Epidemics were common in the 19th century and found a ready welcome in the filthy streets and overcrowded homes of industrial areas. Hardly a year passed when there was not, for example, a measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, typhus or diphtheria outbreak. Two of the most dreaded diseases, cholera and smallpox, appeared less regularly but when they did they filled a community with fear and terror. In 1892 panic seized Brighouse and the surrounding area when smallpox struck. The disease was not only highly contagious and life-threatening but extremely frightening owing to its dreaded after-effects of bone disease, eye problems - sometimes blindness - and pitting of the skin.
The local epidemic had its origins in Savile Lane, Clifton (pictured) where Samuel Briggs, a mason, and two of his four children were found to be suffering from the disease. The first case in Brighouse, in early May, was that of Henry Child, a cab driver, of Daisy Croft. The epidemic eventually affected over 300 children and adults and claimed around 30 lives. Brighouse became something of a ghost town and in the wider area schools closed, sports fixtures were cancelled and church attendances plummeted. At St Matthew’s Church, Lightcliffe, in an area that suffered only one death, there were but four communicants at seven services over Christmas and New Year from 21 December.
The work of Edward Jenner, a Gloucester doctor, did much to control the disease through vaccination. He discovered from local farmers the belief that people did not catch smallpox if they had previously had cowpox. He called the technique vaccination after the vaccinia virus, derived from vacca, the Latin word for cow. In December 1979 the World Health Authority announced in Geneva that the disease had been totally eradicated. The last case had occurred in Somalia two years earlier.