The Repository of all Things Historical for the Ancient Welsh Town of Carnarvon

  Castle Square, Carnarvon. Published by Williams & Hughes, Bridge Steet, 1850



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Up until the end of the 18th. Century, smallpox was the greatest and most feared killer in the United Kingdom. It accounted for 10% of all deaths, rising to 20% in towns and cities where overcrowding meant that it could spread very easily. Young children were particularly susceptible, and the disease caused a third of all infant deaths.

Edward Jenner © Edward Jenner Museum
Edward Jenner
© Edward Jenner Museum
It is difficult to define the disease in laymanís terms, but the following, courtesy of the Edward Jenner Museum, gives an easily understandable account of its causes and history:

"Smallpox is caused by the virus variola. It enters the body through the lungs and is carried in the blood to the internal organs, which it infects. The virus then spreads to the skin where it multiplies, causing a rash.

Smallpox is characterised by fever, headache, backache and vomiting twelve days after exposure to the virus. The rash appears three days later, beginning as small discrete pink spots which grow bigger and become slightly raised. By the third day these are tense blisters, 6mm in diameter and deep in the skin. These eventually shrink, dry up and fall off, leaving a sunken scar. In severe cases patients die of blood poisoning, secondary infections or internal bleeding. There is no effective treatment once infection has taken place.

Smallpox is a very ancient disease. The scars on the mummified body of the Pharaoh Rameses V, who died in 1157BC, are believed to have been caused by smallpox. It spread throughout Europe and was carried to the Americas with the voyages of discovery. It killed far more Aztecs and North American Indians than ever died in battles with the white settlers.

Smallpox touched every section of society, killing kings, queens and emperors as well as the common man. It altered the succession of the British royal family by killing Queen Anne's heir, Prince William, at the age of 11. Elizabeth I, Mozart, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln all experienced its terror. If it didn't kill you, your skin was left scarred by the pocks. This led to the fashions among ladies of wearing beauty spots or veils to hide their blemishes."

In 1721 the practice of variolation was introduced into England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The treatment consisted of scratching the skin and introducing scab material from a mild form of the disease. Unfortunately, it was rather hit and miss, and death was not uncommon.

According to country folklore, a person who had contracted cowpox, a mild viral infection of cattle, could not catch smallpox. Cowpox caused a few mild pocks on the cow's udders, and milkmaids were prone to being infected. It usually resulted in no more than a few days of mild discomfort and a small number of pocks on their hands.

In May 1796, a milkmaid consulted Edward Jenner, a country doctor, who diagnosed cowpox. He realised that this was a chance to test the cowpox theory by infecting the son of his gardener with material collected from one of the pocks from the milkmaid's hand. The child became ill with a mild case of cowpox, but soon recovered. As a further experiment, Jenner then variolated the boy, who showed no signs of contracting smallpox. A number of further variolations confirmed the truth: cowpox was an effective vaccination against smallpox.

Although smallpox cases declined after this date, compulsory vaccination was not introduced until 1853. Variolation had been made unlawful by an Act of Parliament in 1840, but there was still strong opposition to the cowpox vaccination.

An outbreak of smallpox could well prove catastrophic to a small community, but very little was written about the disease at the time. The local press was strangely reluctant to report any occurrences, although the North Wales Gazette did itself proud with a "tabloid" style outburst in 1814. Perhaps one reason for the media's apparent reluctance to report these outbreaks was the quickly growing tourist appeal of the area, especially Carnarvon with its historic castle and nearby beauty spots. The harm an epidemic could cause to the fledgling tourist trade in the town would have been devastating, and it is likely that the press restrained itself from publishing damning accounts of death amongst the beauty spots. That the Borough Corporation was fighting hard to improve the image of the town, both for the inhabitants and visitors alike, can be seen through a study of the local Presentments of Nuisances for the town dating from 1786 to 1832 (Gwynedd Archives Service Class Mark XD1). These reveal a town which by today's standards could be considered filthy. Dunghills by the dozen, left out in the streets, their contents slowly seeping into the town's water supply, were a regular feature of these presentments, as were disgusting instances of blood and other noxious substances similarly treated with contempt by local slaughterhouses as this extract from the presentment for 1827 only too clearly shows:

.....And the Jurors afrd upon their Oath afrd further present & say That Griffith Griffith late of the Town & Borough afrd..... near a certain Street there & within the Jurisdiction afrd called Crown Street the said Street being the Kings Common Highway a certain Slaughterhouse did use and a great quantity of Dung & other filth continue and the Blood from the said Slaughterhouse there & within the Jurisdiction afrd did present & suffer & still do present & suffer to run and overflow into and upon the sd Kings Highway by reason whereof divers hurtful & unwholesome smells from the sd Blood Dung & other filth did then & there arise and thereby the air there & within the Jurisdiction afrd became (...?...) & is corrupted & infested to the Common Nuisance of all the Lieges and Subjects of our Said Lord the King.....

Proof positive that tourism was strongly on the Corporation's mind comes from the presentment for 1832:

.....we have thought it more conducive to general convenience and more likely to cause all nuisances which are at present a source of great disgrace to the Town and which owing to the rapid increase in number of inhabitants and the great influx of Visitors during the Summer Months, will if not timely abated present infectious diseases and cause strangers to abstain from making Carnarvon a place of summer resort, To be effectually removed and abated We beg leave to recommend that this more modern speedy and effectual proceedings by Indictment should be adopted; and we particularly beg leave to call the attention of the court to a considerable number of Pigsties Dunghills and obstructions which from time to time have been the subject of fruitless and unavailing representations and remonstrance at Tan y Bont now become one of the greatest thoroughfares in the Town, as well as to all other Pigsties Dunghills Obstructions and Nuisances which so greatly interfere with public health and comfort. We also in like manner beg leave to call the attention of the Court to the Malting and Candle Houses from which noxious and unhealthy vapours and stenches continually issue.....

Ironically, Owen Owen Roberts, well-known surgeon, and one of the leading lights of the fight against the first cholera outbreak in 1832, was himself presented in October 1828 for keeping a Dungheap at Glanymor.

So, it is against a backdrop of a small country fishing town, which rapidly grew into a major port and tourist destination during the first four decades of the nineteenth Century that we begin our look at the death and destruction to have visited its shores. As public hygiene and medical knowledge drastically improved in tandem with the town's growth, diseases which were much feared in their day were conquered, and one new disease came visiting and showed its fearsome power.

Research has brought to light an inscription on a headstone at Llanbeblig Churchyard which is the only record that a Smallpox outbreak occurred in Carnarvon in 1804. The first newspaper to cover the area, The North Wales Gazette, did not begin publication until 1808, leaving us without a media-led source of information. Only one of the children, William, is recorded in the Llanbeblig Burial Register and none of the recorded burials have any indication as to whether they are of Smallpox victims or not. Because of the dearth of information about this outbreak, this section is of neccessity rather short. However, below is reproduced a part of the headstone with the relevant inscription, together with a translation and a couple of photographs:

To the Memory of
Two Children of Owen Williams of
Carnarvon Mariner by Jane his Wife Viz:
Owen Williams was buried here on the 1st
day of September in the year of our Lord
1804 Aged one year and 4 months
William Davies was buried here on the 25th
day of September in the year of our Lord
1804 Aged 3 years and 6 months

Och, angau loes croes y cri - mewn mannau
Mae yn mynych dorri;
bwrw a wnaeth er ein braw ni
Ddeufrawd i'r ddaear ddifri.

Nid oes naws oerloes na sen - annifyr
Yn nefoedd lawen;
poen y corph wedi gorphen
Heb fraw a chur heb frech wen.

Oh! Deathís pang! "Cross" is the cry - in places
That frequently rings out;
It struck, thus frightening us,
And laid to rest two brothers.

There are no qualms or indeed - unpleasantness
In a Heaven blessed with joy;
Aches of the flesh long gone,
No fear, worries or Smallpox.

A view of the headstone of the two young victims of the Smallpox outbreak. Sadly it does not  indicate their final resting place as the stone was moved during a 'landscaping' exercise some years ago. © K. Morris.
A view of the headstone of the two young victims of the Smallpox outbreak.
Sadly it does not indicate their final resting place as the stone was moved during
a 'landscaping' exercise some years ago. © K. Morris.
A close-up view of the relevant part of the headstone. © K. Morris.
A close-up view of the relevant part of the headstone. © K. Morris.


Carnarvon Borough Presentments of Nuisances - Various dates.
Llanbeblig Parish Burial Registers.

The Edward Jenner Museum - I would like to thank the Museum for readily giving their permission to use the image of Edward Jenner and an extract of text from their website. The Museum's fascinating and informative website can be found at: Edward Jenner Museum

More big "thank yous" to Mr. T. Meirion Hughes for translating the Welsh language verse from the headstone.

  © 2003 - 2019 Keith Morris. All rights reserved