I went to a meeting yesterday and afterward, I sat and talked to my boss about the past. This is his story of his great grandfather…

Bow, like the rest of London,lay in the grip of smallpox… Archie, aged 6, got up to do his usual job of waking the butcher at 5.30 so he could get the shop ready for his customers.  This morning, he felt unwell. His head felt as if someone was repeatedly jumping on it, and his bones, no his whole body,  ached. Fishing in his pocket for a handkerchief, to wipe the end of his nose, he set off at a trot up Spanby Road, then turned into Swaton, crossed Rounton and ended up in Campbell. The butcher’s house was number 47. He knocked repeatedly, until the window shot open and Mr Babbage, shouted,”Enough!” at him, then turned tail and scooted home again. When he got there,he was dripping sweat, and appeared to be running a fever. His pa, the only other family member up at that time, took one look at him and said ‘Off to Sawbones with you!” So he duly trotted around the corner to Dr Ketson in Fern Street.

The doctor took one look at Archie who, by now, had a face like a lightly cooked beetroot, and pointing  in the direction of the river,  said gruffly ‘To the boats with you!” Archie’s heart sank. He stopped jogging, and  slowing down, almost dragged himself  south, in the direction of the Thames, towards West India Dock.   Once there, he went to the nearest muster point.

There was a River Ambulance lighter, bobbing in the bracken water. It was tied to a stanchion onshore and people were being hustled onto the vessel. He joined them. The small boat was punted out into the river by the helmsman, who wore a mask which covered his face, all but his eyes. Once away from the shore,   they all knew where they were headed, to the two old wooden warships and one iron paddle steamer, moored off Long Reach, a little way from London Bridge,  in the middle of the river. They had  been moored at Deptford Creek, near Greenwich, but the Commission had decided to move them here in1881. The  Atlas carried  male patients, both the acute cases and those others less ill who had caught the dreaded disease, the Castalia  was for female patients.  The Endymion was used for administration and stores. This was London’s logical solution to keeping those slowly decaying and dying away from the rest of the populace… in the middle of the river on boats.

Once close, Archie was shunted up onto the Atlas. He was small for his age, and scared. He knew no one and none knew him. He acclimatised…  On close inspection, the Atlas appeared to be made up of  four decks of patients; the main, lower and orlop decks and what appeared to be an isolation ward on the upper. He wandered where he could. He also came across the dispensary and the sleeping quarters for all the medical staff on board and a strange, rather complicated gangway that tethered the boats together in a line. It allowed for the rise and fall of the tide and the lateral movement of the vessels.

Archie soon worked out that new arrivals were delivered to reception rooms on the orlop deck and then taken in a lift to the upper deck if necessary. Being small and insignificant, Archie was not one of them, he was simply overlooked. The air was poor, because the only windows were the old gun ports, and the ceilings were far too low so  the boat proved  cramped, unforgiving,  airless. He melted into the fabric of the ship. No one seemed to notice him until one day a medical orderly thrust a brush in his hand and said, ‘If you are still on your feet mate, you have to earn your keep. Sweep!” So Archie swept. From morning till night, from the top of the ship to the bottom and back, only stopping for meals.These were brought over from the kitchens on the Endymion.

He swept the sloughing flesh of the smallpox patients, that sheered from their faces, their limbs, their bodies, leaving tell-tale craters.  The skin fell like small, imperfect coins on to the deck…When he brushed they rustled and he could smell the rot. When he brushed he half-closed his eyes and thought of his mother. With each forward stroke he gathered up more and yet more ‘seeds’ and swept them over the side into the water below…