Kemp Street - the laundry and smallpox

Photo:Lines of infection chart 1951

Lines of infection chart 1951

Photo:Tivoli advertisement 1958

Tivoli advertisement 1958

The local historian's journey

By Maureen Brand, North Laine resident

The local historian turns detective - but does she get it right when asked to research a rumour of a laundry in Kemp Street and smallpox? A visit to the Local Studies Centre may have provided the answer.

The source of the infection

In November 1950 an RAF officer left Karachi and flew to Scotland. He travelled down to Brighton, felt unwell and was treated initially for what was thought to be malaria. In December the daughter of the house in which he lodged, who worked in the telephone exchange, and her father, a taxi driver, were taken ill. Smallpox was diagnosed. The father died on 29th December 1950.

Contacts in the laundry

Amongst contacts of these two patients was the laundry to which linen and clothing had been sent from their house before smallpox was recognised. The laundry itself presented a problem in that there were two branch receiving depots which sent items to the main laundry. There were 67 staff. Customers amounted to 1200 at the main laundry, 500 at one branch and 200 at the other. On 27th December a sorter at a branch laundry fell ill of smallpox. A second sorter at the same branch also fell ill and died. Another Brighton laundry received washing from a customer later diagnosed and all laundries were advised to have staff vaccinated.

Outbreak progressed

Instances of the disease continued: a grocer died and also a Sunday school teacher (who worked in a laundry). Four of her class children were unconfirmed cases.

Lines of infection were set out in a chart by the Medical Officer of Health in 1951.

Numbers infected

Ten died in the outbreak. There were 29 confirmed cases, 6 not confirmed and 5 suspected cases. The estimated resident population of Brighton at that time was 157,800.

Media not helpful

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the situation, the news hit the headlines much to the discomfort of the town. The Brighton Herald reported: "The BBC have not been helpful. They broadcast every new case and every fresh development" - not at all helpful to a seaside town depending upon its visitors.

Kemp Street

The laundry mentioned in a Herald cutting of 13th January 1951 was the Tivoli, which in a letter said that "several of our staff have fallen victim". An advertisement in a Kelly's street directory of 1958 shows that Tivoli's main laundry was in Crescent Road and one of the two receiving offices was at 5 Kemp Street.

So it seems to add up: smallpox, Kemp Street and the Tivoli. But does it? Do you have any memories of that time? Did your parents or grandparents talk of it?

This page was added on 27/03/2008.

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