My late uncle Alfred Guy would tell stories of armies of rats moving between ships and warehouses when he served as a policeman at Liverpool’s docks in the 1930s. It was always in the dead of night when the vermin surged past him looking for holds full of grain or piles of food-filled sacks.
Seafarers have always dreaded illness and disease breaking out on board ship and in the past scourges like scurvy could decimate crews made vulnerable by poor food. Vessels were infested with vermin such as rats and cockroaches which could bring infections that spread like wildfire in the days before immunisation and antibiotics. There were tales of derelicts – ships found drifting months and even years after all the crew members had died from disease.
Before the Second World War mariners were particularly vulnerable to illness. This was due largely to their unhealthy diet and bad conditions on board. Other reasons were the poor health of new recruits and the exposure of many crews to highly-infectious diseases, especially on voyages to tropical countries. Although the situation has improved greatly since the 1940s, merchant seafaring is still a relatively unhealthy occupation.
More than 200 years ago slave ships were particularly unhealthy. Over one fifth of seamen on Liverpool and Bristol slave ships in the late 18th century died due to illness on the voyage.
Between 1918 and 1939 merchant seamen were three times more likely to die of TB than the average British male.
The Seamen’s Hospital Society was established in 1821 and incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1833. Today it is a UK charity which helps people currently or previously employed in the Merchant Navy or fishing fleets and their dependents. From 1821 to 1870 the Society ran Seaman’s Infirmaries on former warships before moving ashore as the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital, Greenwich, named after its last floating home. Today the hospital continues as the Dreadnought Unit at University College Hospitals London.
Merseyside Maritime Museum has a display focusing on disease and illness at sea. There are examples of surgical tools used on vessels. From 1894, all foreign-going British ships carrying more than 100 people were required to carry a qualified surgeon.
A large wooden medicine chest for seafarers contains glass medicine bottles, pestle and mortar and scales. It dates from 1854 which was the year British ships were required to carry medical equipment and stores for the treatment of illness and injury.
This photograph shows apprentices dhobying (washing their clothes) on the Brocklebank Line’s Malakand about 1910.
A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.