MIDDLESBROUGH was not a healthy place to live – if the industrial smog hanging heavily in the damp air beneath the Cleveland Hills didn’t get you then you were, quite literally, in danger of drowning in your own sewage.

It was against this backdrop of unhealthiness that one of the last, horrible epidemics struck in the region in 1898 – you may have seen on Wednesday’s sports pages how the Boro had refused to self-isolate themselves even though their town was ravaged by smallpox, and they went on to win the FA Amateur Cup.

Middlesbrough is an extraordinary place: in 1801, there were fewer than 50 people living there; by 1901, there were more than 90,000. It was the fastest growing town in Victorian England.

The first settlers in the 1830s were crammed onto damp, drained marshland beside the Tees at Port Darlington to work in the Stockton & Darlington Railway’s port activities; the mid-Victorian settlers were squeezed onto salt plains raised by slag and rubbish so they could work in the new ironworks.

The smoke from the works’ chimneys collected beneath the Cleveland Hills and for half the year, the town was blanketed in smog.

And because it was low-lying on a level with the river, twice a day its sewers were tide-locked, and when a high tide coincided with a heavy downpour, some of the tight terraced houses were inundated with their own sewage.

Cholera, typhoid, scarlet fever and “Middlesbrough Pneumonia” were regular visitors. At the end of the 19th Century, pneumonia was practically ever-present in the Boro, although the epidemic of 1888 was particularly virulent.

The victim’s temperature rose rapidly to 40 degrees on day one; by day two, vomiting and diarrhoea set in as the patient became delirious, and on day three, they started dying.

The Northern Echo: Dr Malcolmson Middlesbrough Medical Officer of Health who died during the Smallpox epidemic 1898 (courtesy of Middlesbrough Libraries)Dr Malcolmson Middlesbrough Medical Officer of Health who died during the Smallpox epidemic 1898 (courtesy of Middlesbrough Libraries)

Dr John Malcolmson, an Irishman who’d arrived in town in 1873 to work at the North Riding Infirmary and became the Medical Officer of Health, called it a “serious and fatal epidemic”.

It killed at least 388 people in 1888. Three times more people per head of population died of pneumonia in Middlesbrough than did in Darlington.

Then add another variable into the unhealthy Middlesbrough mix: it was a port, with ships arriving for foreign parts – three or four a day from Bilbao carrying Spanish iron ore - bringing foreign infections with them.

The Northern Echo: The smallpox virus came ashore at Middlesbrough docks on a ship from SpainThe smallpox virus came ashore at Middlesbrough docks on a ship from Spain

In November 1898, a sailor arrived home from Bilbao with smallpox. While he went to hospital, his wife was part of the crowd who enjoyed a visiting “wild beast show” unaware she was contagious. The sailor was not isolated, but was instead sent home to continue passing on the disease.

He recovered; an Irish female neighbour didn’t. Indeed, her body lay at the centre of her family’s two-day wake, shedding the virus.

By February, the epidemic was national news. On March 1, poor Dr Malcolmson died of a stroke aged only 46. It was said that “the increased smallpox in the town had produced overwork and worry, which quite undermined his health”.

Fear of contagion spread. Darlington council urged its football club not to allow the Feethams ground to be used as the neutral venue for Middlesbrough FC’s semi-final match against Thornaby. With Middlesbrough refusing the demand from the Football Association in London to scratch the match, it was eventually held behind closed doors and in secret in Brotton – Boro won, and went on to lift the trophy in the final at Crystal Palace.

The Northern Echo: The Story of the Small Pox Epidemic in Middlesbrough (Middlesbrough Libraries)The Story of the Small Pox Epidemic in Middlesbrough (Middlesbrough Libraries)

With the death toll rising, Dr Malcolmson’s replacement, Dr Charles Dingle, expressed his dismay at how patients were unwilling to be isolated – even at the town’s sanatorium.

He said: “Patients were observed climbing on the boundary walls talking to their friends, and even shaking hands. At one period during the afternoon the Grounds of the Hospital were invaded by the outside public.” He urged Middlesbrough council to employ men to act as guards to keep the patients in the sanatorium.

A major part of Middlesbrough’s problem was a lack of beds. Fortunately, after two years of building, a 130-bed lunatic asylum was opened on June 15, 1898. Despite objections from the Lunacy Committee, the inmates were soon removed and it became an isolation hospital.

Still this wasn’t enough, and the council adopted a “military-style response” to build an emergency smallpox hospital. Workers were paid £4 a week and were as much tobacco and whisky as they could consume during working hours – this was regarded as disinfectant.

The hospital was built from corrugated iron, the wards given names like Dawson City, Klondyke and Kimberley to suggest the goldrush speed of the construction.

Visitors were forbidden, food parcels guarded by police.

The epidemic officially ended in August 1898, nine months after it had began. About 1,400 people had contracted the virus, of whom 201 died – 107 of them children under ten.

For the survivors, the economic effects were long lasting. Industries like shipbuilding were said to have been “starved” to a standstill, and it took many years for Middlesbrough’s economy to recover.

Who says history never repeats itself?

SHOULD Saltburn funicular railway become just a historic artefact that poses on the side of the cliff rather than operate hauling people up and down it as it has done for 115 years?

That is the question being asked by a Redcar & Cleveland councillor who was querying the continued cost of keeping Britain’s oldest water-powered funicular railway in operation.

For those with dodgy knees, it is surely unthinkable that the lift should ever stop running. Indeed, the height of the cliff was a major obstacle in the establishment of Saltburn as a tourist resort 150 years ago.

John Anderson was the Darlington railway engineer who laid the town out and then built the 100-bedroom Alexandra Hotel on the very edge of the cliff. Then he designed the pier, so his visitors would have somewhere to stroll, and then he began drilling a lifeshaft so he could install an elevator to take them to the sea front.

When the drilling company ran into problems, Mr Anderson designed a fabulously rickety-looking cliff hoist on spindly wooden legs which were tethered to the cliffside by guyropes.

He was undeterred when the whole lot was blown away by a “hurricane” and opened his hoist on July 1, 1870.

A beach-goer stepped out from the cliff top onto a narrow walkway which led them out about 20 yards to a circular cage. They climbed into the cage, which held a maximum of 20 people, and then it plummeted them 120ft to beach level using waterpower.

Descent cost 1d. Ascent was 1.5d.

Such was the spidery nature of the structure that within 15 years its timbers were rotting and the cage had developed worrying habit of getting stuck half way up. It was demolished in late 1883 when work began on its replacement: the funicular railway.

“Funiculus” was a Latin word for an invisible filament that was believed to hold certain structures upright. A funicular railway, then, is one operated by a largely invisible rope or cable.

Scarborough had installed the first one, between 1869 and 1873, in the South Bay and had liked the concept so much that it had ordered two more – in fact, in total, Scarborough had five cliff lifts, although only two of them currently work.

Saltburn approached the South Bay engineer, Sir Richard Trevithick Tangye, who was a Cornishman whose works were based in Birmingham, and he sent his head of lifts, Sir George Marks, to design Saltburn’s. Installation seems to have been remarkably smooth, and the lift went into operation on June 28, 1884.

Fortunately, there are no signs that the lift is going to be relegated to the status of being a non-working adornment, which will disappoint the councillor – and probably the town’s small boys. In pre-lift days they had a lucrative sideline of lugging up buckets of brine to the clifftop for the dodgy knee brigade to paddle in. Cost: 1d a bucket.