PortCities London

Containing smallpox in Victorian London

The end of the hospital ships

The end of the floating hospitals

The hospital ships in Long Reach
View full size imageThe hospital ships in Long Reach. © NMM
By the beginning of the 20th century, the MAB decided to replace the hospital ships with the so-called 'River Hospitals' - Joyce Green, Long Reach and Orchard - in nearby Dartford.

Together with the nearby Gore Farm Hospital, which had been used for recovering patients since 1890, the MAB now had nearly 4000 beds available for smallpox cases.

This was four times more than during the great epidemics of 1871 and 1881. The hospital ships were closed in 1902 and sold for scrap in the following year.

In fact, London never suffered another major epidemic of smallpox, and so the River Hospitals cared mainly for victims of other contagious diseases.

Only the Long Reach Hospital regularly looked after the declining numbers of smallpox patients. However, Joyce Green also came back into service during London's final smallpox epidemic. This was an outbreak of the far milder Variola minor virus between 1929 and 1932.

The end of the river ambulance

The river ambulance continued to supply the River Hospitals with patients and goods for another 30 years. With the steady decline of smallpox, the service was reorganized in 1913. The North Wharf became the sole departure point for the smallpox ships, with the South Wharf accepting only general fever cases.

The MAB was abolished in 1930 and its functions passed to the London County Council. By this time, road ambulances were carrying most of the sick and visitors out to the hospitals, and the river service was rarely used.

Although the ships had been maintained in case of an epidemic, the service was closed in May 1930. By 1933, all the steamers had been sold. The pier was demolished in 1936.


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