IN THE first of a three-part series, Mark Muller looks at how a typhoid epidemic rocked Haverfordwest.

In the late 1800s, Haverfordwest Town Council was sitting pretty; it had survived a scandal that declared it so corrupt as to need remodelling (by Act of Parliament no less), and was basking in its new offices in St Mary’s Street, in the relatively new townscape created largely by architect and town planner William Owen.

But in 1880 it failed again, and this time it cost lives. The overall incompetence had such an impact on the populace that Sir George Buchanan of the Government Medical Department sent someone remarkable to Pembrokeshire by the name of Dr Henry Franklin Parsons.

This man was a polymath who wrote expertly on geology and botanical matters, as well as being a leading figure in the prevention of infectious diseases.

He was sent to investigate why the local authority had allowed an epidemic of typhoid to spread through the town and area, and done nothing about it.

And additionally why they had repeatedly failed to answer letters from the Government asking what was happening; why it was happening and what they were doing about it.

What he produced and submitted as his January 1881 report is a truly remarkable document.

In the 6,000 word account, he seeks the reasons for the appearance and spread of the disease and goes about it in the manner that we might expect Sherlock Holmes to address a particularly difficult case.

What comes out is intriguing, disgusting, tragic and shameful.

Understanding killer diseases and how to treat or prevent them is extremely modern.

Cholera, typhus and typhoid (along with a host of others) ravaged this country during the 19th century, killing tens of thousands, with medical attitudes still suggesting ‘warm baths’ or ‘bleeding’ to be the best course of action.

Even when it had to finally be acknowledged that cleanliness, proper sanitation and untainted drinking water were essential, there was a reluctance amongst authorities capable of bringing about any change to do anything.

This was mainly due to legislation up to the 1870s being permissive rather than compulsive, but was also due to land and property owners, who formed the membership of all powerful committees, shrinking away from introducing changes that might have to be funded by a rise in rates or meant that unfit properties which they were renting out needed modernisation... such as a toilet... and what is meant here is an outside toilet, or privy as it was called, nothing fancy like an inside one; quite often there was nothing at all.

Typhoid had appeared in small outbreaks in Pembrokeshire in 1871, 1874, 1879 but in 1880 it appeared again, only this time it was major.

Dr Parsons started his report by describing the town of Haverfordwest as, ‘...occupying a steep site cut into at right angles by the valleys of two or three small streams.’

‘The plan of the town is irregular and in the central part the houses are very much crowded together, some having no open space whatever belonging to them, and many, very little, and that surrounded by high buildings and capable of access only through the house," he continues.

'There are no manufactures: the inhabitants belong to the classes usually resident in the county and market town of an agricultural district.

'The population of the borough was 6,622 in 1871, and is not likely to have increased since then.

'The area of the borough is 1,700 acres; it comprises portions of 6 different parishes...’

He says on his arrival he had been told that, prior to the epidemic, there had been no typhoid prevalent in Haverfordwest, but his early research indicated that between 1870 and 1879 there had been 58 deaths in and around the town.

And further, when questioned about the causes of this by the newly formed, London-based Local Government Board early in the decade, the Town Council had been unable to ‘throw any light on the causes of the outbreak’.

Thankfully I can add that I have every confidence in the current outgoing mayor of Haverfordwest, Councillor Sue Murray, who I think is doing a superb job.

Next week, we take a closer look at Dr Parsons’ meticulous, in-depth report. If you are squeamish, you may not enjoy the next two instalments...