The Worthing Typhoid Epidemic of 1893

Some of my grandfather’s earliest memories were of the typhoid epidemic which hit Worthing in 1893. Known ever after as ‘fever year’, the terrible events which affected this seaside town on the south coast were never forgotten by the people who experienced them. Nowadays, though we still have good reason to complain about the deficiencies of the water companies, at least we are not dying from typhus or other related illnesses caused by pollution of the local water supplies. But this is exactly what happened at Worthing just over a century ago. Of the 1,500 cases reported, some 186 people died as a direct result of the infected water they had consumed. My grandfather’s family had lived in Worthing from the early 1850s, when his grandparents, WILLIAM AND ANN LINFIELD, came to the town soon after their marriage in Brighton. William was a tailor by trade and established his business in South Place, near the old Town Hall. Undoubtedly they experienced at first hand the earlier occasion in 1865 when polluted water supplies affected the town. But in its severity and scope – as many as one in ten of the local population succumbed to the disease – the outbreak in 1893 was immeasurably worse.

The recurring problems of water and drainage were to preoccupy the Worthing authorities for practically the whole of the 19th century. From the 1820s, there were often complaints about bad smells coming from the drains; however, during the 1840s, a large number of the town’s wells were polluted by cesspools. As a direct result of the serious concern of a number of local dignitaries, a local board of health was set up in 1852 to replace the Town Commissioners, who had basically become completely ineffectual. Their first responsibility was to try and improve the appalling state of the town’s drainage and water supply. A well was sunk off Lyndhurst Road, which was connected to a pumping engine and water tower nearby, and mains were laid in the town. A new system of main drainage was constructed in 1857, consisting of a main sewer ending near the waterworks, from whence it was pumped out to sea. But in the winter of 1865/66, the sewers remained full for long periods and many low lying basements were flooded. Further wells were sunk in 1867/68 and 1885, since the increasing demands on the water supply were emptying the main tank soon after midday.

By 1893, the growing requirements of a rapidly expanding population led the authorities to exploit a large supply of water known to exist near the existing reservoir. Tunnelling was commenced at the bottom of the shaft sunk in 1885 (75 feet below ground) towards the new supply. During this work, a sudden subsidence took place but little importance was attached to it, and the work continued after the defect was put right. Finally they struck water, but with such a force that the men were lucky to escape with their lives. Although the water was slightly brown, there was no smell or taste, and the colouration was attributed to the presence of iron oxide.

Soon after the new water supply had been connected, at the end of April, the first cases of enteric fever were reported. It was suggested that the new waterworks had been contaminated by workmen on the nightshift, and people began to boil their water and milk as a precaution. Reaching its peak on May 15, the epidemic gradually subsided; in mid-June, after an analysis of water samples showed no trace of the pollution, Dr Charles Kelly, the Medical Officer of Health, felt confident enough to issue a statement that the epidemic “may be considered at an end.” Hoping to limit the damage done to the town’s image as a resort, the Mayor, Edward Patching, together with Charles Cook, Chairman of the Sanitary Committee, Charles Kelly and William Verrall, Town Clerk, despatched a letter to the editors of the leading London newspapers, explaining the reasons for the epidemic – contamination of the water by brick setters at night – and concluding that the “temporary trouble” was now completely over. Thirty people had lost their lives. Unfortunately, their attempts at damage limitation were woefully misplaced and somewhat premature, as events were to prove.

Many townspeople, having been assured that the danger was now over, understandably began to relax the precautions they had been taking during the previous month, but most importantly, they stopped boiling their water. The consequences were disastrous – the fever broke out again, but with far greater force and impact. The first typhoid outbreak was defined by Dr Kelly as taking place between May 8 and June 19 1893, when a total of 284 cases were reported. Between June 19 and July 2, only 20 cases had been reported. But with the outbreak of the second epidemic, some 515 cases were notified during the two week period July 2 to July 17. Up to July 19, 65 people had died from the disease. Not surprisingly, something of a panic situation soon developed.

A meeting of the Council, before the public and the press, was reported in the Sussex Daily News on July 19. The Deputy Mayor, Alderman Piper, reviewed the facts behind the epidemic, which he put down to the striking of a fissure in the new well. The Sanitary Committee were now looking at the need for a new water supply from the Downs. COUNCILLOR FREDERICK CAESAR LINFIELD said he hoped the problem of the town’s drainage would not be overlooked, “and he thought the wish of the townspeople was that such new schemes as the public library and the park should wait until these matters had been dealt with.” Alderman Cooksey observed that arrangements had been made to place tanks of drinking water in different streets of the town for the benefit of the inhabitants; ten had so far been supplied, each holding between 150-200 gallons. He also stressed the “absolute necessity” for people to boil their drinking water for at least 15 minutes. My grandfather remembered how as a boy of eight he was sent with a jug to fetch water from the pure water tanks.

So many people succumbed to the fever during the second epidemic, and so quickly, that a major problem soon arose with regard to adequate provision of hospital accommodation. There were only 15 beds available at the infirmary, and two tents were put up outside to hold another eight in each. Various other places in the town were converted into temporary hospitals: at Richmond House, 40 beds were available; at the “Travellers’ Rest”, there were 80 beds; the East Preston Guardians were providing 38 beds at the Mission Hall in Newland Road, as well as 28 beds at the Iron Chapel formerly used by the Primitive Methodists, in Lyndhurst Road; the Girls’ Home in North Street had 30 beds. The idea was to isolate all suspected cases, preferably by removing them to the temporary hospitals, but the overall shortage of beds meant that several people had to be treated at home. My grandfather had vivid memories of his father going around in a horse-drawn cab to various cottages, carrying blankets and helping carry out patients, to take them to one of the temporary hospitals. He claimed that it was the example of his father in the “fever year” that inspired him to engage in social work.

The extent of the epidemic was so widespread that it affected almost every street in the town, and rich and poor alike. Rumours soon circulated that midnight funerals were taking place at the Broadwater Cemetery to allay public anxiety. The Worthing Intelligencer of July 29 urged the Council to immediately abandon the present water supply and procure a new supply from the Downs. It defined the main problem as the close proximity of the main sewer running near the well, which was in a “most defective condition”, with the surrounding soil impregnated with sewage. It recommended they take up the offer of the Shoreham Water Company to provide a temporary- even permanent – supply to the town. Since they already had an 8 inch main to the Sussex Pad, a smaller pipe could easily be continued into Worthing by the side of the railway. Finally, it had an unequivocal message for the Council: “We hear of Council and Council meetings ad infinitum; but it is time for action rather than words, and we would infinitely prefer to see scores of workmen laying mains in our streets than to read columns of Council Chamber debates.”

On August 3 1893, the West Sussex Gazette published a detailed article and map, which showed “with approximate accuracy” the position of the existing Water Works, and the sewers, old and new, which surrounded the pumping station. The article summarises an interim report by Mr C E Mansergh, the “eminent sanitary engineer”, who was brought in to advise the Sanitary Committee. In his view, the water at the pumping station was infected by sewage conveyed into the well from the old pipe drains which until recently carried the Park Road sewage. He also observed that the main sewer, which passed very close to the pumping station, was “very defective” and should be made watertight for the 200 feet of its length nearest the wells. To do this satisfactorily, to prevent the free leakage of sewage into the surrounding and underlying chalk, he recommended surrounding it with 12 inches of first rate Portland cement. Finally, he suggested his preference for finding a new source of water for the town in the Findon Valley where there was also a suitable site for a reservoir.

Notice to householders issued 1st August 1893
On August 4, Richard Cripps of the Haywards Heath Laboratory, published his report on the 12 samples of water collected at Worthing on July 24. Eight were found to be “seriously polluted”– they included Rowlands Road; Surrey Street; Marine Parade, W; Marine Parade, Central; Newland Road; Chesswood Road; London Street; and Park Road. Two samples were considered “of very doubtful purity”– one from Marine Parade, E; and the other from Orme Road.

Some of the press were very scathing and uncompromising in their criticism of those whom they blamed for the outbreak of the fever. The following appeared in Modern Society on August 12: “Hundreds of innocent lives have been sacrificed, and thousands of lodging-house keepers and tradesmen brought to the verge of ruin by the iniquitous manner in which folly has been combined with negligence. To have old and abominably constructed sewers in close proximity to the wells supplying the town with water seems simply the act of madmen, and Worthing’s municipal notabilities can be little else. Not long since Worthing was promoted to borough rank; it ought to have been condemned to asylumship.” A little unfair, perhaps? Certain elements in the press have always used sensationalism and the distortion of the facts to suit a purpose; for one thing, this type of vulgar journalism, which aimed to entertain rather than inform, helped sell more newspapers.

The Sussex Daily News of August 16 made a direct appeal to the people of Sussex to help Worthing in her time of need. At the present time, there is “absolutely not a single visitor in the town, which has just now only about half its normal population.” Since the town depended almost entirely on its good name as a health resort, the consequences were obviously disastrous. “That’s the only kind of thing we see,” said one resident, pointing to a cab making for the station with a load of baggage on the box. The article powerfully conveys an eerie picture of the deserted town at what should have been the height of the tourist season: “A walk through the town… was sad in the extreme. The townspeople keep up their hearts as well as they can; but a deep depression seems to pervade the very atmosphere. Only two vehicles were to be seen in motion on the streets yesterday, and one of them was a hearse… The sea-front was deserted by all save a few watermen, who had nothing to do, and did not seem to expect any customers. The wide stretch of the pier lay shining in the sea – but not a living soul moved there. Not a cab was to be seen on the sea-front… And everyone in Worthing last Spring was looking forward to a summer of exceptional prosperity!” It continues: “The Richmond House Home, standing in a garden, is a beautiful place as looked at from the outside… In one ward lay, very ill, a woman, the mother of two children, and she is often saying that she is comforted to think that her two little ones are being taken care of during her illness – and they have not told her that her children were both laid in one grave last Saturday… In another ward lay a young married woman whose husband came twice to see her. Then he ceased to come, and she is always wondering why he has forgotten her. He is dead… the young widow knows nothing of it.” The article also points out that there is no truth to the rumours that “midnight funerals” have been taking place at Worthing. Finally, it praises the devotion and kindness of the nurses, who have undoubtedly played their part in the large number of recoveries.

The Morning Herald of August 16 reported that the total number of typhoid cases now notified at Worthing had exceeded 1,150. Up to August 22, 154 people had died from the disease. Since Worthing’s population was only some 17 – 18,000, the figures were alarming, to say the least. At an adjourned meeting of the Town Council, it was decided to go to Shoreham for water for temporary purposes, and mains were to be laid at once. A general appeal was also launched to raise funds to help the sick poor.

On August 18, a reporter on the Pall Mall Gazette gives another insight into the continuing tragedy affecting the town: “On returning to my home in Worthing last week, I found the town almost deserted, the tradesmen depressed, ruin before many of them, and the typhoid still raging… We went out into the once bright little town. There was panic in the air. Groups of persons stood here and there on the pavements talking of the fever and the water supply. Tanks filled with water from the West Worthing Waterworks were placed about the streets… Many of the residents have fled, and there are no visitors. The richer shopkeepers may be able to tide over their losses. Who is to blame? In great measure the Corporation. Instead of stopping the water supply in the spring during the first outbreak of typhoid, their chief concern was to prevent the news of the fever spreading abroad lest it should prevent visitors coming to the town. They failed to do this as they deserved to fail; and now for eight weeks, while the people are falling sick around them and the cemetery is being choked with new-made graves, they have met to wrangle over the price they should pay for the West Worthing Waterworks, and to receive suggestions on sources whence water might be brought by fresh mains to the town; but do nothing!”

Thanks to the Census returns, we know the names and occupations of everybody who was present in Worthing on a particular day in 1891. Since the infamous ‘fever year’ was only two years later, a large proportion of the people recorded would have still been residents of the town during the epidemic. All the Linfields recorded in 1891 belong to the same family, which was headed by ANNE LINFIELD (née Caesar), aged 71 (all ages given for 1893), the widow of WILLIAM LINFIELD (1822-92), formerly Assistant overseer for the parish of Broadwater. She was living in Lennox Road. Her three sons and their families all stayed in Worthing throughout the epidemic, and it is quite remarkable that none of them succumbed to the fever. Her eldest son, WILLIAM HENRY LINFIELD, Relieving Officer, aged 39, was living in Lyndhurst Road with his wife ELIZABETH (39), and their children, LIZZIE (13), NELLIE (10), ELSIE (9), MABEL (7), WILLIAM (6), EVELINE (5), ETHEL (4), and ARTHUR FREDERICK (1). Her second son, ARTHUR GEORGE LINFIELD, Fruit Grower, aged 34, was living in Chesswood Road with his wife EDITH (31), and their children, EDITH MARY (9), ARTHUR GEORGE (8) – my grandfather, ALICE EMILY (6), HENRY GORDON (4), WILLIAM FREDERICK (2), and HAROLD FRANK (bo
n during ‘Fever Year’). Her youngest son, FREDERICK CAESAR LINFIELD, Coal and Corn Merchant, aged 32, was living in Teville Road with his wife Kate (32), and their children Frederick William (8), Beatrice Kate (4) and Herbert John (1). Her unmarried daughter Emily (28), Fruiterer and Greengrocer, brings the total of number of Linfields living in Worthing during the epidemic up to 25. Another daughter, Annie Kate (36), who married HENRY MANWARING in 1877, also had a large family by the time of the typhoid outbreak.

The West Sussex Gazette of August 24 1893 continues the story of the unfolding tragedy. It reports the discovery of a new supply of water at Broadwater, thanks to the efforts of the “worthy Alderman” Alfred Cortis who conducted the search entirely at his own expense, and “energetically acted while his colleagues were talking at endless meetings.” Gangs of workmen were presently laying a main from the Upper High Street through the fields to Broadwater.

The article also reports a recent meeting of the East Preston Board of Guardians, one of their members being A G Linfield senior. Apparently they had acted illegally by providing temporary hospitals for the poor law patients of Worthing, but – no doubt to their immense relief – several of the “head officials” of the Local Government Board had expressed their willingness “on account of the exceptional circumstances” to condone the action they had taken. The meeting revealed that during the past fortnight, the total costs incurred towards nursing care amounted to 181-0s-10d, whilst other expenses had totalled 349-8s-6 1/2d. After long discussion, they decided to continue to pay all expenses of the poor law cases for the next two weeks.

There was also more news regarding the water supply. Mr Mansergh had submitted another report to the Town Council, dated August 18. Having just received the last of the papers from Messrs Topley and Lucas, geologists, he reported that several sources had been examined in detail, including: (i) Findon Valley, north of Offington; (ii) the area above Patching Pond; (iii) Halewick Farm, east of Sompting Abbotts; (iv) Durrington; (v) North Lancing; and (vi) Burpham. His conclusion: “I have no hesitation in recommending the first – Findon Valley.” There were apparently several advantages in choosing this site over the others: it was nearest to the town; it had the largest gathering ground area; and there was a convenient site for a reservoir nearby. At least a million gallons would be available per day.

The Daily News reported on August 24 that the second typhoid attack appeared to be abating – total cases notified in the previous week were 41, compared with 81 the week before. 160 people had died. The Mayor’s Fund now exceeded 3000.

A report in the Daily Graphic the following day provides another vivid description of life in the desolate town: “The town itself is as depressing as a city of the dead. Pretty villas have their shutters up and gates padlocked, while the grass grows rank and coarse over what should be well-kept lawns. There is often not a vehicle to be seen, unless it be the municipal watercart, labelled on all sides in heavy black-painted strips, “Drinking Water”… In the hotel at which I lunched there was not a single entry in the visitors’ book since June 30th… Nothing perhaps impresses me more strongly with the absolute stillness and desertion which rules there than the utter solitude of the Esplanade and beach… Down on the beach bathing machines were drawn up high and dry, boats… lay dusty and unused under the bright sunshine, and all the life and movement within view were a solitary boatman with a pot of paint, and two little children aimlessly paddling.” The article also says that a “very large sum” – 16,000 – had been allocated to improve the drainage of the town. No doubt the Council were undertaking a drastic reappraisal of the necessary steps which needed to be taken if the town was to stand any chance of re-establishing its position as a seaside resort once the epidemic was over. The fever had highlighted the precariousness of the town’s economy, if little else. In an article entitled “The Fever Epidemic at Worthing”, the “War Cry” of August 26 mentions the work of the Worthing Provident Society’s soup kitchen. Something like 200 lbs of beef were being used daily to make the beef tea which was being freely distributed to the poor. It continues: “All that possibly can be done is being done for the sick. Many ladies and gentlemen devote almost their whole time to this Christ-like work. Councillors Frazer and Butcher superintend the distribution of pure water, Councillor F C Linfield, with his brother, Relieving Officer Linfield, can be seen at all hours of the day, conveying the failing sick to one of the many hospitals. That their hearts are in their work, can be seen, by their gentleness as they carry the young in their arms, and by their attention and kindness to the elder ones as they are borne to their destination on stretchers.”

The Rev. W E Sellers made his own assessment of the crisis in the Methodist Recorder on November 16 1893: “Into most homes sickness has entered… In many homes whole families have been attacked… Our own Church has suffered seriously. In our Sunday School over 60 children out of a total of about 150 have been attacked, and of these 6 have died. On Sunday last many of the school children were arranged on the platform around me, and it was pathetic to see the little yellow faces and the closely cropped hair. The epidemic is over now, or nearly so. The last hospital was closed a few days ago, and only two or three fresh cases occur each week. Residents who had fled the town are slowly returning, and gradually things are beginning to look a little more cheerful.” Who is to blame? “Rumour has credited the Corporation with much of it… The recent Town Council election has proved that the town is angry with those who have governed it in the past, and only two of the old Councillors have been returned… In business houses, the young people have been dismissed wholesale, and the takings of large shops have sometimes been only a few shillings a day; in fact, I heard of one large shop that only took a few pence, and this in the height of the season!”

It is interesting to note that one of the two councillors to be re-elected was FREDERICK C. LINFIELD, who, in fact, was promoted to Alderman in December. The Worthing Intelligencer of December 23 was effusive in its praise, adding, “We have no doubt that he will render equally good service to the town in his new capacity as Alderman as he has done as Councillor in the past.”

Sellers continues: “I have heard it said that Worthing is ruined for ever. Surely not. There are few places that present greater attractions… Let us Methodist people patronise it next Summer. They have no need to fear. The people have given a mandate to the new Town Council, and have determined that no effort shall be spared to make the town one of the healthiest in the kingdom… Let us hasten to help our suffering brothers and do our best to restore its prosperity.”

The main impact of the typhoid epidemic was that the resort did not recover for several seasons, and the growth of the town was suddenly brought to a stop – not surprisingly, given that the local economy relied so heavily on the tourist trade. According to the Times of January 24 1894, the epidemic had cost the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway 15,000 in lost revenue. It would be interesting to know whether the other important industry in the town – that of the glasshouse growers and market gardeners- suffered in any way from the fever. No doubt many of the nursery workers were incapacitated by the sickness as it spread across the town, but whether there was a substantial drop in demand for the town’s home grown produce is not known. The Mayor’s Relief Fund eventually spent 7,800, much of it going to help small business men, especially lodging house keepers who had suffered more than most. The fact that all of the main nursery owners, including A G Linfield, seemed to pull through the epidemic year unscathed, tends to support the view that Worthing’s fruit and flower industry escaped without too much damage. As for the water supply, the temporary supply obtained from a well sunk in the chalk at Lyons Farm, Broadwater, was superceded in 1897 by a new pumping station and reservoir on the Downs north of Broadwater village. And so ends this brief account of Worthing’s most tragic summer: 186 people had died, and hundreds of others were never to forget the dreadful fever they had contracted from the polluted water. The Sanitary Committee of the Worthing Council made some terrible mistakes, and they must bear much of the responsibilty for the second outbreak by prematurely announcing that the fever was over.

As something of a footnote, I was talking to Ron Ham recently, and he told me that his grandmother, ALMA SCOTT (née Naldrett), had been a victim of the typhoid outbreak. It resulted in her going bald, but as she recovered, her hair grew back although it was now curly and silver/white, and so it stayed until the day she died in the early 1960s. She also knew A G LINFIELD and his family as she and her husband were involved with greenhouses in the Clifton area of Worthing.


Most of the information used in this article came from various contemporary newpapers, which are referenced in the text, but I would also like to acknowledge the following sources:

A History of Worthing; AM Rowland and TP Hudson (1980) Being extracts from The Victoria History of the County of Sussex Volume VI Part I

The Worthing Pageant: Glimpses of Old Worthing by Edward Snewin and Henfrey Smail (1945)

Worthing: A Survey of Times Past and Present Edited by Councillor FWH Migeod (1938)

A Town’s Pride: Victorian Lifeboatmen &amp their Community by Rob Blann (1990)

Typhoid, Bombs and Matron: The History of Worthing Hospital by Paul Holden (1992)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.