The killer disease which struck Sunderland down - and it all started in a dumped mattress

Children getting fresh air outside of the childrens hospital on Durham Road.
Children getting fresh air outside of the childrens hospital on Durham Road.
0
Have your say

In the 21st century, we have much to be thankful for when it comes to our health.

Children particularly enjoy the best of attention when it comes to spots, sniffles and the other malaises that see them queuing up three deep in the doctor’s waiting room.

Low Row in Sunderland.

Low Row in Sunderland.

In an age when, thankfully, we have a cure for almost every childhood condition, it is worth casting one’s mind back to the days when the poor bairns of Sunderland were lucky to survive a trip outside of their front doors.

Sunderland Antiquarian Society member Norman Kirtlan casts an eye over our past.

Long before Knocky nine doors, games such as hitchy dabbers (probably better known as hopscotch) and mounta-kitty were popular pastimes.

The poorer youngsters of Sunderland had little to keep them occupied in times gone by.

The mattress it seems had been the last resting place of an old woman who died of smallpox, and had been duly, but not carefully thrown out by her family. The children’s play thing had brought about their tragic demise

Norman Kirtlan, Sunderland Antiquarian Society

Little, that is, other than what was going on around them.

But that’s where the trouble often lay. Their natural inquisitiveness would often lead to dire consequences.

For example, in the 1840s, Low Row was home to a scholarly institute known as the National School.

It could be found opposite to St. Michael’s Church, and the school backed on to a graveyard.

The top of Nobles Bank

The top of Nobles Bank

The shortage of space in it caused lessons to be interrupted with alarming regularity.

The reason for that was because of what was to be found under the school.

There were a number of burial vaults where dearly departed locals were piled one on top of the other, in peace – or at least until the next family member passed away.

Shortly before a funeral, the vault would be opened but not immediately shut again.

Instead, it was left in full view until the latest body was balanced on top of the pile.

Only then could the vault be closed once more.

The stench from this practice, especially in the summer months, was enough for lessons to be abandoned and for the youngsters to be sent home gasping for air.

Yet it still did not stop them from taking a closer look.

Kids being kids, few could resist taking a peek en route home. The more adventurous would venture inside for a lesson in human anatomy – but it would be a lesson that would often end in tragedy.

And if the bodies didn’t get the bairns, a long culvert which was filled with stagnant water that lay within the cemetery certainly would.

In February 1871, Sunderland found itself in the terrifying grip of a smallpox epidemic.

Defective or non-existent sewage pipes, along with the general filth in the town, were major causes of the outbreak.

At that time a group of children in New Hendon had chanced upon a discarded old mattress at Noble’s Bank, and thinking this an excellent play-thing, set about using it as trampoline, tent and whatever else came into their mischievous young minds.

When, shortly after, all of the youngsters fell seriously ill from the smallpox, enquiries were made to find out the cause.

It soon became evident. The mattress it seems had been the last resting place of an old woman who died of smallpox, and had been duly, but not carefully thrown out by her family.

The children’s play thing had brought about their tragic demise.

Yet this was not the last time the city was plagued by major health worries.

A few years into the 20th century, Sunderland was hit by another epidemic, this time it was tuberculosis.

By that time vaccination was common place, and those who had just been put to the needle often found themselves with painful swellings on their arms.

In order to alert others to the fact that the unfortunate youngster was suffering and needed a wide berth – a red handkerchief was tied around the bairn’s arm.

The term, red rag to a bull has never been truer, and the local bullies would deliver gratuitous digs to the suffering limb.

We are indeed fortunate that such epidemics, particularly those caused by filth and ignorance are now a thing of the past.

l Norman’s book is titled In Search of the Filth Poison.

It is available in local libraries and copies can also be ordered for £3 by sending a letter to Norman at the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, which is based in Douro Terrace, Sunderland.