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How bed bugs, vermin and fleas were zapped in Hackney's disinfecting station

PUBLISHED: 21:28 24 March 2019 | UPDATED: 21:34 24 March 2019

Vehicles and staff engaged in disinfectation in 1935. Photo show the rear entrance to the disinfecting chamber.  Picture: Hackney Archives

Vehicles and staff engaged in disinfectation in 1935. Photo show the rear entrance to the disinfecting chamber. Picture: Hackney Archives

Hackney Archives

​Hackney's disinfecting station was opened to deal with infestations and deadly infectious diseases before antibiotics, vaccines and the NHS came on the scene. Emma Bartholomew finds more about the gas chambers where bed bugs, lice and fleas were zapped

Disinfecting Station, ironing room in 1935, The hot water tank survives. Picture: Hackney ArchivesDisinfecting Station, ironing room in 1935, The hot water tank survives. Picture: Hackney Archives

“With this station and shelter, I have no hesitation in stating that Hackney will be the most completely equipped district in London for dealing with infectious and contagious disease,” Hackney’s medical officer of health proudly stated in an annual report dated 1900.

A year later the disinfecting station opened in Millfields Road, Lower Clapton, to manage the spread of disease and infestation for those living in slums.

The idea was to disinfect people, their clothing and their furniture and to tackle notifiable diseases like tuberculosis, diphtheria and scarlet fever, while disinfestation killed vermin like lice, fleas, bed bugs and cockroaches.

Today, it’s derelict – but the building is on the Heritage at Risk Register, meaning it can’t be knocked down. Hackney Council’s senior conservation and design officer Tim Walder was asked to report on its history to understand the site’s potential and constraints ahead of it being restored.

The isolation shelter building in Millfields Road which had four self-contained flats where people who had gone to disinfest themselves were able to stay. Picture: Hackney ArchivesThe isolation shelter building in Millfields Road which had four self-contained flats where people who had gone to disinfest themselves were able to stay. Picture: Hackney Archives

“The more I dug, the more interesting it got,” said Tim, who is doing a talk for the Hackney Society on Monday.

Built in 1901 by the new metropolitan borough of Hackney, which had been created only two years before, it was one of the fledling authority’s first public health projects. And as far as Tim can make out, it is the only surviving disinfection station in the country.

It consisted of a caretaker’s house, a shelter containing four flats where you could stay while you and your furniture were being disinfected, and at the core of it the disinfecting station itself.

“How it worked was you could turn up, strip off and put your clothes in a hopper to be disinfected, and there would be an attendant to help you delouse and have a medicated sulphur bath,” explained Tim.

Some of the slum housing in 1935. Picture: Hackney ArchivesSome of the slum housing in 1935. Picture: Hackney Archives

“This was full-on Victorian high tech using vacuum, steam, heat and formaldehyde. I’d think your bugs and lice would be pretty dead by the end of all that.

“You came out the other side cleaned and your furniture as well, usually in one operation. There was no point in you going back to a dirty house.”

Clothes and furniture that were beyond cleaning would be incinerated.

On top of that, men would travel by horse and cart to people’s homes to spray formaldehyde disinfectant all around them, with pump-action squirters – one of which survives at the station, along with machinery dating back to 1901 as well as later versions from the ’70s.

By 1934 horses and carts were replaced by vans, and the operation was more about dealing with infestations than infectious disease.

The Verminous Person’s Act was passed by Parliament in 1936 and is still in force.

“You can still report yourself to your local authority and say: ‘I’m a verminous person. Can you sort me out?’ and they are legally obliged to clean you up to prevent the spread of things like scabies and head lice,” said Tim.

By then public health was improving and the operation had moved on. The focus, now, was knocking down slums and building council houses. A propaganda film was even made to ensure people moving into new houses didn’t take bugs and fleas with them.

Four drive-in gas chambers were built. Furniture would be loaded onto a lorry and driven in, then disinfected using Zyklon B.Horrifyingly, the same gas would go on to be used in the concentration camps in which the Nazis murdered Jewish people.

In the Second World War, fungal scabies outbreaks were common because people would crowd together in bomb shelters, so the stables were converted into a series of medicated bath suites.

“Later on, they were keen on disinfecting library books because they thought that was a vector for the spread of disease,” said Tim.

After the war it was used to disinfect donated clothes to be sent overseas, and later to disinfect imported textiles. Incinerators were used to burn infected meat from restaurants and abbatoirs. The last known use was in the ’80s to disinfect children identified as having nits by school nurses; by 1984 it was abandoned.

“You get a real feel for the past, very strongly, because it was never put to another use,” said Tim. “It’s a window into another world. You’d imagine it would be utilitarian but it was ornamental – the buildings are very pretty. I think Hackney wanted to be seen to be leading the way, not muddling through.”

Tim’s talk is on Monday at 6pm at Hackney Learning Trust in Reading Lane. It’s £5 for Hackney Society members, £10 otherwise. Book tickets at bit.ly/2JgJDiC.

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