Buildings Sculpture

A relentless quest to eradicate disease

Behind the Town Hall, on Norfolk Street, is a single doorway with the words ‘Disinfectants’ carved into the lintel above. It appears to originate from 1897, the year that Sheffield’s new Town Hall opened, and where ratepayers were able to buy disinfectant for their homes.

Disease was a worry for our Victorian ancestors and the city was still recovering from outbreaks of smallpox, scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough, and puerperal fever. In 1896, Sheffield’s population was 347,278 and quickly expanding into Walkley, Attercliffe and Heeley. In that year, 6,732 people died, many from disease, although the trend was decreasing. Astonishingly, 392 people had died from diarrhoea.

Medical science was concerned with tracking disease to its source with a view to prevention and was no longer content to repair the ravages of disease which might have been prevented.

In a time when preventative vaccines were still in their infancy, disinfectant was used to spearhead the fight against zymotic diseases. Where disease was evident in the home it was the use of carbolic acid powder and chloride of lime that allowed walls to be washed while articles were removed and burned.

One of the concerns was that if people were ill with infection, to make sure that they didn’t pass it on, cleaning and disinfecting, both where they lived, and the things that they owned and had contact with, was a way of eradicating germs

Sheffield had a disinfecting station at Plum Lane where infected people and their possessions would enter the station from one side, move through the process of steam disinfection and exit out the other side. There were also metal hoppers in which people would have placed their infested clothes before taking a sulphur bath to treat their condition.

These sorts of places were common across the country and were a very important part of how Victorian and Edwardian local authorities responded to outbreaks. And when outbreaks did occur, high-occupancy slum housing meant it spread quickly. In 1899, a typhoid outbreak at Brightside speedily infected over 100 people within a half mile radius.

Carbolic acid remained one of the most popular disinfectants, sold in liquid and powdered form at pharmacist’s shops, but also pre-mixed with soap. But there was also a leading brand of disinfectant, made right here in Sheffield, and this was Izal, a supplier to the British army, and the only liquid disinfectant used on troops in the Boer War. It was thought to have been beneficial for the treatment of typhoid and diarrhoea when administered internally.

In the 1930s, as infectious diseases became less virulent and more treatable thanks to a combination of vaccines and antibiotics, the use of disinfectants declined, but manufacturing processes made it more widely available to the population.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.