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.


Izal: “The invisible guardian against risks to health.”

Here’s a topical post because it involves disinfectant and toilet paper… and a brand that was once a brand leader. I’m talking about Izal, made here in Sheffield, famous for that waxy disinfectant toilet paper that many of us grew up with.

The origins go back to 1793 when George Newton and Thomas Chambers became partners in the Phoenix Foundry and, along with financier Henry Longden, they signed a 21-year-lease with Earl Fitzwilliam, the landowner, to extract coal and ironstone from the Thorncliffe Valley near Chapeltown.

A hundred years after coal production began it turned to Jason Hall Worrall, a chemist, to analyse the oil produced by coke and subsequently develop a germicide oil which, when mixed with an emulsifying agent, dispersed through any liquid.

The resulting product was trialled in hospitals and became known as Thorncliffe Patent Disinfectant before being called Izal – reputed to be an anagram of Liza, Worrall’s sister.

“Izal – the new non-poisonous disinfectant and prevention of infection. Izal prevents infection in Cholera, Smallpox, Diphtheria, Influenza, Scarlet Fever, Swine Fever, Malaria, Worms, Typhus, and Typhoid Fever, and practically covers the whole field of infectious diseases.”

The claims seem unbelievably wild today, but Izal attracted favourable reports from bacteriologists.

One of its products was a ‘scratchy’ toilet paper, impregnated with Izal disinfectant, and given away free to local authorities which bought bulk supplies of hygiene products.

Izal Toilet paper appeared in hospitals, schools and public buildings (‘Government Property’) around the country and wasn’t sold to the public until 1922.

In 1924, William Heath Robinson, a cartoonist and illustrator, was employed by Newton Chambers to provide amusing illustrations on the toilet rolls, and in the 1930s there were rhymes printed on each sheet. During World War 2, the sheets were printed with a cartoon of Adolph Hitler, very popular with the public but less so with officials.

Shiny on one side, rough on the other, experience showed that the paper was better at smearing rather than cleaning, and children of a certain age remember it better as being a useful musical instrument (comb and paper), as well as an excellent tracing paper.

Alongside the toilet Rolls, the Izal brand extended to San Izal Disinfectant, San Pine Disinfectant, soaps, shampoos, shaving foams, Polly kitchen rolls and even Izal lozenges and mints, in all about 137 products.

In 1968, Newton Chambers unsuccessfully tried to buy rival manufacturer Jeyes (makers of Jeyes Fluid and Parazone), and in 1973 the whole Newton Chambers business was acquired by Sterling-Winthrop (Sterling Industrial) which continued Izal production at Thorncliffe until 1981.

Restrictions of the use of poisons, and increased competition, lessened Izal’s market dominance, although it was still going strong in the 1970s. With a certain irony, the Izal brand was sold to Jeyes in 1986 and production stopped completely in 2010.

Ten years’ later, Izal Medicated Toilet Tissue is back on the shelves (or not as recent experience shows) but is still tainted by bad memories.

“The Clint Eastwood of loo paper – it’s rough, it’s tough and takes no shit.”