Rhondda

‘A STORM WHOSE SEVERITY COULD NOT BE FORETOLD’

Cwm Parc Rhondda 1962 Ben Brooksbank CC

Cwm Parc, Rhondda 1962 (Photo: (C) Ben Brooksbank [Creative Commons])

The Rhondda district of south Wales was the heart of the Welsh coal mining industry. The towns and villages, with their typical terraced houses, lie along the bottom of the two Rhondda valleys and cling to the steep hillsides. People lived – and worked – close together; these were famously tight-knit communities. If smallpox broke out here, the virus could spread quickly and fighting it would be a massive task.

Although Shuka Mia had been sent to the Rhondda to be isolated in the Penrhys smallpox hospital, there was no reason to fear that the virus would escape from the windswept mountain top where he was being held. The people of the two valleys felt no more at risk than anyone else in Britain.

Then, on 25 February, in the words of the man who would spearhead the battle against the virus, there broke on the Rhondda ‘a storm whose severity could not be foretold’. As medical officer of health for the Rhondda valleys, Dr Roy Morley-Davies had overseen the vaccination of hospital and other medical staff in the area when the Penrhys hospital was opened to receive Shukah Mia in mid January. But on that Sunday he was confronted by the appalling fact that the smallpox virus was on the loose in the Rhondda. Two unexplained cases were identified on the same day; both came to light in the Llantrisant area, but as the trail was uncovered, it led to the very north of the Rhondda valleys – 20 miles away.

The story of the Rhondda outbreak is of great interest to anyone concerned about the possibility that smallpox might, once again, be loosed upon a British community. This was the only phase of the 1962 infections which was not nipped in the bud early; the authorities were caught on the hop and had to move fast to catch up. The official reports are clearly designed to show that the system worked, that the authorities coped, that the powers-that-be knew what they were doing. But the truth is that the virus played tricks on them, leaving questions which have not been satisfactorily answered 50 years on.

Reluctant to speak

It was the Rhondda outbreak which caught the public imagination and provoked a huge demand for vaccination. But it was also a human tragedy for the (fortunately few) families who were decimated by the disease and feelings are still raw. When I began to investigate the story, I met a great reluctance to talk about the outbreak among those who were closest to it. Dr Morley-Davies, the man responsible for managing the response to the crisis declined to add anything to the official report he wrote in 1962; the survivors of the families who lost loved-ones to the virus (including some who contracted smallpox themselves) were equally unwilling to speak to me.

The only exception was the husband of the woman whose unexplained infection brought smallpox to the valleys; and he spoke to me only to insist that she had not died from the virus. In another case, I was shown into the front room of a house in the Rhondda by a woman who was sure her husband would be happy to talk to me; but as soon as he found out what I wanted to speak to him about, he turned his back on me; I realised she must have been his second wife (the first had died of smallpox) and she clearly did not know how raw the subject remained for him.

Why were they so unwilling to talk? The answer to that question probably lies in the long memories of people in the valleys and the stories they remember about the source of the outbreak: several times I was told that smallpox was brought to the Rhondda by a member of one of the affected families who had been to Cardiff Docks either to visit a prostitute – or to work as one – at the time Shuka Mia was ill in the Calcutta Café. Since these stories were still current, it was perhaps understandable that people did not want to open old wounds and have themselves identified in connection with them; I was told that one of those who survived smallpox was never able to get a job after the outbreak: badly scarred with pock marks, he was ostracised and shunned in his own community. There is also the issue of ‘guilt’, whether that of the survivor or of someone who blames himself for having carried the disease. Only in the case of Dr Robert Hodkinson did I find people willing to talk about the impact of the virus on their lives.

The first cases in the valleys

Marion Jones, a 23-year-old married woman, became ill on 16 February in the mining village of Maerdy, at the top of the Rhondda Fach. She had a headache, felt generally unwell and was vomiting. Four days later, her condition was much worse and she was taken by ambulance to her mother’s home at Edmundstown, 15 miles to the south west. By this time she had a rash on her face and arms and the GP asked a medical consultant to examine her: he did not realise that she was displaying classic symptoms of smallpox and it was not until the 24th that he telephoned Dr Morley-Davies for advice. Next day, Mrs Jones was seen by a consultant dermatologist who was a member of the smallpox panel; it was the ninth day of her illness and only now was smallpox diagnosed. She was sent to Penrhys to join Shuka Mia.

>> Death of a doctor

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