The Preston Guardian reported that an outbreak of smallpox in Preston was causing great distress.
There were frequent reports of smallpox epidemics in Preston in the 19th century. The Guardian carried reports of other outbreaks, such as: a December 1865 outbreak of scarlet fever and small pox; a smallpox epidemic in 1876; and another outbreak in June 1888.
The 1876 epidemic occurred in the same month as fever wards were opened at the new Preston Royal Infirmary. The wards were in three separate blocks at the rear of the hospital, for scarlet fever, enteric fever and smallpox. Infectious diseases were the major cause of death in 19th-century Preston, especially among children. Later, an isolation hospital opened at Deepdale.
Smallpox was also a serious concern in 17th-century Preston, as when Thomas Hodgkinson, the leader of the Preston Tories who controlled the corporation at that time, wrote to Roger Kenyon, the Lancashire clerk of the peace (the 17th century equivalent of today’s county council chief executive, but with much more power and a much larger ‘Old Lancashire’ territory):
1681, May 29. Preston.—Great numbers of children here have the small pox and many die. We are almost undone for want of rain, very little barley sown, and that which is, comes not up for want of moisture.
Hodgkinson seems to be expressing the same amount of concern about the prospects for the barley harvest as for the fate of the children in the town.
And a few years later a member of the Molyneux family of Preston was writing to Kenyon, wanting assurance that Kenyon’s son who was due to visit was free of the disease, ‘Theire is one thing that my Lady Molyneux could not resolve me, that is, whether he hath had the small-pox, which is a distemper we are much afraid of …’
Smallpox, which killed, scarred and blinded millions worldwide, has now been eradicated thanks to vaccination. It had been especially dangerous for babies. The term ‘smallpox’ was first used in Britain in the early 16th century to distinguish the disease from syphilis, which was then known as the ‘great pox’.