Smallpox outbreak, 1950-51

Photo:Bevendean Hospital

Bevendean Hospital

From a private collection

Childhood memories

By Ron Burtenshaw

Between the years 1950/51, Brighton was affected by an outbreak of smallpox. The exact date of when the smallpox was first acknowledged I cannot be certain, no doubt it will be in some archive, somewhere.

A big black cross
I was not aware of this outbreak until we visited our grandparent's house, at No 12 Islingworth Road, for Sunday lunch. As children, this venture to our grandparents was something we always looked forward too, lots of nice treats and always a comic and sweets when we left. This particular Sunday we arrived, only to find the door locked and there was a big black cross, painted on the door.

The house in quarantine
My Aunt Alice called out to us from the letterbox. The house was in quarantine due to an outbreak of smallpox. We had to stay away for at least a month, or when we were told it was safe to return. This was the first we new about it, and were told that Brighton was affectedly isolated from the rest of the country. I think that only foodstuff and restricted merchandise was allowed into Brighton, nothing was allowed out until the outbreak had been contained.

A seaman carried the disease
I found out later that a ship had docked at Shoreham in the December 1950, and on board was a seaman who, unbeknown to himself, had contracted smallpox. The seaman travelled to lodgings in Brighton, where he fell ill and was rushed to hospital, eventually to be taken to the Bevendean Isolation Hospital. The landlady of his lodgings took the sheets off his bed and sent them to the laundry in Cobden Road, where my Aunt Alice worked.

Small pockets of panic
The outbreak of smallpox that ensued was soon traced back to this seaman, and everybody that had contact with this man was quarantined. All mass meetings were cancelled and as the disease could be spread by simple means, the handling of money became suspect. banks, post offices, building societies and other financial organisations were generally avoided. Although daily life continued, small pockets of panic did erupt; I do know our corner shop only allowed credit to the trust worthiest customers, my mother being one of them. These shops were only open for essentials for a few hours a day.

Queuing for vaccination
We all had to be vaccinated, which meant queuing for hours outside the Carlton Hill clinic. After the vaccination, I remember we had to wait for a scab to form about the injected area. If a scab formed, the bigger it was the better; so as to be sure that the vaccination was successful. St Luke's school was closed for sterilisation and fumigation. It appeared that a shopkeeper in Downs Terrace had served a customer, who, as it was soon to be discovered, had smallpox. I think the shopkeeper then caught the pox; however, he had a daughter (possibly granddaughter) that attended our school.

Eventually back at school
When we were eventually allowed back into school, I can still remember the smell inside the school building, a sort of damp dough smell, similar to bread during baking. The smell of dough lingered for weeks after the school re-opened. I don't think the actual outbreak of smallpox really meant anything to us children. We were told that this was one of the most deadly of diseases know to man, so we knew that it was serious, but what did that mean to a young child. We all had a sore arm (the injection mark scarred us for life) and we could not go out to play, but best of all our school was closed. I do not know how long the Brighton was quarantined for, but I do know that 30 people were affected and about 10 people died.

A survivor of the outbreak
Two years ago, I received correspondence from a very nice lady, whose brother was only one year old when he contracted the virus. He was so ill that the parents were advised to get him christened, as he would probably not survive. Luckily, he did survive and is now a grown man, married with three children. This poor boy was badly disfigured, and I understand that after the outbreak, when his mother went shopping with him, people would make disparaging remarks. On one occasion his mother was asked to leave a shoe shop, as his looks were disturbing the other customers who feared that they would catch something from him.

Further information available
If anyone would like to read a more detailed account of this boy, affected by the smallpox virus, then go to The Argus Archive, February 18th, 2004; then search 'Baby who survived smallpox'.  It should be recognised that, but for the prompt action of the Department of Health and the medical professionals, that the outbreak was swiftly contained and did not spread to other regions of Sussex

This page was added on 18/03/2007.
Comments about this page

I just about remember my smallpox vaccination, which took place at a surgery overlooking Carden School's playing fields, only a short distance from our home in Overhill Drive. By coincidence, there was an outbreak traced to a ship in Hull docks at about the same time as the Brighton outbreak; my former father-in-law caught it (he was a public health inspector), and was sent to isolation hospital. He luckily recovered, but his family were largely ostracised by the local community.

By Martin Nimmo (01/04/2007)

I was an eight year old schoolboy when the smallpox outbreak occured. I can remember getting my smallpox jab from Dr Myers who was in practice at the top of Cannon Street. I was then sent back to St Margaret's School and had to wear a red band around my arm.

By John Wignall (16/04/2007)

I remember the smallpox outbreak in 1950. I was at school at Margaret Hardy and the pupils all had to queue up and get the vaccination. Top of left arm and it was really sore. If a scab came it was OK. You wore a band over your clothes so other people wouldn't knock your arm. I knew that a lot of people had died and that some of them were working at the hospital.

By Jennifer Goddard (nee Norrell) (26/04/2007)

I also was an eight year old schoolboy and got my jab at Dr Myers' surgery, and I also went to St Margaret's School!  Small world.  I can remember being pretty scared I would catch the smallpox and, whilst my arm was not too bad, my mother's was hugely swollen.

By Dennis Fielder (02/08/2007)

Hi Dennis.  It's a small world. Seeing your name got the memory cells working... I remember you at St Margaret's as you were in the same class as me when we moved up to the Juniors.  If I remember rightly, you were a very keen angler.  Hope you still fish off the Norfolk Groyne as you did in the 1950s.  If you feel like getting in touch, my email address is: john.wignall@ntlworld.com

By John Wignall (11/08/2007)

I used to live with my parents in the flat above Dr. Myers surgery in Cannon Place and must have had my jab from him too. I was abou 2 or 3 at the time. I still bear the scar! My family were professional ice skaters at the SS Brighton.

By Chris Harnett (20/08/2007)

I must have been about 6 years.old when we all had to queue for the vacination inCarlton Hill. l was very frightened, and there were alot of people passing out. When it came to me, because this was all going on the nurse gained my confidence by saying I was special. l had my jab on my right arm, it has always been a talking point.

By Sheila Jones (02/09/2007)

I was about six years old when the small pox outbreak came to Brighton. I remember my mum meeting me from Woodingdean school, and me saying to her," mum ,why are we going down this road, we live in Lockwood Crescent." We went into a bungalow in the Ridgeway and I remember to this very day, three men in white coats coming towards me with a needle in their hand. I quickly turned to run away but was grabbed by one of them and had the needle stuck in my arm. I am now 63 years old, and have had a needle phobia since then, all thanks to that nasty person. The memory will never go away and I have the scar to prove it.

By Christine Eke (05/10/2007)

I have just found your page and thought you would be interested to know that I am married to one of the relatives of a deceased man who contracted the disease when it came to Brighton. It is very clear to us still, the queues of people lining up for the injections, our children were babies then and it was very frightening, especially as my husband was related to where the source of the disease originated. We are both well in to our eighties now but we remember it all so vividly

By Mrs Hetty Bath (02/03/2008)

I too went to St Margaret's School in the early 1950's. I can remember a teacher Miss West who played the piano and on Ascension Day we would go to the magnificent St Margaret's church. I lived in Clarence Square and remember going to Clifford's grocery shop in Preston Steet to buy 3d of broken biscuits before I went to school.

By Ann Allsop (02/03/2008)

I remember queueing at the Royal York buildings to have the small pox vaccination and passing out. I was at St John the Baptist School in Bedford Street when this happened. I lived at 46 Mighell Street and remember my arm getting such a big scab as they had to scratch me twice because I passed out.

By Wendy Jackson (nee Woodham) (24/04/2008)

This is a message for Ann Allsop. I notice that you lived in Clarence Square. Your name wouldn't have been Ann Groves in those days? If it was, I remember you and your brother Clifford Groves from St Margaret's days.
If you feel like getting in touch, my email address is john.wignall@ntlworld.com.

By John Wignall (07/11/2008)

I remember having the vaccination I was 8 years old at the time. It wasn't so much of a jab, but rather two parallel scratches which after a while festered and itched, which we were told not to scratch.

By Dan O'Shaughnessy (29/07/2009)

I only have vague memories of my smallpox jab, I must have been about 7 years old, correct me if I'm wrong but I don't remember it being a needle! I seem to remember it being something like a small wooden stamper with lots of small needles arranged in a circle, I think that the needles punctured the skin and the vaccine entered the blood stream that way, if you look at your smallpox scar you can see this ring of dots within the scar, somebody tell me that my memory's going because I know it doesn't make sense, the tool looked like an office 'date' stamp or a 'paid'stamping tool. It may just be a 7 years old's imagination running amok.

By John A (28/09/2009)

I don't remember the outbreak but I do still bear the scars! I was only a baby then, born in November 1950. My mother didn't want my arm to have a scar so she talked the doctor into giving me my jab right on the ankle. Good idea at the time maybe but of course as I grew up, so did the scar! It eventually measured about two inches across and is right in the middle of my leg. I have been told the same as John A, that it was a stamper thing with lots of small needles. The scar looks like that anyway.

By Patricia Silsby (07/10/2009)

I was about 14 at the time, a boarder at Preston College, Preston Road. The staff at the station would not touch your ticket it had to be dropped in a bin, we were allowed back to Brighton but had to be vaccinated at once. The place was like a ghost town for a while.

By Peter Waltham (28/09/2010)

Smallpox vaccination: I remember we had to queue for quite a long time at the municipal buildings right up the side of a long staircase. I was nine and my young sister was four, when it was our turn, my younger sister wouldn't take off her coat, so the nurse quickly took hold of her leg, and did the vaccination on her leg above the knee. Where there's a will there's a way. She cried all the way home, ha ha ha. Happy days.

By Joyce Blackman (02/10/2010)

In 1950 I was 12 and lived in Mayfield Crescent, Patcham. My friend Malcom Mowbray's mother was a nurse at the hospital and died of the disease. His father ran a gent's hairdressers in a lane adjacent to the clocktower. I recall having the vaccination by Dr Rosario in Patcham and then getting a bad reaction to it, having to have kaolin poultices up my leg. We were later told that about 1 in 1000 people could be adversely affected. Lucky me!

By John Snelling (17/05/2011)

I was 10 in 1950 and lived in Ringmer Road, North Moulsecoombe. I seem to remember that there was a smallpox case just up the road from us- can anyone confirm this? I too remember being vaccinated, I think it was at school, Moulsecoombe- Junior Mixed, also wearing something round the arm to avoid people knocking into it. I still have a scar on my left arm.

By Sheila Eastland (ne Webb) (19/08/2012)

I was six years old and remember the armband that we all had to wear so we would not be knocked. I remember my mother panicking about the disease, as indeed she did when a few years later a girl at my school caught polio. There was real fear around.

By Rosie Rushton (08/09/2013)

We lived in Ladysmith Road. My sister Janet, along with others, was given her smallpox jab on her upper thigh. This had huge repercussions for her and our family, as she contracted blood poisoning from the inoculation that affected her hip, leading to 18 months in a plaster cast from waist to knee. This affected her mobility to the extent that she spent the next 5 years in Chailey Heritage with a leg iron on, in an attempt to make up the nearly two inches that her leg was shortened by. She has just celebrated her 70th birthday, but as you can imagine it was a very difficult time for my parents as they had three other children to care for and no State help to pay for visiting expenses, etc. So, not all Brighton families came through those worrying times unscathed; some still live with the consequences today.

By Roger Sharman (16/10/2013)

I was a pharmacy student at Brighton Tech - we all had to be vaccinated.  I was in digs opposite Queens Park and Ken, one of my fellow students, developed a high temperature. We naturally thought it was smallpox because of the mass vaccination - the Doctor thought otherwise but we looked after him as best we could although the landlady would do nothing. Luckily for Ken it turned out to be a severe reaction to the immunisation - he had received no protection against any disease when he was a baby as his mother disapproved of them. Interestingly he had a perfect set of teeth without any fillings or extractions which was very unusual at that time. It was rumoured that there were two fatalities among the nursing staff at the Hospital - I don't know if this was true.

By Barrie Nickels (13/02/2014)

My mother's mother, Irene Mowbray, was the nurse who travelled in the ambulance with the ill seaman. She recognised his illness and waited with him in the ambulance for a doctor to confirm It. She was taken ill and died shortly afterwards.

By Fran Felton (26/04/2014)

I remember this smallpox outbreak, I was twelve in 1950, and I can remember the front page headlines of the Evening Argus which my father had in his hands at that time. The headlines were about the first death from the disease in Brighton, it was of a taxi driver with the surname Bath, the same as mine. When I asked my father about this, he said it was a cousin of his. I often wonder where this part of my family are now, it appears my parents had no contact with them.

By Vic Bath (27/04/2014)

I remember John Snelling. My mother was Irene Mowbray who was the nurse who cared for the seaman and caught the smallpox herself and passed away. My family were quarantined for 6 weeks in Coldean Lane. I remember going back to school and all the children running away from me. Now living in Canada.

By Malcolm Mowbray (25/05/2014)

I was seven years old in 1950. I can remember having two or even three vaccinations because they said it didn't "take". In the end they concluded I had a natural immunity! I lived in Elm Grove. I attended Fairlight Primary School and moved to Australia in 1951. I was looking up this information to tell my anti vaccination friends. I also remember seeing children in callipers because of polio. The young parents of the present do not realize the terrible toll of these diseases. In Australia, Government Child Support money is going to be withdrawn from families who do not vaccinate their children. It is causing quite a stir.

By Denise Wilson (nee Marilyn white) (15/04/2015)

I was five in 1950. My mother did not want me to be vaccinated, so I was sent to Bournemouth with my Nan, where we lived in a hotel for several weeks. At least I don't have a scar.

By Bob Jones (25/01/2016)

I was almost 7 when I had my vaccination for smallpox, I think I attended The Central School then (does anyone have memories of that school please?). My arm was really bad afterwards, the sore spread all over my upper arm, and I had to go to the hospital every day to have the dressings bathed off and new ones put on. My mother bathed the dressing off as the nurse wanted to just rip them off. Good old Mum.

By Sandra Waite (16/06/2016)

I remember the smallpox outbreak in Brighton when I was about 4 in 1950. Rationing was still going then and we had moved from my grandmothers in Firle Road to London Street. My mother still shopped at the grocers in Downs Terrace. I remember my mother saying to me not to ask about Don when we visited the shop to do her shopping. The owner's son had died of smallpox. I vaguely remember Don, a young man in his teens who always spoke to me and gave me a biscuit. I do not know the family's surname.
My mother told me when I was older that the authorities took her ration book because she had been in contact with someone who had smallpox. However my mother remembered that incident because it took the Council several weeks to confiscate the ration books and my mother had visited the shop several times before the ration books where taken. I now live in Devon.

By Keith Robertson (20/11/2016)

I was three years old then. I remember my dad, Dr Leonard Stone, gave me the innoculation and I gave my teddy bear a playplay thing with the plastic tube that was used. I still have a scar on my upper arm.

By Angela Borochov (14/02/2017)

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