Ports, Past and Present

Port Health in Wales and Ireland

Port health has been an important aspect of public health since at least the middle ages. The practise of quarantine began in the early modern period, and focused in particular on ensuring isolation for a period of forty days during outbreaks of the plague. The use of quarantine continued when necessary throughout the early modern period and into the nineteenth century, by which time the ports of Britain were bustling with people, ships, and cargo. A number of Parliamentary Acts were passed with regards to health and movement, their aim being to prevent any infectious diseases that could spread through the population from entering the country whilst also maintaining trade and travel links between Britain and the world.

Whilst quarantine prevented diseases from spreading by curtailing the movement of people and goods, it only worked if a disease had been identified. When the so-called Spanish Flu entered Dublin Port in 1918 this was not the case – the disease came into the country among soldiers returning from the First World War. Although termed the ‘Spanish Flu’, the disease may have originated in Kansas and then spread to the battlefields of Europe and ultimately around the world as the soldiers in France and Flanders returned home.(1) It acquired the name ‘Spanish Flu’ as Spain – as a neutral country during the war – was the first to make a public declaration of the instance of the disease on its soil. The belligerent nations of Europe were hesitant to provide their enemies with any encouragement that news of the disease within their own territories might engender.

A monster representing an influenza virus hitting a man over the head as he sits in his armchair. Pen and ink drawing by E. Noble, c. 1918. Wellcome Collection, CC-BY license.

Wherever the disease came from, it was spread by the movement of people. During the war, people found themselves uprooted, in unsanitary camps, and vulnerable to infection. Furthermore, large numbers of people were on the move, which allowed diseases to spread from camp to ship, from ship to port, and on to the city and the country beyond.(2) Dr Kathleen Lynn, a female doctor in Dublin, called for returning soldiers to be quarantined and their uniforms disinfected – she referred to the front in Flanders as a ‘factory of fever’.(3) However, by the time this occurred the disease had already spread, exacerbated by civilian travel across the Irish Sea. The disease caused mass deaths on a scale not witnessed in living memory, both in Ireland and across the globe.

Although Wales did not escape the ‘Spanish Flu’, the disease did not enter the country through the three ports under study in the Ports, Past and Present project. However, the memory of the disease did inspire further concentration on port health across the Welsh ports. The records of the Medical Officer of Health that cover the Welsh ports in the middle of the twentieth century have survived, and provide us with an overview of the health of the ports under examination. In particular, the records detail the ways in which the port authorities sought to ensure that the port environment remained a healthy one. Ships were examined – particularly the sailors’ quarters, including their sleeping and cooking areas – to protect both the health of the sailors and those living in the port towns,(4) as sailors often took leave within the town between sailings. By thoroughly examining those entering the port, the authorities were able to assure the town that visiting sailors were not bringing potentially deadly diseases into the local area.

In addition to sailors, animals – both alive and as meat to be sold – were transported into the Welsh ports. Live animals, frequently but not exclusively horses, were removed from ships as soon as possible and immediately taken to quarantine. Whilst in quarantine the animals were fed and watered, given comfortable accommodation, and cared for by a veterinary officer. Those who were found to be healthy were permitted to continue to their destination. Those who were found to be sick were slaughtered and underwent a post-mortem examination to ensure they had not succumbed to an infectious disease that could be transmitted to humans.(5) Any meat products that were transported into Welsh ports that were found to be unfit for human consumption were burned. An example of this occurred at Fishguard in 1955, when 48lbs of beef (bruised), 2 bovine heads, 14 bovine livers, 6 horse livers and 6 horse lites were destroyed.(6) Food imported into Fishguard and Holyhead rarely stayed in the local area. Instead, it was often sent on to London. Therefore, the Sanitary Officers at the ports were responsible not just for ensuring the health of the people in the port towns and their surrounding environs, but for protecting the nation as a whole from the spread of contaminated produce and from outbreaks of preventable illnesses.(7)

(1) Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World (London: Vintage, 2017), pp. 163-4.

(2) Spinney, Pale Rider, p. 23.

(3) John Dorney, Ireland and the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918, https://www.theirishstory.com/2013/05/16/ireland-and-the-great-flu-epidemic-of-1918/#.Xntoxoj7TIU

(4) Fishguard Medical Officer of Health Report, 1954.

(5) Fishguard Medical Officer of Health Report, 1955.

(6) Fishguard Medical Officer of Health Report, 1955.

(7) Holyhead Medical Officer of Health Report, 1954.

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