Biological warfare in Bristol?


Danse_macabre_by_Michael_WolgemutHere’s another one of my favourite Bristol WW1 tales; a favourite because it contains a great big unanswered, and possibly unanswerable question.

Bubonic plague. Scary stuff because that’s, like, what the Black Death was about. The thing that killed maybe as much as half the population of Europe in the 14th century.

It’s always been around, though, and still hasn’t gone away. So in Britain in 1914 the authorities in sea-ports were always on the lookout for it. It did sometimes enter the country carried by seafarers or rats on ships.

So, common enough, but still alarming.

In the summer of 1916, responding to lurid rumours of an outbreak in the city, the local Medical Officer of Health, Dr D.S. Davies, issued a statement that there was no epidemic, but that three patients – two men and a boy – had presented with a “mild form” of the disease. They had been isolated at Ham Green hospital and all, he said, were making a good recovery.

Inquiries traced the infection to rats at Avonmouth, but Dr Davies later told a meeting of the council’s Health Committee that he did not believe the rats had come into the port on a ship. He suggested that plague-infested rats may have been deliberately introduced to Bristol over land.

Dr Davies oversaw a team of over 30 men disposing of potentially infected material at the warehouse, principally 200 tons of rags (presumably destined for paper manufacture). The dock workers involved in this task were each paid £5 – over a fortnight’s wages – each day and had to go to Ham Green for a disinfectant bath at the end of each shift. By September, after several hundred rats had been caught and tested at a special laboratory set up in Avonmouth, Dr Davies declared Bristol plague-free.

Whether we’ll ever know if enemy agents tried to give Bristol a serious dose of Black Death in 1916 is another matter.

All this and more in ‘Bravo, Bristol! The City at War 1914-18’ by Byrne and Burlton, in local shops and on tinternet soon.

Come to the launch do if you fancy it; it’s free, but you need to book:



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