Probably the most feared disease after the Plague was smallpox (which means ‘spotted’ in Latin). It stuck all echelons of society – even Henry VIII’s two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, and his fourth wife, Anne of Cleeves, contracted but survived smallpox, although they were scarred by the pox. In Victorian times it rapidly became the greatest widespread killer in the British Isles and by the end of the 19th century, the biggest problem was isolating the smallpox sufferers to prevent the highly contagious airborne disease from spreading. Hospitals were feeling the strain and so the Metropolitan Asylums Board (MAB) decided to charter two ships to ease the pressure on the medical facilities.
The Atlas, a 91-gun battleship, had not had a very eventful career, as she was never fitted for sea, but the frigate, the Edymion, was an elderly warship that had seen action in the Mediterranean and journeyed to Australia.
As soon as someone started to show any symptoms of smallpox, they were taken to the wharf at Deptford Creek in Greenwich, on the River Thames, where they were assessed by a doctor. They were loaded into a converted paddle boat and taken to one of the two ships moored on the Thames. These floating hospitals were used to house the most acute cases and over 20,000 people were cared for from the London area over a 17 year period.
As the concern for the spread of the disease increased, the ships were moved in 1883 to Long Reach, near Gravesend, 17 miles down the river – a desolate stretch of the Thames, where they existed in isolation, out of sight of the city of London. Here they were joined by a third ship, a paddle steamer, the Castalia.
The three ships were connected with a gangway. The Atlas had a chapel and housed the male patients and the 150 female patients were cared for on the Castalia. The Edymion, in the middle, was the administrative centre, where the kitchens prepared the food, and where some of the medical staff were housed. Here at Long Reach the ships had access to support facilities on land which provided for additional staff housing, laundry and storage.
At the height of the epidemic, the ships each received 30 patients a day, mostly children, who were of course the most vulnerable. Of these patients, about 20% did not return to their homes in London.
As the pressures increased on the ships (delirious patients often threw themselves overboard), it was decided to move operations into land based smallpox hospitals, which could also provide more beds, but the ships remained at Long Reach until 1904 when they were auctioned off for scrap. Until then, they had served as a reminder to all ships coming into London of the horrors and continued threat of smallpox.
The world embarked on a rigorous vaccination programme in the 1970s and by 1980, the World Health Organisation declared that countries no longer needed to vaccinate against smallpox. The world today, it is believed, is smallpox free!
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