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Containing smallpox in Victorian London

'This loathsome disease'
Smallpox in Victorian London
The smallpox ships
The River Ambulance Service
Patients and staff
The end of the hospital ships
The return of smallpox?
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The smallpox ships

The crisis of 1881

The 1881 epidemic severely tested the MAB's resources. By May there were 300 new cases each week, and an estimated 300 patients had already died at home because of the shortage of hospital places.

The three remaining hospitals were soon full. The old Dreadnought was no longer available, so the MAB set up a temporary tent hospital for recovering patients in the grounds of its Asylum at Darenth, near Dartford.

The Atlas hospital ship

The Atlas hospital ship
View full size imageThe Atlas. © NMM
In the same month, the MAB obtained a floating hospital for acute cases. This was the Atlas, a 91-gun battleship built in 1860.

The Atlas had had an uneventful career - she was never fitted out for use at sea. However, she was about to begin a vital role that lasted for 20 years.

The Endymion

HMS Endymion rounding the Horn in the first Flying Squadron
View full size imageHMS Endymion rounding the Horn in the first Flying Squadron. © NMM
The MAB obtained another elderly warship to house the administration and stores. She was the Endymion, a frigate launched at Deptford in 1865.

She had enjoyed a more interesting career, having served in the Mediterranean and visited Australia with the famous Flying Squadron of 1869-71.

The move to Deptford

The smallpox hulks in Deptford Creek.
View full size imageThe smallpox hulks in Deptford Creek. © NMM
The MAB originally wanted the Atlas to be in Halfway Reach, near Dagenham. The Port of London Sanitary Authority agreed, but the Thames Conservancy, who were responsible for the river, insisted on using moorings off Deptford Creek. This was close to where the Dreadnought had lain.

In early July the ships were brought to Greenwich, and the Atlas received her first patients on 13 July.

The ships in service

The Atlas seen head-on
View full size imageA surreal view of the Atlas in Long Reach. © NMM

By this time the epidemic was subsiding, but on average 30 people were still falling ill each day.

With 120 beds and extra space for special cases, the Atlas relieved the pressure on the other MAB hospitals.

Between July 1881 and the end of the epidemic in August 1882, she received 979 patients. 120 of these died.

More enemies

Aerial view of Deptford Creek.
View full size imageAn aerial view of Deptford Creek. © NMM

The last patients left in August 1882, and the ships were removed from their moorings off Deptford Creek. They had made many new enemies in the area.

John Rennie of the nearby Marine Engine Works complained about the inconvenience. The owner of the Victoria Shipbuilding Yard and Docks threatened to sue the MAB because he could not let his premises.

In spite of such upsets, the MAB was pleased with the hospital ships and decided to keep them. However, they had to go out to Long Reach, a desolate stretch of the Thames 27 kilometres (17 miles) down river from London Bridge.

The Castalia

The Castalia hospital ship
View full size imageThe Castalia hospital ship.   © NMM

The MAB acquired a very unusual vessel to join the other two – the twin-hulled paddle steamer Castalia. She had been built at the Thames Ironworks in 1874.

She had been designed to work in the English Channel, but had proved unsuitable. She had been moored up at Galleons Reach for several years.

Once at Long Reach, she was fitted with five ward blocks. These made her look more like a floating street than a ship.

Out at Long Reach

A long-range view of the smallpox ships
View full size imageA long-range view of the smallpox ships. © NMM

The ships stayed at Long Reach until 1902. Being so isolated, they were happily out of sight and out of mind for ordinary Londoners.

However, they were a very prominent feature on the Thames. For vessels coming into the port of London, they were a powerful reminder of the continuing threat of smallpox.


Fitted out

Find out more
GalleriesDeptford Creek
The importance of the Creek past and present
GalleriesPoplar Hospital - the first hospital for dockers
Related Resources
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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