Photo: ITV Wales

LITTLE IS known about the traveller who brought smallpox to Wales. Shuka Mia was a young man who travelled from Dacca, in what is now Bangladesh, to West Pakistan towards the end of 1961 with the aim of coming to Britain. He waited for two months in Karachi and on 27 December he was issued with an International Certificate stating that he had been revaccinated against smallpox. It was two weeks before he left for London, apparently unaffected by the epidemic in the southern Pakistani port. According to the official report, on 12 January he travelled by taxi from London to Birmingham where he stayed the night before continuing his journey to south Wales by train the next day.

By the time he reached Cardiff, he was feeling unwell, but from the central station it was a short walk to his destination, the Calcutta Restaurant. One of the first curry houses in Wales, it stood on Bridge Street, between the city centre and the Docks, with their cosmopolitan population. It was here, in a flat above the restaurant, that the immigrant stayed until he was admitted to hospital on 15th. The flat, it seems, was a meeting place for friends of the café-owner and an unofficial ‘gambling den’. Shuka Mia – ill though he was – received visitors ‘both by day and night’. See an official telex from 1962.

The specialist who confirmed the diagnosis of smallpox had a different account of Shuka Mia’s route to Cardiff.  Speaking in 2002, Prof. John Pathy said the visitor arrived at London Airport and took a taxi to Butetown in Cardiff.  Failing to find the people he was looking for, he travelled to Birmingham and stayed the night there before returning to Wales and the Calcutta Restaurant next day.  If this version is correct, then some of his contacts were never traced in spite of a massive operation.

The Calcutta Restaurant

Photo: ITV Wales

It is difficult to separate fact from myth in the story of the role the Calcutta Restaurant (also known as the Calcutta Cafe) played in the smallpox outbreak. In popular legend, still current in the Rhondda, the restaurant is sited in the Docks, which had a reputation throughout South Wales as a haunt of prostitutes and sailors: anyone visiting from the valleys was asking for trouble and there is still a widespread belief, among the generation who lived through the outbreak, that someone from Rhondda who visited the café for dubious reasons brought the virus back to the valleys. As we shall see, no firm evidence was ever found to identify this crucial character (if he or she existed); but the authors of the official report on the outbreak had to resort to contorted theories to explain any other mechanism by which smallpox spread. Prof. John Pathy (in 2002) said he knew that Mia had been visited by someone from the Rhondda who sat on the end of his bed chatting to him. (See the official report of a 15-year-old girl from Tonteg who had contact with him.)

When he arrived in Cardiff, Shuka Mia may have been suffering from headache, backache and a raised temperature. But over the weekend he became seriously ill. On Monday 15 January, Dr John White, a local GP was asked to call and see him; he noticed flu-like symptoms and a high temperature. It was only after leaving the flat and while preparing to drive away that he had second thoughts: the fact that the patient had recently left Pakistan (and, no doubt, his awareness of the cases in England) prompted the doctor to suspect smallpox. If he had not done so, what became a bad situation might well have become much worse. On that day, it was reported that 13 people had died of smallpox in Karachi during the previous 48 hours, but the authorities in Pakistan were reported as saying that the whole population of more than two million would have been vaccinated by the night of the 14th.  Dr White contacted the Medical Officer of Health and Shuka Mia was sent to the Lansdowne Isolation Hospital in the west of the city. (See The doctor who spotted the first smallpox case, below).

It was at the isolation hospital that the patient was examined by Prof John Pathy, a smallpox expert who was to play a central – but secret part – in the fight against the virus in Wales. Pathy diagnosed smallpox (which was later confirmed by laboratory tests) and noted that Mia bore none of the marks of successful primary vaccination, though scratch marks on his forearm were compatible with an attempted vaccination on the date of his International Certificate. John Pathy’s first reaction was that the patient should not have been admitted to the isolation hospital but sent directly to a special smallpox hospital. The nurses on the ward where Shuka Mia had spent the night were put into quarantine (see ‘I nursed the smallpox victim’ below) .

Penrhys Smallpox Hospital

Gates of Penrhys Smallpox Hospital
Photo: ITV Wales

Arrangements were made for Shuka Mia’s transfer by ambulance to the collection of huts on Penrhys mountain above the Rhondda valleys, which was the designated smallpox hospital for south Wales. The resident caretaker and his wife opened up the buildings at Penrhys in preparation for the arrival of the patient and nursing staff – volunteers from the nearby Tyntyla isolation hospital. Vernon Bryant was a Health Inspector in the Rhondda and was sent to prepare the hospital.  Speaking in 2002 he said it had not been opened for years and there was a lot of cleaning to be done.  The nurses from Tyntyla brought everything they needed.  Only certain people were allowed to come and go (including Dr Pathy) – the Health Inspectors did their work on the outside. Mr Bryant remembered a handbell outside the gate, which they rang when they left food outside so that – once they had gone away – the staff from inside could collect it.

It was reported that the ambulance driver from Cardiff did not know the way and made a lengthy detour before asking a policeman for directions to Penrhys; according to the story, he did so without opening the window (see The police officer who directed the ambulance, below).

When he arrived, Mia came under the care of Dr Jim Thomas, a member of the Smallpox Panel, who (as a result) was unable to assist more widely in the battle against the virus when it spread first to the Rhondda and Llantrisant area and then further west. Along with the nurses and the caretaker and his wife, Dr Thomas was to spend more than two months in isolation on the windswept mountain top, caring for eleven patients in all.

>> The search for contacts in Cardiff

5 thoughts on “Cardiff

    Rachel Hughes contacted the site to say that her husband, Rhydian Hughes (then a Police Constable) was the person who gave directions to the ambulance driver who was carrying Shuka Mia to the hospital at Penrhys. Mr Hughes (who was later a police sergeant, based at Treorchy) died in 2004. He told his wife in 1962 how he had been on duty in Stag Square, Treorchy when an ambulance drew up. He motioned to the driver to wind down the window, but he refused – putting his head close to the glass to ask the way to the isolation hospital. PC Hughes could not understand why he would not open the window, though he could see someone lying in the back of the ambulance. Later he saw film on TV of the contents of the ambulance being burned and realised what he’d been involved in. As a precaution, Mrs Hughes remembered, vaccine was sent up to Rhondda to be given to her husband by his GP, Dr Walter Williams of Treherbert.

    My Father, Dr John White, was the “local GP” who suspected that Shuka Mia had smallpox. He was in practice with my grandfather Dr A.H. Mitchell and my mother Dr. I.F.A. White and Dr. D.Milward in a surgery on James Street, Butetown.

    My father was called out to the Calcutta Café on a normal call, after he had visited Shuka Mia he went home and discussed the symptoms with my mother, she said that if there was any doubt the patient had to be isolated and so dad returned to the Café and arranged for the patient to be taken to Lansdowne Isolation Hospital. Afterwards he called back at the James St. surgery and described the symptoms to my grandfather. As dad described the symptoms my grandfather went to the fridge, got out a smallpox vaccine and injected himself whilst my father was talking. My grandfather had studied at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and had practiced in Kenya, so he knew exactly what they were facing.

    From my perspective as an 8 year old, at the time, two things stand out.

    My birthday had been earlier that week and a party had been arranged for the Tuesday evening after school. Invitations had been sent out and RSVP’s gathered, anticipation was high. However early that afternoon the school received a call; my party was off! Brightly wrapped presents were handed over and most of my friends went home with their parents, but some parents could not be contacted and so four of us set off in my father’s car for home. The party went ahead as planned with the additional inconvenience of us having to drop our shorts and be vaccinated before the festivities could commence. At least some of my friends were amongst the first to be protected against the disease.

    My parents operated their GP surgery from our home in Llandaff, the house was on a corner and patients came in through a side door at the rear of the house. However immediately after the announcement of smallpox the demand for vaccination was so high that a one-way system had to be instituted with patients queuing down the side of the house and out onto Cardiff Road. My mother was set up in the surgery and my father in the kitchen, vaccinating as many people as they could. One stream of patients went out through the front door and the other through the kitchen and out via the back door.

    Vaccination sessions in the James Street surgery were conducted with my father and Dr. Milward sitting back-to-back on dining chairs vaccinating twin lines of school children. These vaccines were the scratch rather than the older injection based ones, so my father would say “You’re going to feel a little scratch like a cat” then he’d say “Meow” as he gave the inoculation. After they had done a few hundred each an exasperated Dr. Milward said to my father “If I have to hear you go “meow” one more time, I’m going home!

    Glenys Taylor of Tredegar contacted this site to say that she was a nurse on night duty when Shuka Mia arrived at Lansdowne Hospital in Cardiff. He was ‘quite poorly’ and she could not remember him talking. ‘We were told it was suspected smallpox. Next day, everything took off. The whole hospital went into isolation. We had a ward for ante-natal patients, who would normally be sent on to St David’s Hospital, but they couldn’t be transferred and we had a birth there.’ She remembered a ward devoted to patients suffering from vaccinia – a potentially serious reaction to the smallpox vaccine. Among those who died of vaccinia she remembered one man from Tredegar, by the name of Pinney.

    Roger Mitchell commented (‘What do you remember’): As a result of having two doses of vaccine I contacted encephalitis and was in a coma for six weeks waking up in Landsowne Hospital in Cardiff.

    contacted this site to say:
    ‘I travelled on the train from Port Talbot to Neath that Shuka Mia had used to come to Cardiff from Birmingham, and was told a few days later by the station staff at Neath to get vaccinated as soon as possible. This I did, and had flu like symptoms and an aching arm for a few days. My wife was also vaccinated, and we lost our first born child in early 1963. I often think that this was due to the vaccination given at this time, as I also recall the ill effects that the vaccination had on other members of the family and on the local community at the time.’

  5. As a first year apprentice at Guest Keen Iron and Steelworks, 1962-1967 was the the talk of the day. Some of the apprentices were from the valleys, the remainder mainly from Cardiff and surrounds. The mass inoculations were very apparent. I remember the small inoculated scratch on my right arm. The after effects were minimal, although many had very unpleasant reactions. Fortunately, the epidemic was under control in a relatively short time and South Wales became clear before or during the summer of the same year. Of course vaccines were already available. Today smallpox has been eliminated globally. Unfortunately we now have other “viruses” contaminating the world, such as COVID-19. Vaccines still have to be researched, proven and supplied.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s