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Historical Society Publication 1982-1983

THE SMALLPOX EPIDEMIC OF 1871

The Dwygyfylchi Local Board of Health was set up in 1865 as a result of prominent local citizens petitioning the Privy Council to create a body to administer local government in a rapidly expanding community. The local quarries had been active for thirty years attracting more and more to the parish which the coming of the railway and the opening of the station around about 1851 meant that the tourist industry had truly begun here. New communities were being established in our local rural parish - Penmaenan in the West became an industrial village below the quarries and housing the quarrymen and their families; Pantyrafon in the Centre above the railway station was to develop as the tourist centre.

The setting up of the Board in Dwygyfylchi was the creation of an entirely new authority. Its members were elected by plural voting. Each board was required to appoint a clerk, a surveyor and an inspector of nuisances, but the appointment of a medical officer of health was optional. The function of local Board included water supply, sewerage, drainage, the repair and cleansing of streets, the prevention of nuisances, the disposal of refuse, the provision of sanitary conveniences, the registration of slaughter-houses and common lodging houses, the regulation of buildings and offensive trades and the provision of burial grounds. Expenditure on these services could be defrayed out of a rate levied by the local board. Rates have never been popular but they seem to have been a very emotive subject in the last century and therefore is not surprising that the Dwygyfylchi Local Board did their utmost to cut their spending on local government to a minimum by neglecting some of their responsibilities and overworking their part-time officials.

As stated, Dwygyfylchi’s population was increasing rapidly, especially in Penmaenan. The quarry owners and landowners were put under pressure to provide accommodation. Brundritt & Whiteway Quarry Company and the squire of Brynmor did build a few cottages of reasonable standard but there were others, speculators who saw the opportunity to build rows of cottages for the quarrymen cottages that were substandard in their design and in their sanitary provision.

The work of the Local Board was difficult since it was dealing with a population with little or no experience of such a planning authority. There were in that population some who had no respect for new-fangled controls. In the minutes of the Board there are frequent references to houses being built without prior permission; houses built without a proper water supply, without drains and without any toilet facilities whatsoever. Yet there do not seem to be any complaints about the inferior housing from those who lived in them, probably they were only too glad to have a roof over their heads. Many if not most of the newcomers to Penmaenan were from the country. They were former farm labourers and general servants attracted by better wages and conditions in the quarries. These ‘rustics’ were thrown into an urban situation - small houses built close together, overcrowding, no sanitation and totally inadequate clean water supply. They brought with them some of the habits of country life - keeping pigs, poultry and even cows in the narrow streets and alleyways of this industrial village.

It was of no surprise that typhoid was ever present in Penmaenan and in 1871 and outbreak of smallpox caused panic in the area and amongst the inhabitants of Pantyrafon residing, as they were, in the healthier atmosphere just a mile away. The Local Board had appointed a clerk and a surveyor, although to save money the surveyor was also Inspector of Nuisances and Rate Collector; poor Edward Roberts. Bovnton Villas, was a very harassed man. But no Medical Officer of Health nearest was in Conwy. On the 7th December 1871 after the surveyor had read his report on conditions in Penmaenan before the Board, it was decided to approach both Dr. Pritchard and Dr. Hughes on Conwy ‘as to their terms in case the Board think proper to appoint either of them Medical Officer of Health’. The medical gentlemen were seen and four days later Dr. Hughes was appointed for a term of three months only. He was instructed to “inspect the sanitary conditions of the locality; to ascertain the existence of diseases; point to the existance of nuisances or other local causes likely to originate diseases and injuriously affect the health of the inhabitants and suggest an efficacious mode of checking epidemics”. He had less than a week to deliver his report! However, the report was delivered before a full meeting of the Board on 3rd January 1872. It does not make pleasant reading but I make no apology in presenting it fully for it reveals a horrifying situation which is hard to believe, knowing as we do, the Penmaenan of today.

“Gentlemen,

In accordance with your request I have made a sanitary inspection assisted one day by your Chairman and afterwards by myself of nearly the whole of the village of Penmaenan. We commenced our inspection at or near Sea View Terrace. Here we found two privies, the sewage of which is allowed to fall on to land belonging to the Railway Company where it is left on the surface. All liquid house refuse is thrown over a wall immediately in front and close to the houses.

We visited a nearby terrace and found there two or three dirty privies, the sewage of which is discharged into a small garden on land belonging, as I believe, to the Railway Company, the greater part of which could be seen on the surface of the soil emitting a most offensive odour. Much, if not all, the liquid house-refuse is thrown over a wall into small gardens in front of the houses and close to them, the smell from which must at times be most offensive to the occupants of these houses.

The row of houses near the Victoria Inn, have no drains; privies are situated in one garden at an elevation considerably higher than the houses. Here there is nothing to prevent the liquid sewerage from percolating downwards through the soil, which is loose, to the basement of the houses below and the escape with them of sewage infection of the coarse kind.

Now I shall call your attention to the unsatisfactory sanitation condition of that portion of Penmaenan which is situated below the main road and extending from London House as far as the garden which is below Mr. Wright’s house (North View). Behind these houses your Chairman and myself found nothing but a mass of middens and ash-holes in which filthy and soapy water and urine is thrown. Almost every house had some sort of filth close by it and now at this moment many loads of dung and ash are carefully preserved by the occupants of these homes indeed. I suppose. for sale to the neighbouring farmers. Privies here are literally reeking with filth and abomination and as there are no drains to carry off the sewage it finds its way under walls and hedges into the common recepticle of dirt and filth of the village - the railway cutting below.

The sanitary conditions of the houses on the other side of the road is still more unsatisfactory, for here all the privy accommodations are situated on an elevation above the houses and without drains to carry off the sewage. In one place we discovered a privy almost attached to the wall of a dwelling house and no exit of any kind for the filthy accumulation here; there was nothing to prevent the infiltration of the sewage through the soil under the basement of the house and the escape of noxious effluvia into it.

 

I have inspected the houses of Upper Maenan, Chapel Street. In these places there are dirty pig sties, undrained privies, a collection of ash and dung etc and the liquid refuse of the houses is scattered in every direction close to the houses. Now from my examination and inspection of the village of Penmaenan I have come to the inevitable conclusion that the whole place is very badly drained, in fact, it is not drained at all.

There are all the conditions in the little village to favour the introduction and propagation of fever poison. I have seen and visited professionally many villages in the country but I have never witnessed a place with its sanitary conditions so sadly neglected as this place and I may add that typhoid fever of the worst kind has existed here for a considerable time and exists here even now. Many valuable lives have already been lost, as, I firmly believe, through sanitary neglect. I have lately attended many cases of typhoid fever here and at the adjoining parish, but I have never known a case where there has not been a pig’s house or fowls kept in or close by the diseased house or gutters, catchpits or filthy privies overcharged and emitting noxious fluvia.

I have visited the interior of many of these houses and found some to be badly ventilated and overcrowded. Some have only two rooms one down and the other upstairs. Sometimes there are two or three beds in one room and several children with their parents, all sleep in one room. I found frequently the greatest indifference, sometimes horror, to the admittance of fresh air and if there should be a chimney and fireplace in their bedrooms it is generally choked by a bag stuffed with straw or it is sometimes boarded up so as to prevent the admission of air.

I would advise the Local Board to interfere as far as is in their power in the internal management of some of these houses. I think they would find frequently a sad neglect of sanitary laws. I would recommend to the consideration of the Local Board the following regulations:

1. The immediate removal of existing sewage and the thorough cleaning of privies.

2. To have one common drain constructed by the advice and under the super- intendance of competent engineers in order to convey to a proper distance all the sewage matter of the whole parish.

3. Fixing the number of persons who may occupy a house.

4. Inspecting them and keeping them in a proper and cleanly condition.

5. Enforcing proper privy accommodation, ventilation etc.

6. Cleaning and whitewashing such premises at stated times.

There is now at Penmaenan one case of typhoid fever and two cases of smallpox. Now the question naturally arises how can we prevent the spread of epidemic, contagious and infectious disease? In order properly to comprehend the difficulty in one way it is only necessary to consider the many various modes by which infection is disseminated and the more we reflect upon this the more convinced we shall become that nothing short of complete isolation of the infected person will suffice even in the limited degree the progress of this fatal malady.

It is a thing of daily occurrence to see friends and relations running in and out of a room in which a person is lying suffering from an attack of smallpox, measles or scarlet fever and any expostulations with the family for permitting it, is met with a frivolous excuse. The mother of the poor sufferer at Penmaenan now may be seen daily visiting shops and other houses in the village. She does this simply for the reason that she cannot obtain a proper and competent person who would be willing to devote the whole of her time to the nursing of the patient who, as I believe, is now dying in consequence for want of proper and constant attendance.

The purpose of completely Isolating such infectious diseases as these I would call the attention of the Board to the expedience of erecting or appropriating a small house to be devoted to a village hospital as the only sure and speedy mode of stamping these diseases out of the neighbourhood. This would not be expensive as it could be done by voluntary subscription. Into this small hospital all persons suffering from infectious diseases could be removed, believing this to be the only solution of this difficulty. I hope I shall be excused if the plan should not prove acceptable to the Board.

I cannot conclude my report without thanking the Board for the confidence they have placed in me on appointing me to a post which is of so much importance to the district under its control.

I am, gentlemen, your most faithful servant

R. Hughes, M.D.

December 16th, 1871”

The impression that one gets to the Board’s reaction to the report is that it is only what the members expected. They had earlier that year asked “the newspaper reporter’ at their March meeting to state to the English papers that no case of smallpox or any infectious disease had occurred in Penmaenmawr, ‘the fashionable resort of the English upper classes”.

There does not seem to have been any immediate action taken by the Board. It is known that Mr. Vernon Darbishire allowed the four rooms above a coach-house and stable, below New York cottages (Council Yard today) to be used as an ‘isolation hospital’ and that a Mary Jones of Penmaenan nursed the unfortunates but this is not recorded in the minutes of the Board. Today it is quite incredible to think of people being treated for serious illnesses above a stable in front of which as a later report stated, was a large stinking pool of stagnant water filled by the effluence coming from the privies of the New York Cottages! The leading citizens seemed to have hoped that the winter gales would blow their, hopefully temporary, problems away, for they did not meet again until February 1st 1872, over six weeks after receiving the report.

They ignored the important point of the report for at no time during the following five years did they consider a piped sewerage system. As late as January 1877 on receiving yet another unfavourable report from the new Caernarvonshire Medical Officer of Health, Dr, Hugh Reese their attitude remained unchanged. He wrote:

‘I cannot urge too strongly upon the Board the necessity of a thorough system of drainage in order to remedy this state of things as the soil will become saturated with filth and Penmaenmawr, which is present justly regarded as an exceedingly healthy watering place, will be in great danger of losing its high reputation”.

The Local Board of Health replied:

‘The Board sees no necessity under present circumstances to change the system now in action. We have made arrangements for periodical cleansing and trust the results will satisfy.”

It was not until Dr. Robert Hughes, author of the first report, and Penmaenmawr’s first Medical Officer of Health, came to reside here later in 1877 and became a member of the Board, that the attitude of the latter was to change.

(copied as published)