How Romford handled outbreaks of smallpox and cholera

Brazier’s Yard, off Romford High Street, c1900

Brazier’s Yard, off Romford High Street, c1900. - Credit: From the collection of Andy Grant

Historian Andy Grant's second part of a look back to the 17th century and earlier to examine how Romford suffered when there were outbreaks of disease.

Smallpox was another disease suffered by our forbearers and around a third of those that caught it died, with survivors often being left terribly scarred.

During the early 18th century a method of immunising against the disease, known as variolation, started to be used.  This consisted of powdering material from the pustules on smallpox victims and exposing those who had not previously had the disease through minor scratches on the skin. This usually resulted in a less severe infection and fewer people died from the disease.

Districts regularly posted notices in newspapers to proclaim they had no smallpox cases, signed by parish officials and medical men. In the case of Romford, this included a rebuttal of stories that smallpox was present in the town, certifying that it was “entirely ceased in this town”.

In 1796 Edward Jenner noted that milkmaids who had contracted cowpox were protected from smallpox and discovered inoculation with material from cowpox pustules prevented the development of smallpox.

With the increasing acceptance of vaccination during the 1800s, by 1838 cases of smallpox were gradually reduced throughout Romford Union to 53 cases in a population of around 20,000.

In 1856, the Union resolved to build an isolation hospital in a field beside the Romford’s workhouse.

Most Read

After the plague outbreaks of earlier centuries, one of the most feared killer diseases was cholera.

By the 19th century overcrowded habitations and increasingly poor sanitary
conditions led to regular outbreaks of cholera, usually most prevalent from August onwards.

By 1848/49, the outbreaks had reached epidemic proportions. The first fatal case of August 1848 was a 77 year-old labourer in the workhouse, followed by two deaths in Collier Row. In September four people died in Well Yard (off the High Street), two in Dog Lane, 11 in the High Street, six in Sun Yard, four in Collier Row and two in Balls Yard.

In October a further 11 cases occurred. In total 68 people died from the disease during the outbreak, with a further 13 deaths recorded as diarrhoea.

Following the outbreaks of 1848/49, a committee was formed to examine the reasons for the outbreak, the areas most affected and what could be done about it.

William Ranger, Superintendent Inspector, chaired the meeting and concluded that Ducking Stool Yard was inhabited by “the lowest order of people, extremely dirty”.

There were five cottages, very badly ventilated, each with around 12 - 16 inhabitants living there. Two privies, draining to a
common cess, were shared by the whole courtyard and all manner of filth was heaped in the place, blocking the drain. Moore's Yard had nine cottages and typhus fever had been prevalent in the past.

Two privies were shared by the inhabitant. Queen's Head Yard was “in a dirty, filthy state” with a privy over an open ditch at the north end. Mawneys Lane had four fatal cases of cholera, all of them children. Ten houses in the Lane backed on to a large open ditch on the west side, where all the filth and dirt of the town had been deposited.

In 1854 Corbets Tey suffered a cholera outbreak and three people died in "a cottage of the dirtiest description".

Most 'experts' considered the cause to be from a 'miasma' (an unpleasant or unhealthy smell or vapour), recommending attention be focused upon ventilation and removal of filth and excrement from the crowded courtyards.

By 1854, Jon Snow identified the reasons for the spread of the disease in an area of Soho, citing the dumping of sewage into rivers and cesspools close to wells which was contaminating water supplies.

However dissenters within Romford Council, usually wealthy landowners, objected to an increase in local taxation to fund the necessary changes.

Some sewage systems were installed within the town, but it took another 60 years for coverage to be implemented over the borough as a whole.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group. 

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter