Blaker Family of Sussex - Reminiscences


Brighton Dispensary.

ON leaving the Convict Hospital in 1860 I was appointed House Surgeon to the Brighton and Hove Dispensary.

Brighton in those days was much smaller than it is at present, and, roughly speaking, was bounded by Kemp Town on the East, then by Eastern Road, Queen's Park, Elm Grove to Lewes Road, then by Dog Kennel Road, New England Hill to Furze Hill. Adelaide Crescent and Palmeira Square had just been built at the West of Brighton. Hove was a small town, and was separated from Brighton by the cricket ground, situated where the Avenues now are. What is now Church Road was then a somewhat narrow, rather muddy lane, with hedges on each side, and between this and the Downs was, I think, only one house, Rigden's Farm. Preston was a country village, with some thatched cottages, still standing; it was noted for the Tivoli strawberry gardens, and was about a mile from Brighton. Preston Park was then a large meadow, and between London Road and Lewes Road were only one or two houses, indeed, I have ridden over this ground as well as over Rigden's Farm more than once with the hounds.

The houses in the district in which my work lay, that is round the Institution in the Queen's Road, were comparatively modern, and for the most part fairly sanitary, except that in many of the bedrooms there were no fireplaces, and these had absolutely no ventilation The drainage was for the most part into cesspools, pits simply sunk in the chalk, and it is worth notice that some of these cesspits never required emptying, the contents disappeared in the fissures of the chalk. There was a rudimentary system of drainage in some parts of the town, chiefly for the purpose of carrying off the storm water, with an outlet on the beach near the Albion Hotel, and into this some of the houses drained. This drain was of brickwork and so badly constructed that large black slugs used to come up through the cracks into the basement of 29, Old Steine, when I first resided there in 1869. This drain was very super-ficial, and the smell from the gully-holes was at times very noticeable. The present system of drainage with the intercepting sewer was not in existence till 1871.

Mr. George Shelley, a butcher, for many years Churchwarden at St. Nicholas, told me that when a boy, he used to swim his butcher's tray in a stream which ran from Park Crescent through the Steine to the Sea. The water supply of the town was from two sources, the waterworks, and wells. Many houses connected with the waterworks, the service of which was not always constant, had cisterns, which not only contained the water for drinking, but also supplied the lavatories by means of a pipe. I well recollect the supply at the Hospital being deficient during a hot summer, when it was necessary to supplement it by water from the well. The plumbing was not always satisfactory, a communication having been once discovered at the Hospital between a large water pipe and a soil pipe which ran side by side. The wells also were not always to be depended on, sewage matter sometimes percolating into a well from an adjacent cesspool. This happened at 29, Old Steine, when Mr. H. M. Blaker lived there. The water was noticed to have a peculiar taste, and a communication was discovered between the well and the cesspool of No. 30.

While I was at the Dispensary, epidemics of three diseases occurred : diphtheria, small-pox, and scarlet-fever. About the diphtheria I re-collect nothing particular, except that the worst cases occurred in houses situated near a gully hole, the smell from which, especially in hot weather, was very offensive, the drains perhaps being rarely or never flushed.

The small-pox did not seem to be of a very severe or fatal character. There was no attempt to isolate those infected; people generally passed through the disease in their own homes, and might be seen, as they were getting well, walking about the streets with black half-healed pustules on their faces. The difficulty seemed to be in recognising the disease in its early stage. Some cases commenced like measles, the distinctive nodules not appearing for a day or two. Among the cases modified by vaccination, some could scarcely be distinguished from chicken-pox, while others, after a few days' malaise, presented only three or four pustules, just sufficient to identify the disease. Practically, if two or three good vaccination marks could be found, there was no anxiety as to the result.

The scarlet-fever epidemic was a much more serious matter, and, if my memory serves me, I signed twenty-three certificates of death from scarlet-fever in one month. The epidemic appeared to be of a very bad type, and its virulence was doubtless increased by bad ventilation and crowding, and from the fact that, where imperfect drains existed, they were seldom or never flushed. In some cases the rash was of a purple (purpuric) colour, and these were generally fatal. In others the rash did not appear at all, the patients died, apparently overwhelmed with the poison on the first or second day, and, but for the prevalence of the disease and the presence perhaps of one or two milder cases in the same house, the disease might very easily have been unrecognised.

Opening into the North Road, then called North Lane between Bread Street and Gardner Street, on the site now occupied by Tichbourne Street, were two rows of buildings called Pimlico, and Pym's Gardens. They were mere alleys, there being no opening at the Church Street end. As far as I recollect the houses were mere huts with a few feet of garden in front, and in a most dilapidated condition. The inhabitants, mostly fisherman, were of the lowest type; the families lived all crowded together, and I have seen on Sunday mornings girls of ten or twelve years old, or even a year or two older, walking in front of the houses absolutely naked. In the gardens and paths in front of the houses, heads, skins and intestines of fish were lying about in every stage of decomposition. Nothing could be worse than the sanitary conditions, and yet there was a remarkable freedom from illness, though Bread Street above and Gardner Street below had their full share. I could only account for this by supposing that, being fishermen, they could get fish, and so were well fed; secondly, that the houses were so old and dilapidated that in spite of over-crowding plenty of fresh air got through the cracks and crevices; and lastly, that being very low (only the ground-floor), there was plenty of sunlight and nothing to prevent free circulation of air.

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