Dirty Jobs of the Victorian Era – Angora and Anthrax

Taken from Pembroke’s Articles of Occupational Concerns, 1881

The fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse – Don Pedro, the anthrax carrying sheep.

In the last few entries, we’ve been carving a merry little path through the history of occupational hazards; diseases, ailments, gross misconduct of employees, gross idiocy on the part of the workers themselves, and all around sickness in the workplace in this grand nineteenth century of ours. Had you thought we reached the end of this journey, that we’d explored all the tortures available to exact upon the human frame?

Think again, for today we look at anthrax.

What are animals good for? I can immediately think of four uses (five if you’re lonely – and have a sense of humor); domestic companionship, meat, labor, and finally, that which we are interested in: hides, fur or wool and other trimmings, namely the materials that in time will become the magnificent clothing you all enjoy.

Get fitted for a fine suit, and contract something incurable! The only way to spend a weekend.

As far as most of you are concerned, getting the materials from field to frock-coat is a magical mystery, being handled, you might remark in hushed tones at parties, by those ‘unreasonably odoriferous poor people’. The whole process, it may surprise you, is remarkably involved, complicated and far too cumbersome a topic for your refined minds to handle, but needless to say it involves many unfortunate souls handling massive quantities of diseased and infected wool, fur, and animal skins. Other than suffering from the various ailments associated with vast amounts of lint and hair particles, sorters of the wool are inevitably brought into contact with this most virulent of bacterium named anthrax. You might want to remove your hat (made of wool, I might point out) and take a seat.

Anthrax, from the Greek word for coal due to the black skin lesions that occur upon its contraction, has been around for quite a long time, recognized as early as the 16th century as being communicable between animals and humans (feel free to impress your friends by noting its etiological nomenclature as Bacillus anthracis). It’s recognized as the cause of many plagues around the world and throughout history, occurring in Russia, Germany, South America and China, and is even assumed to be the true nature of the sixth Biblical plague of Egypt.

“Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on men and animals throughout the land.” – Exodus. 9:8–12

“You were lucky! We got up half an hour before we went to bed, work 29 hours at mill, and pay mill-owner for permission to come to work… and you try and tell the young people of today that … they won’t believe you.”

During the early part of the 1800’s, the textile industry in the north of England, and specifically around Yorkshire, saw a large influx of wool and skin products from across the globe, from mohair to alpaca wool, angora to horse hair, and workers sorting through the fibers and locks of hair would disturb the bacterial spores and contract the disease. This is the source of the more colloquial title of Woolsorters Disease.

Quick lesson: there are three main types of infection sources: cutaneous (skin diseases via open sores and cuts); inhalation (breathing in of fine particles); gastro-intestinal (consumption of infected meats).

All workers involved directly or indirectly in the textile industry could be infected. In Bradford, the central processing area of many foreign wools, outbreaks were common and usually disregarded. Industrial ‘expert’ C.T. Thackrah is reported as writing in 1832, despite observing symptoms of the disease, that:

“Woolsorters are occasionally annoyed with dust from the lime, which in some kinds of wool is used for separating the fleece from the skin. No sensible effect is produced on health.”

Rather suspiciously, following his investigations into industrial ailments, as well as wool processing, Mr Thackrah died two years later of tuberculosis-like symptoms.

Recruitment posters were a bit different back then…

Tradespeople such as brush-makers, knackers (stop giggling, these people are suffering), veterinarians, mattress makers, tanners and even spouses of the infected were at great risk, and the rampaging spread of the disease is credited largely to its indestructibility. The bacillus is impervious to cold, resistant to the disinfectants (it could survive in carbolic acid for up to two weeks) and it has survived being transported from climate to climate via the internationally transported materials, remaining dormant for decades at a time. Such is its virility that few infected subjects are expected to survive, as this account from Modern Medicine describes:

“Prognosis. — This is bad in all forms. Cases in which the onset is marked by decided symptoms and a temperature above 102. 5° F. are more favorable […] Lesions on the neck are the most dangerous, on account of oedema of the larynx, and involvement of vital organs. Lesions on the eyelids are also especially fatal…”

So, sir, how would you like your anthrax? Slow, relatively painless, conscious of your slow decline? Or fast and excruciating – it’s your choice. This disease serves up both varieties, depending on how you contracted it.

For the cutaneous variant, lesions occur that look at first like insect bites but expand to form multiple large sores with disconcerting black centers. Lesions can swell to disfiguring proportions, and although the pain is still slight and decline slow, in our age it still remains almost always fatal. Foul smelling diarrhea occurs (when is it ever fragrant?), vomiting and then coma, convulsions and death. The victim remains conscious right until the very end.

I know this is probably scientific, but it still looks creepy…

Or there is the pulmonary anthrax, the previously mentioned Woolsorters Disease, which has the good airs not to reveal itself until it is quite beyond any form of treatment; prior to its appearance as full anthrax it looks like a garden variety common cold, which won’t cause alarm in this day and age where nothing short of decapitation would prevent a day off from work. In a period as little as seventeen hours the patient will be as dead as a door-nail, ‘cold, listless and without a detectable pulse’ and it’s almost impossible to diagnose before it has revealed its true nature.

There are the usual strategies to combating the disease – increased cleanliness, improved ventilation – all honorable attempts by factory owners to prevent widespread outbreak in workers known collectively as the ‘Bradford Rules’, but as of this writing – 1881 – there remains no firm solution for human immunization. No way of destroying the bacillus exists without removing the market value of the wool or skin itself – and you nice people really like your fashions, don’t you?

That said, across the continent, there is some talk of studies performed into animal inoculation by some young man named Louis Pasteur, although I’m quite sure this young French upstart will amount to little…

(Sources available upon request. This article was originally published on The Pandora Society on July 22nd, 2015)

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