The Hecla and the death of William Thomas 1865

Soothing wrinkles from the brow of agony


The history of Wales has always been tied up with the sea. In the nineteenth century ships drifted in slowly from beyond the horizon bringing trade and ideas, changing lives. The sea was always the route to a new and exciting world, to places of unexpected adventure and danger. And sometimes that danger came to the shore, in the shape of a drunken sailor perhaps, or a fugitive. But once. that danger came as a deadly disease.

The Front

     Let us start with the grave. Hundreds of people go past along the busy road every day; pupils from the local school might wander along too. But few of them know what is here or realise the warning that this overlooked  grave might have for all of us. 

     Go through the lych gate of St Paul’s Church on Sketty Lane in Swansea and you will find it a short distance away, to the left. The ground is uneven and the ivy is pushing slowly into the cracks on the headstone. The grave boundary has disappeared beneath the rough grass.  Soon the face and the words upon it will have fallen away in the rain, taking with them their unexpected story. It is important to capture those words which you can still make out, if you look hard enough.

      The stone is inscribed on both sides. One side contains the family details.

     Sacred to the memory of William, son of William and Margaret Thoma,s who died the 29 of September 1865 Aged 25
He weakened my strength in the way: he shortened my days.

     William is buried with his parents and his brother.  His days were indeed shortened  but in the most unlikely of ways. Because if you look at the other side you will see why this grave is notable.  He died ‘of yellow fever, caught while working in Swansea at a yard near where an infected ship, The Hecla from the West Indies was lying.’

The rear

     You see, he died in the only recorded outbreak of yellow fever on the mainland of Great Britain. And this decaying gravestone might well be pointing the way to our future.

     The Hecla was a modest wooden cargo ship carrying 540 tons of copper ore and 81 tons of copper regulus for the Cobre Mining Company, from Santiago in Cuba. It arrived in the Bristol Channel on Friday 8 September 1865 and picked up a pilot off Lundy Island. The Master reported that he had one very sick man on board and that he had already lost 3 of his crew during the voyage. The pilot was not aware that they had brought with them something far more deadly than their copper ore. The ship after all, carried a clean bill of health, and a ship had arrived from Cuba a fortnight earlier with no reported sickness.

     The Hecla waited in the Mumbles anchorage overnight and was then towed into Swansea on Saturday 9 September. Men were sent out to support the crew, who were too ill to man the vessel properly. There was a short item in the newspaper too, entitled ‘Distressing Shipping News,’ about the appearance of The Hecla flying a flag at half-mast. People knew what that meant. Death on board. 

     The crew were paid off and unloading began. Anxious relatives watched as ‘one poor fellow (James Saunders), was brought ashore upon a litter and died within a few hours.’ He was immediately buried. The sanitary inspector reported to the mayor the news that he had died, apparently of yellow fever.

     Officials realised that they had to isolate those infected, but there was nowhere to receive them. Meetings were urgently called ‘to prevent any evil consequences resulting from the impudent steps of bringing a vessel into port when so many of its crew had suffered from so contagious a disease.’ It was obviously a case of negligence. As the Cambrian newspaper said a week later, the desire of the ship’s captain to be ‘free from his plague prison’ and the poor victims to have ‘the loving attentions of those gentle nurses whose kindness smoothes wrinkles from the brow of agony,’ are perfectly understandable, but their exclusion from port should have been essential. There should have been somewhere where those infected could have been accommodated. The Hecla  should really have gone to a quarantine station at Milford, set up to deal with ‘infectious distempers.’ The crew knew something was wrong and that a fatal disease had been raging on board the vessel her bills of mortality prove. But that didn’t happen. Presumably they were eager to get home and thought they could get away with it. But once the ship was in the dock it was too late. The disease is transmitted by mosquitoes and they are such small things.

     The weather in Swansea was described as having a ‘predisposing atmospheric constitution.’ To you and me that means it was hot, of almost ‘tropical intensity,’ providing an exciting all- day buffet for insect visitors.

     At the time, no one knew how yellow fever was spread. They recognised it as some kind of ‘contagion’ and that this outbreak was a consequence of the ‘extraordinary character of the present summer.’ Everything was fine, everything was normal. It was just the weather that had caused it. It was so warm across northern Europe that readers were told that Charles Dickens ‘now in Paris, has sunstroke. He was insensible for some hours.’

     It was the weather that enabled the insects to survive for long enough to do their work. From 15 September – six days after The Hecla’s  arrival – until 4 October, six days after it was moved from its mooring, twenty  people contracted yellow fever, of whom thirteen died. Numerous others suffered less severe symptoms. This still remains the only confirmed outbreak of yellow fever on the English mainland and it was only the return of normal, cooler, weather patterns that prevented it from spreading further.

     There was a clear sense of alarm at the appearance of this invisible killer. It was quickly identified as yellow fever. After all, sailors had often died of it before, en route from the West Indes. But it had never before been brought back to shore.  There were denials by those who wanted it to be something else, who tried to link it to an outbreak of cattle fever. Yellow fever becoming endemic in Swansea could have a catastrophic effect on trade. So, health officials sought desperately to calm the situation, but it is easier to create alarm than it is to allay fears. The press hints at considerable public apprehension. The reality was probably a great deal less measured.

     It was imperative to indicate that sanitary arrangements in the town were adequate. A distinguished surgeon, Dr Buchanan from the fever hospital in London, was sent to Swansea. Public meetings were held. Reassurance was necessary. Ironically, they felt that the disease was now somehow in the air around them. They didn’t realise that it had wings.  The Mayor was keen to be seen to be doing something. He announced that the ship, the seamen’s clothes and the home of James Saunders had been fumigated.  But, as people looked for scapegoats, there were rumours that the Mayor was financially involved in The Hecla, accusations which we was forced publicly to deny.  That was the real reason, they said, why it had been allowed to dock.

     In all the press coverage there is an interesting assumption that information should be withheld to prevent public alarm. The details of the symptoms would, we are told, ‘be out of place in a newspaper’, which is not terribly helpful. The authorities knew best, but is hard to accept any circumstances, in which such knowledge should be kept secret, even if they did include passing blood and vomiting. It was acknowledged that the people of Swansea were terrified, but the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette felt all was exaggerated. In 34 days ‘there were but 13 deaths in a population of more than 40,000, which cannot be regarded as a severe death rate.’

     And it wasn’t only Swansea that was affected. Two of the crew of the Eleanor died in Llanelli, more victims of ‘this terrible scourge of the tropics’. Their ship had been alongside The Hecla in Swansea docks.

      The press was very eager to send out positive messages about how the outbreak was managed, because for a port which relied upon maritime trade, this had the potential to be public relations disaster. But Swansea was quickly regarded as an infected port. Spain refused to admit Swansea vessels; other countries imposed restrictions.

     Of course, it ended as quickly as it had begun. Once the weather resumed normal service the mosquitoes died and eventually the story faded from view. The death of Lord Palmerstone had much greater national significance. On 3 November 1865, The Hecla returned to its trans-Atlantic trade and left Swansea for Valparaiso. Life resumed.

     The virus is transmitted by the bite of a mosquito – aedes aegypti. The incubation period is usually three to six days, as we can see in the Swansea outbreak. Most cases produce mild flu-like symptoms, but if it moves in to a second phase it becomes very nasty indeed. It is called yellow fever because it causes jaundice symptoms, since the virus attacks the liver.

     Where death occurs it is usually the result of multi-organ failure.

     There are still over 30,000 deaths every year in unvaccinated populations, largely in tropical and sub-tropical areas. The best means of control lies in controlling the mosquito, which breeds in standing water, just as you would find on a ship like The Hecla. The disease was endemic in Cuba at this time. But the link between the disease and insects was not yet established. It was simply caused, they believed, by ‘contagion.’

     There was a long article in the British Medical Journal about the impossibility of it being yellow fever. They preferred to call it typhoid or some sort of ‘Swansea fever.’ Today, we are less convinced of our immunity. There have been other examples of tropical diseases striking unexpectedly in the Northern Hemisphere. There was an outbreak of yellow fever in Saint Nazaire in France in 1861 and prior to that in Barcelona, Gibraltar and Lisbon.  In 1793 10,000 people died in Philadelphia and there were other outbreaks across America, including New Orleans in 1905.

     Malaria was prevalent in Sussex and Kent, with more than 60,000 patients admitted to St Thomas Hospital between 1850 and 1860. Oh yes, germs and viruses can spread across the world – we have seen this ourselves with Covid 19.

     Is this our future? Must we come to accept tropical diseases as a consequence of how the world has shrunk or of global warming?  If we eventually become sub-tropical, we will welcome all sorts of diseases transmitted, like yellow fever, by parasites. Tropical killers can travel north. They have before. After all, spiders and snakes in bananas have long been the stuff of legend. But if ever mosquitoes begin to fly again in our sky, then our world will change.

I wonder if we are ready.

This article of mine was originally published in Welsh Country Magazine in September 2011 and is reproduced here with kind permission

This piece has not appeared in any of my books but was very close to being included in my new one (Grave Tales from Wales published in July 2021) Unfortunately there wasn’t room for it.
I have other Swansea Stories available of course, especially since I have new stock of Swansea Murders. Go to the How to Bay page in the menu or by clicking on this link
The website price of £11.50 is cheaper than Amazon and includes delivery and recycled packaging.

You can find out more about the book by, again, using the menu or by clicking on this link


Offers and Book News


  1. A fascinating piece of Swansea history and, as you say, worryingly timely in these pandemic days.

  2. Glad to see other people taking an interest in this topic! I’m writing about the yellow fever epidemic as part of my MA dissertation. Are you able to provide the names of the newspapers/journals you’ve referenced here? The information would be very helpful!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.