On the Waterfront: Dreaded disease hits Sunderland

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IN 1831, Sunderland became the first town in Britain to suffer from an Asiatic cholera epidemic, the source of which is thought to have originated from a foreign-going ship berthed in the Wear.

Return of the dreaded disease to the Borough in 1849 and 1853/54 confirmed the vulnerably of its inhabitants, who were also at risk from other imported infectious diseases, including small pox, typhoid, yellow fever and bubonic plague.

Establishment of Sunderland Port Sanitary Authority in 1878 led to gradual improvements in quarantine and inspection arrangements for shipping, together with provision of isolation facilities for infected crewmen.

Little progress seems to have been made until 1884, when a wooden cholera hospital was erected at North Sands on a site owned by Sir Hedworth Williamson.

Amid fears that a serious cholera epidemic in Hamburg would spread to Britain, the building was demolished in 1892 and replaced by a more spacious structure (known as Cholera Hospital No. 1) situated on Potato Garth below Millum Terrace.

A hopper-barge, 115-feet long by 32-feet wide, owned by the River Wear Commissioners and designated as Cholera Hospital No. 2, was also converted into a floating hospital and moored in the upper reaches of the river.

Pilots were instructed that all ships from Hamburg and other infected foreign ports must enter the Wear via the main harbour entrance and moor at Low Tier quarantine buoys, until cleared by the medial officer of health.

Furious objections by local residents and workers, however, soon led to plans to use the Potato Garth hospital being abandoned.

In 1893, the hulk of a 56-ton steam vessel named Wansbeck, owned by Joseph Webster Hiles, was inspected prior to possible conversion into a cholera hospital, but found to be unfit for purpose.

As a result, a replacement floating hospital was constructed, its wooden accommodation, measuring 60 by 18 feet, being mounted on a 72 by 31-foot timber deck, floating on six egg-ended boilers.

It was moored in the river between Claxheugh Rock and Short Bros’ shipyard, although it was occasionally laid up in North Dock.

Strict quarantine measures, however, prevented a cholera epidemic in Britain. Consequently, the hospital was never used for reception of infectious-disease victims and was widely regarded to have been a waste of money.

In October, 1901, the county borough medical officer recommended that it be sold and the money saved in its upkeep used to fund enlargement of the borough hospital.

The craft was purchased bt Messrs Ord, who later resold it to Tyne Port Sanitary Authority at a considerable profit. It was towed to the Tyne on March 21, 1902, where it almost immediately took up station at Jarrow Slake to house small pox patients.