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By March 8, 2016July 25th, 2017Local history

This article was originally published on my WordPress blog – March 2016.

Stedham - OS 1st edn publ 1813

Stedham and Iping on the 1st edtion Ordnance Survey Map, 1813.  By the 1880s the area called ‘Trotton Common’ was known as Stedham Common, and was the site of the temporary hospital.

This piece is a small contribution to women’s history, for International Women’s Day. It looks at the events of two terrible months in a part of Victorian Sussex, and what they tell us about the lives of local people, particularly those of women.

The village of Iping stands on the banks of the river Rother, a few miles west of the small West Sussex market town of Midhurst.  Before the 20th century the local economy was mostly based on agriculture, but industry was not entirely absent.  In the early 1700s a watermill at Iping was converted into a paper mill.   The mill had an extraordinarily long working life and remained in production until it was destroyed by fire in 1930 (1).

By the early 1880s the mill was owned by Warren & Co and produced blotting paper.   This was made from the fibres of cloth rags – typically cotton and linen.  The bales of cloth came from sources in both Britain and abroad, and were transported to the area by train, arriving at the now long-vanished station at nearby Elsted.   A wagon took the bales to the paper mill, where they were sorted, dusted and cut into small pieces. Boiling and bleaching followed, after which the cloth was made into paper. The whole process, from opening a bale to the finished paper, took about two days.

The rag-loft was an old wooden building that stood on the opposite side of the river to the mill itself.   Described as ‘admitting plenty of air’, it was probably a freezing place to work in winter, and it is likely that the work carried on there was dirty and unpleasant. Fourteen women worked in the rag-loft as sorters, with two men employed to open the bales and to carry the sorted rags over Iping bridge to the mill.   The millworkers mostly lived in and around Iping, though some came from the neighbouring village of Stedham.

The story of what happened there in 1883 relies on local health records, including the report of Dr Charles Kelly, who was the Medical Officer of Health for the West Sussex Sanitary District (2).   Kelly gave the people mentioned in his report a modicum of anonymity by refraining from the use of surnames – he referred to them as ‘Ann D’, ‘Emily H’ and so-on.

On 8 May 1883, a 20 year-old Iping rag-sorter named Emily H went down with a headache and backpain.   Shortly after, she developed a rash.  The rash was caused by smallpox.

Emily had been vaccinated against smallpox before, and soon recovered.  However, Clara H, aged 15, was not so lucky. Like Emily, she fell ill at the rag-loft on 8 May and went home to her family cottage in Iping.   The disease progressed with horrifying rapidity and the girl slipped into a coma on the evening of the 11th. She was dead the next day, and buried by nightfall.

Dr Kelly had gone to Iping on 11 May, having heard of the outbreak there.  He had also received disturbing news that it had already spread to Stedham.   The first Stedham victim was one of the two men who worked in the rag-loft, Frederick D, aged 21 years.   He had felt unwell on 5 and 6 May.  He must have dragged himself into work on the 8th, because he returned home almost at once, feeling very ill.   Frederick went to bed, and by the evening the characteristic smallpox rash had appeared.

Former New Inn, Stedham

The former New Inn (later called the Gnu Inn), Stedham.  Frederick D was probably once one of its customers (image C) Ian Friel 2016

Frederick lived in what was little more than a two-up, two-down cottage with his parents, James (60) and Ann (48), and four siblings, Charlotte (17), James (junior, 10) Lettice (7) and a baby sister. James (the father) took the three middle children to stay with him in an empty cottage.  Ann remained at home to care for Frederick, but also had to look after the baby.

Each of the family members had been vaccinated twice before, and two were revaccinated on 12 May, but this may have been scant reassurance in the face of such an aggressive and terrible disease. As matters proved, vaccination did not offer total protection either: it had not prevented Frederick for catching smallpox, and within a few days his younger brother had it, too. James junior went back to the family home to be looked after by his mother. He was in a bad way by 23 May, but eventually recovered.   It’s difficult to imagine what must have passed through Ann’s mind as she nursed her younger son, for on 18 May the disease had killed Frederick.

Smallpox continued to spread. A 58 year-old Iping rag-sorter, Mrs H, died on the same day as Frederick.   Dr Kelly quickly identified infected rags as the source of the disease. As the people who handled the rags came from the poorer parts of society, it is little wonder that the epidemic seems to have been confined to the poor of the district.   Certainly, all of the victims seem to have lived in cottages, dwellings that were often cramped and crowded, far from being the sort of ‘des res’ some of them would become in the 20th century.

A programme of vaccination was tried, but met with little response.  Isolation was the only alternative treatment available, so infected cottages were quarantined. In  places where a death occurred, the rooms were fumigated with burning sulphur, and sickroom bedding and clothes were burnt. The local Poor Law Guardians supplied quarantined households with food and other necessaries, as did some of their neighbours.   Men were employed at each place to act as messengers, taking supplies to the infected homes and bringing news back.

However, this form of ‘care in the community’ did not work. The smallpox continued to spread. Kelly decided to take the sick people out of their homes and put them in complete isolation.  He got powers to do this from the Midhurst Sanitary Authority, and at the end of May a tented isolation hospital was set up on Stedham Common, to the south of both villages.  Fortunately, the weather was warm and dry.

A big 40 x 20 ft marquee was put up on the Common on 31 May and used to house most of the patients.  Five or more bell tents were also acquired, along with beds, bedding, wooden boards to make temporary floors and a mangle for laundry use. Two trained nurses were employed to work at the hospital, and they were assisted by quaratined relatives of the patients, who were accomodated in the bell tents.  By 1 June there were 25 people at the hospital, rising to 29 two weeks later.  Their homes were each fumigated three times in their absence, and any bedding or clothing remaining in them was either destroyed or disinfected by carbolic acid and boiling water. One elderly man died at the hospital, but he was the fifth and last to be killed by this outbreak, which was declared to be over on 30 June.

In the end, the epidemic seems to have been contained by a number of things.  One was a history of past vaccination in the area.  Many people had already been vaccinated, some as far back as the 1820s, and so had a measure of protection.  Kelly’s decision to move all of the cases to the isolation hospital was clearly a key factor in stopping the smallpox from spreading further. The disease was also defeated by courage – the bravery of the messengers who kept the infected families supplied, of the doctors and nurses and of the family members who tended their sick.

One of these, in particular, stands out: Ann D.   At the risk of her own life she nursed her two sons through a terrible disease and saw one of them die. We cannot know how she coped with the grief and yet was still able to keep her baby safe and see her other son through his deadly ordeal. If asked, she might have denied that this was courage, and have said that this was just what a mother had to do.  We cannot know. However, it is important to remember women like her, who carried – and still carry – enormous burdens and yet manage to keep life going. Her name was Ann Denyer.

(1)      L F Salzman (ed), A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 4, The Rape of Chichester, London (Victoria County History), p 63.

(2)     West Sussex Record Office WDC/CL74/1/1884, pp 93-106; WSRO WG7/59/3, minutes of the Midhurst Rural Sanitary Authority 1879-85, pp 264-65, 267-78; 1881 Census information, identifying the Denyer family, via

I came across the report on the smallpox epidemic whilst undertaking research into a house history for some clients: it is thanks to their commission that the story has come to light.

© Ian Friel 2016

Ian Friel

Author Ian Friel

Ian Friel is a historian, researcher and author with over 40 years experience and an international reputation in the field of maritime history.

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