there were ample supplies of the vaccine. He did not, however, explain the complicated procedure that had to be carried out. Firstly, the taxi had been traced and disinfected. Then the relief driver was vaccinated and kept under observation and, finally, all the people who had ridden in the taxi were contacted. Some of the clients were now as far away as Devon, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so the search was nationwide.

By the next week there had been a second death and yet more cases. Over seven thousand people had already been vaccinated. The paper reported that there were thought to be two main centres of infection.

Bevendean Hospital was where patients were assessed before being sent to isolation hospitals. Unfortunately there were now several cases among its employees. Therefore it was placed in quarantine: staff and patients were locked in for the duration and all supplies had to be delivered outside the gates, to minimise the spread of infection.

The other problem was the Tivoli Laundry in Crescent Road, in the Round Hill. Two of its workers had already been diagnosed with smallpox, caught no doubt from the soiled linen of a regular customer, the deceased taxi driver. Consequently the delivery vans and premises had to be fumigated but business was allowed to continue as usual. Unfortunately, as the days went by, more staff became ill. A second fumigation had to be carried out and, admitting defeat, the laundry was closed for two weeks because those remaining could not cope with the volume of work.

Thankfully, the outbreak was short-lived and no new cases were found after the 22nd of January. A total of thirty-five people contracted the disease, of whom ten died. Six of the dead were nurses or other employees of Bevendean Hospital, and two were laundry workers from the Tivoli.

That smallpox did not spread outside Brighton was due to the co-ordinated efforts of local medical workers. About fourteen thousand suspected contacts had been visited, and more than seventy thousand people were vaccinated in less than a month.
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