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Hebden Bridge Local History Society

A Notable Epidemic: The 1880-81 scarlet fever outbreak in Halifax

Speaker: John Brooke

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

After two years of constant discussion about the progress of the Covid pandemic, we have become all too aware of epidemiology, and the ways in which disease can spread. John Brooke, local historian and author of Cruel Lives: a history of some West Yorkshire epidemics, told a meeting of Hebden Bridge Local History Society the story of an epidemic a hundred and forty years ago, which killed more than a hundred people in Halifax.

He began by describing life in Victorian Britain which for many people was fraught with the danger of contracting and dying of one of the many diseases which were endemic and only barely understood. He reminded the audience of the massive increase in population in the first half of the 19th century especially in industrial towns like Halifax and Bradford. Over-crowded conditions in slum dwellings, poor sanitation, pollution and poverty all played a role in allowing measles, smallpox, typhus, typhoid, whooping cough, TB and scarlet fever to sweep through the population. Life expectancy of a child born to a poor family in a northern industrial town was about half that of a child born to a better off family in the south of England. Most of these deaths were young children; in some of these areas two fifths of children died before the age of five.

The 1851 Ranger Report in Halifax had made a clear link between poverty, poor housing and death from infectious disease, and records of cases of disease and subsequent deaths had started to be kept by public health officials. Scarlet fever was one of the endemic diseases that every now and then showed a sudden growth and became an epidemic. In 1880 local records showed a cluster of cases, not in the poorest areas of the town but in the well to do West Halifax and West Park areas. This news generated publicity and alarm. The spread was rapid with 102 children dying in just a few weeks. These were early days of epidemiology, reliant on medical officers and local GPs going house to house to find cases and then to record the results. Action was taken, with school closures, and parents advised to keep their children in the house, but it was realised that there also needed to be an investigation into the causes of the outbreak. Why had scarlet fever struck this particular part of town?

John explained that everything centred on a farm at Royles Head in Warley. Robert Bell, the farmer, provided milk to the residents of the Hopwood Lane area of West Halifax, and this turned out to be the link between the cases. In November 1880 there had been one scarlet fever death. When Thomas Bell contracted the disease, he stopped delivering milk, and asked a farm worker called William Horsfield to take over the milking and delivery. He lived in poor filthy conditions, and although all of his family contracted scarlet fever, he continued to go to work for Bell until early January. He was made something of a scapegoat and condemned in the Halifax Guardian. But the epidemic was now established, and between January and February there were 80 deaths from the fever.

For the Medical Officer, Mr Ainley, unpicking the causes of the epidemic was crucial. Again this involved painstaking door knocking and collecting of data, which made the link directly with the milk deliveries – of 125 households traced which received milk from Bell's farm, 53 had scarlet fever cases. Of the 72 left uninfected, most had no children or had previously recovered from the disease, which gave them some immunity.

The conclusion was that it was the combination of Horsfield's lack of basic hygiene and the lack of understanding of the importance of isolation which caused the fatal epidemic. But it wasn't just that scarlet fever was carried by Horsfield to infect the households; a key feature of the spreading of the disease was the milk itself. A more up to date understanding of the nature of the bacterial disease concludes that the milk became infected when the cows had mastitis, opening them to the infection carried by the milkman.

What the case demonstrates most clearly though is that a systematic collection and analysis of data about disease and urgent action to isolate and change behaviour, can contribute to the saving of life.

The final lecture of the season will hear Shirley Daniel and Roy Collinge recall memories of the magnificent Cragg Hall, which was destroyed by fire a hundred years ago. All welcome to the meeting on Wednesday 23rd March, at Hebden Royd Methodist Church, starting at 7.30. Visitors £4.

Details of the talks programme, publications and of archive opening times are available on the History website and you can also follow the Facebook page.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report