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Containing smallpox in Victorian London

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Patients and staff

The patients

Almost everyone suffering from smallpox in London between 1884 and 1902 - more than 20,000 people - passed through the hospital ships. Most returned home healthy, but over 4000 died.

The staff

Ward deck of the Atlas
View full size imageThe ward deck of the Atlas. © NMM

Over the years, thousands of people worked on the hospital ships, the steamers or at the wharves. Most were in various support services rather than on the actual wards. Very few were smallpox specialists.

Most of the staff of the hospital ships were women. They worked as nurses, needlewomen, laundry maids or ward maids.

The number of staff varied according to demand. When things were quiet, the MAB transferred people to some of its other hospitals.

Dr Ricketts

Dr Ricketts and the nursing staff on the deck of the Atlas
View full size imageDr Ricketts and the nursing staff on the deck of the Atlas. © NMM

The most famous member of staff was the brilliant Thomas Frank Ricketts, who worked as the Medical Superintendent from 1892 until 1914.

Ricketts was one of the world's leading authorities on smallpox. His Diagnosis of Smallpox, published in 1908, became the definitive work on the subject and remains important today.

The male staff

Staff of the Geneva Cross ambulance ship
View full size imageNurses and crew of the Geneva Cross. © NMM
Most of the men worked on the ambulance steamers or in various support services. Some male nurses were employed in the final years of the hospital ships.

Male nurses were sometimes necessary to restrain delirious patients. Some sufferers jumped into the Thames from the Castalia in an attempt to ease their discomfort.

The galley on the Endymion
View full size imageThe galley on the Endymion. © NMM

The Endymion was always used as an administrative and service ship. Most of the men worked here, as did the laundry maids and needlewomen who took care of the patients' clothing. The food for the hospital ships was also prepared here.


The nurses

A ward deck on the Atlas
View full size imageThe ward deck of the Atlas. © NMM

As in every other hospital, the nurses were the backbone of the smallpox ships. Their dedication has to be admired.

Caring for smallpox cases was very unpleasant. Daily life with the patients must have been harrowing.

The terrible rash was both hideous to look at and smelt unpleasant. In addition, the suffering patients could be delirious, abusive or even violent. 

The ward deck of the Atlas hospital ship
View full size imageThe ward deck of the Atlas. © NMM

The Atlas was very cramped, with low ceilings and only the former gun ports as windows. Dr Ricketts complained that his staff had to put up 'with insufficient light, exercise, air and sleeping space', and was not surprised that they frequently suffered from disorders such as anaemia.

The nurses were mostly in their 20s, and all had to be single. No married nurses were employed until after the First World War. It seems hardly surprising that many did not stay for long - and perhaps surprising that so many did. Several nurses gave long years of service on the smallpox ships, and helped to ease the stay of thousands of patients.

Postcard with the smallpox ships in Long Reach
View full size imageA postcard of the smallpox ships in Long Reach. © NMM

The nurses had the toughest time on the ships, but life was tough for all the staff. Discipline was strict by modern standards. Some nurses were dismissed for smoking or even going to local dances while off duty.

The 'social isolation'

The isolation was particularly difficult for the mainly young and single staff. Even Dr Ricketts felt the 'social isolation' of life on the ships. The staff could only go onshore at certain times - but they were not particularly welcome there.

All those connected with the hospital ships had to be vaccinated against smallpox, but still the rest of the local population mistrusted them.

Even at South Wharf, a clerk who had no dealings with the patients was asked to leave his lodgings once the landlord found out about his place of work. For those actually on the ships, things were much worse.


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