BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fever! The Year Worthing Died …’

Fever! The Year Worthing Died. A comprehensive account of the 1893 Worthing Typhoid Epidemic.

Edited by Colin Reid. Price £14.99. Published by the Friends of Broadwater and Worthing Cemetery, October 2023.

The Worthing Typhoid Epidemic of 1893 was the greatest disaster ever to befall this seaside town, made worse at the time by the misguided incompetence of the Town Council and the way certain people exploited the situation to make themselves rich. Nearly 200 people died and the town turned into the ‘city of the dead’. The epidemic destroyed the carefully nurtured image of Worthing as a healthy seaside resort and the town never fully recovered.

This new book is the first comprehensive account of this terrible tragedy, covering many different aspects of the disaster, with detailed analysis and research; including a full list of all those who sadly died from the disease. It was written by a group of local researchers, which includes Colin Reid, Mary Mckeown, Chris Hare, Malcolm Linfield, Caroline Nelson and Marion Woolgar. Full of fascinating photos, it is a compelling read for all those with an interest in the history of Worthing and who may have family connections with the events described.

One of the portable drinking water tanks, High Street, 1893

Since the early development of Worthing at the start of the 19th century as a new seaside resort to rival Brighton, the problems of sanitation were a persistent problem. Open drains carried sewage to the seafront, where it was dumped on the beech to await the tides whilst fresh water was provided by hundreds of wells, often in close proximity to cesspools. This was a recipe for disaster, which unsurprisingly lead to many isolated cases of typhoid. The creation of a Local Board of Health in 1852 sought to address these problems and during the 1850s built a new waterworks in Anchor Lane, where fresh water was pumped from a number of boreholes to a water tower which held 110,000 gallons and provided water to every household using gravity as the means of distribution. However, a threefold increase in population to 16,000 meant that by 1890 the tank was often running out.  A decision was made to sink a new shaft in March 1893 to solve the problem, but soon after a number of people in the town started to feel very ill with diarrhoea and there was a serious outbreak of typhoid. By mid-June, there had been 38 deaths.

New water tower and waterworks in Anchor Lane, completed in 1857

Sadly, a lot of bitterness and controversy emanated from the typhoid epidemic. There were essentially two different sides to the story, which for the sake of simplicity we will call the ‘Baddies’ and the ‘Goodies’. The ‘Baddies’ fall into two categories, the first of which was the Town Council itself which was vilified for ignoring the dangers, and appeared more concerned with protecting Worthing’s reputation as a healthy seaside resort. They basically instigated a cover-up, hiding the seriousness of the unfolding events which were happening in the town. Once the disease was traced to the contamination of the water supply, presumably from a cesspool in the vicinity of the new shaft, the Sanitary Committee had the system ‘flushed out’ with sea water. Then, with indecent haste, and with no proof whatsoever that the measure had actually worked, the Mayor, Edward Patching, informed the London Press on 21 June that the problem was over – blaming the nocturnal habits of the brick-setters, which was a scandalous accusation and completely unfounded.

Worthing Town Council, 1890. Frederick Caesar Linfield is sitting on the floor, second from the left.

This was a very dangerous game to play. People stopped boiling their water, and by mid-July, the disease returned with a vengeance with more than over 800 cases and 65 deaths recorded. The town councillors had to board up their houses to escape the anger of the mob, whilst Patching and many of the councillors fled the town with their families to escape the epidemic, happy to leave people to fend for themselves.

Mayor Edward Patching

The other group of ‘Baddies’ were those people who allegedly profited from the Typhoid Epidemic,  known locally as the ‘Forty Thieves’. The legend of the ‘Forty Thieves’ went back long before the Epidemic and was used to describe senior members of the Old Local Board and their cronies who dabbled in dubious property deals to make themselves rich. The Typhoid Epidemic provided these people with new opportunities to make money, and there are many stories of people grabbing vacant land and claiming squatter’s rights. A lot of property was bought at rock bottom fever prices and later sold at vast profit. But the difficulty arises when we try to identify these individuals, as there is little direct proof as to who was involved. A lot of hearsay surrounds the possible identity of some of them, but often with no more substance than they included various individuals who became very wealthy without any apparent evidence to show how! Among some suggested names have been Alfred Cortis, Worthing’s first Mayor, Alderman Denton ‘the great benefactor of the town’, the Jordan family and William Verrall, the solicitor. One story which circulated was of Patching and Denton demanding the rents from tenants whose landlords had died from the fever.

The Linfield Brothers: William Henry Linfield, Relieving Officer for the Worthing District and Registrar of Births and Deaths, Arthur George Linfield, Fruit Grower, and Councillor Frederick Caesar Linfield, pictured in his mayoral robes in 1906

However, luckily, there were also the ‘Goodies’ and it’s good to know that the Linfield Brothers came in for a lot of praise for the efforts they made to help the sick. William was Relieving Officer for the town, Arthur was one of the East Preston Guardians and Frederick a local businessman and Town Councillor. They all went out, often together, to fetch the sick from their homes to take to the temporary hospitals, as well as taking blankets and provisions to those who needed them. Frederick proved that not all the Councillors were bad – this was shown by the verdict of the people when he was one of only two councillors to be re-elected in the council elections in November 1893. He was also promoted to Alderman. However, Frederick also took the greatest risks, collecting bodies from the hospitals and conveying them to the local mortuary. As a result, he suffered a serious health breakdown himself which took him a number of years to get over. Both Frederick and Arthur helped to set up some of the temporary hospitals, and one of the photos shows the hospital set up by the East Preston Guardians at the ‘Hollies’ at the north end of High Street. Both can be seen in the photo.

Apart from telling the story of the Linfields, I also wrote the chapter on relief funds, set up in Worthing to assist families suffering hardship because of the epidemic. By far the largest of these was the Mayor’s Relief Fund, set up by the Mayor Edward Patching. A minor fund was also set up by Wesleyan Methodist minister Thomas Evans. Patching worked exceedingly hard to make his fund a success, and in some respects, it helped to partially redeem his reckless behaviour in the early days of the epidemic. A Committee of Councillors was appointed, which included Frederick Linfield, who worked very hard, meeting every morning for several weeks to examine many hundreds of applications. One hard and fast rule was not to give relief directly in money.

Provident House today, where the Soup Kitchen was operated to make gallons of beef tea and distribute coal and groceries to the poor.

From 11 July, the Soup Kitchen in Grafton Road was placed at the full disposal of the Committee by the Provident & Relief Society, which was perhaps the most important funding commitment of the Relief Fund. Some 200lbs of beef was used daily to make beef tea, and the kitchen provided groceries and coal to nearly 200 families. However, it soon became apparent that the crisis was going to need outside help on a much grander scale.

Appeals were sent out to the London and provincial papers, which led to a fantastic response. The Mayor of Brighton one of the first to set up his own fund and his example encouraged mayors in other Sussex towns to do the same. By the end of August funds from all sources had leaped to nearly £4000. The most amazing response came fromthe general public who found dozens of ways to raise money. Included among them were farm workers who forfeited their harvest home celebrations to donate the cost; cricket benefit matches, cycling events, parades, recitals, smoking concerts, street and church collections, swimming galas etc; donations in kind, including bottles of port, brandy and whisky, renowned for their medicinal qualities; and even in India, the Royal Sussex Regiment put on a ‘variety entertainment’, raising 200 rupees for the Fund.

This short summary hopefully gives an idea of the interesting story which the book seeks to tell. After the epidemic was over, a new network of pipes were laid beneath the town’s streets to bring fresh water from a new waterworks at Broadwater. This was completed in 1894, and the following photograph shows the trenches being dug in Ann Street.

New water pipes being laid in Ann Street, looking east.

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