Panic and fear as disease took hold

Launch of John Brooke's new book, Cruel Lives, at Rastrick High Technology Centre. Pictured with Alan Greenwood, Rev Carole Natton, Barry Natton, Lynne Hickin and Iain Cameron
Launch of John Brooke's new book, Cruel Lives, at Rastrick High Technology Centre. Pictured with Alan Greenwood, Rev Carole Natton, Barry Natton, Lynne Hickin and Iain Cameron

IN the summer of 1892, Brighouse became a ghost town. Streets were deserted, schools were closed and church attendances plummeted.

The reason for the panic was an epidemic of smallpox, the most dreaded of contagious diseases which struck fear into people living across the district.

Cover of John Brook'e new book

Cover of John Brook'e new book

Starting in Clifton in April, the disease quickly spread to Brighouse, Rastrick, Hipperholme and Southowram throughout the summer months.

Twenty-six people died during the 1892 outbreak and many more were infected. The outbreak was considered so serious that a new isolation hospital was built in Clifton.

But smallpox was not the only contagion that caused fear, sickness and often death during the 19th century in industrial West Yorkshire. As local historian John Brooke describes in his new book ‘Cruel Lives’, there was much to fear from typhoid, typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria and even measles and flu.

Mostly they were diseases of poverty and the cramped, dirty, overcrowded and unhygenic living conditions endured by the majority of the population in the rapidly-expanding mill towns were a huge factor in the spread of life-threatening disease.

As John points out in the book: “Industrialisation had a profound effect on the nature of towns and people’s health.”

At a time when rivers were polluted by human waste, dead animals and chemicals from the factories and workers lived cheeky-by-jowl in unsanitary yards and backstreets, germs and infections found a happy hunting ground.

The spread of sickness through families and whole communities had devastating consequences. If the main breadwinner was struck down, families were left destitute and the human cost was appalling.

In the 1809 measles epidemic in Leeds, for instance, William Gardner and his wife buried three of their children within four days.

In 1880 a serious outbreak of scarlet fever in Halifax killed more than 100 people. Ten years later an outbreak of Russian influenza brought panic to the Spen Valley, holding a powerful grip on the towns and villages for four weeks.

John, a former headteacher and lecturer in education and public health for the Workers’ Educational Association, paints a vivid picture of daily life in affected communities.

Writing about the smallpox epidemic in Brighouse, he says: “Soon the disease was to become virtually the sole topic of conversation in the ale houses and shops as more and more homes were affected.”

It’s no wonder, reading of the horrible symtoms of smallpox, that the disease was widely feared. Victims were afflicted with a rash that developed into pus-filled blisters, high fever, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhoea. People were almost as fearful of the disfiguring side effects as they were of the death rate. Those who did recover were often left with bone and eye infections and pnemonia.

A temporary isolation hospital was opened in Clifton - where the disease was particularly virulent - disinfectant was made widely available and residents were offered vaccination, still a controversial procedure.

John, of Lightcliffe, said: “Fortunately we no longer live with the ever-present fear of disease hanging over us. The resilience of people in facing up to these cruel dangers was impressive and moving.”

l John Brooke’s book ‘Cruel Lives’ costs £12 and is available from Colin’s News, Hipperholme, Just Books in Brighouse, Fred Wade’s Bookshop and WH Smith in Halifax and The Bookcase, Hebden Bridge.