Circa 1000, what name would locals in England use for invaders?

Circa 1000, what name would locals in England use for invaders?



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If I am living in England around 1000 and some Scandinavian raiders show up at my village to pillage our farms, which phrase would I be most likely to be saying:

  • "Oh no, here come the Vikings!"
  • "Oh no, here come the Northmen!"
  • "Oh no, here come the Norsemen!"
  • "Oh no, here come the Danes!"
  • "Oh no, here come the raiders!"

And would it change if it was a foray of people from the Danelaw?


Usually "Danes", or the "pagans"[note], or possibly the "Northmen" - though the last was more of a Continental usage.

In Francia these Scandinavians were called 'Northmen' or 'Danes' (in translation), and in England they were called 'Danes' or 'pagans' in contemporary chronicles.

Brink, Stefan. "Who were the Vikings?" Brink, Stefan, and Neil Price, eds The Viking World, Routledge: 2008.

While the word "viking" is possibly attested to in Old English (wicing), the meaning and etymology are disputed. It fell out of use during the High Middle Ages, and did not acquire it's modern meaning until it was re-introduced into English in the 18th century.

The precise meaning and origin of the word 'Viking' is, however, uncertain… Whatever its origins, though, it is important to realize that the word was only really popularized during the nineteenth century, and that contemporaries of the Vikings usually called them other names.

Holman, Katherine. The Northern Conquest: Vikings in Britain and Ireland Signal Books, 2007.

Note: Not meant to be taken literally - this is just what they would've meant. The actual word pagan came from Latin, and replaced the native heathen in Middle English.


What about "heathens"? It comes from Old English hæþen, and basically means pagan, which was also mentioned in other answers.

Notice this word comes most probably from a Saxon origin, "hedhin", compared with pagan, which comes from Latin paganus (i.e. referring to the rural, country-side).


As used in The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth or in Beowulf, your Englishman might use "ingenga" to mean invader or visitor.


Viking Invaders Struck Deep into the West of England – and May have Stuck Around

It’s well chronicled that wave after wave of Vikings from Scandinavia terrorised western Europe for 250 years from the end of the eighth century AD and wreaked particular havoc across vast areas of northern England. There’s no shortage of evidence of Viking raids from the Church historians of the time. But researchers are now uncovering evidence that the Vikings conquered more of the British Isles than was previously thought.

At the time England consisted of four independent kingdoms: Wessex, to the south of the River Thames, and Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria to the north of it. The latter three were all conquered by Scandinavian armies in the late ninth century and their kings killed or deposed – which allowed expansive Scandinavian settlement in eastern and northern England. However the kings of Wessex successfully defended their territory from the Viking intruders (and eventually went on to conquer the North, creating the unified kingdom of England ).

But precisely because Wessex remained independent, there has never been much examination of Scandinavian influence in that part of the United Kingdom. But we’re beginning to get a different picture suggesting that Viking leaders such as Svein and his son Knut were active as far south as Devon and Cornwall in the West Country.

In 838AD, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded a battle fought at Hingston Down in east Cornwall in which the local Britons joined forces with the Vikings against King Egbert of Wessex and his attempts to expand his kingdom. The fiercely independent Cornish appear to have held out against West Saxon control and presumably cast around for a strong ally in their fight. But why were Viking leaders interested in aiding the Cornish? Perhaps it was a political move, made in the hope of gaining a foothold in the peninsula in order to use it as a strategic base against Wessex. If so, it was thwarted, as the allied army was soundly defeated.

There are also records of raids for plunder in the West Country. A Viking fleet sailed up the river Tamar in 997, attacked the abbey at Tavistock and brought back treasure to their ships.

There is further evidence indicating Scandinavians in the West Country in a close examination of stone sculptures in Devon and Cornwall which has revealed Scandinavian art motifs and monument forms. A Norwegian Borre ring chain ornament decorates the cross in Cardinham churchyard in east Cornwall and a mounted warrior is in one of the panels of the Copplestone Cross near Crediton, mid Devon. Both are matched by examples in northern England in the Viking Age, but seem out of place in the West. Late versions of the “ hogback” memorial stones, which have a pronounced ridge and look like a small stone long house, are well known in Cornwall too – the best example is at Lanivet near Bodmin.

These sort of memorials were popular with the Norse settlers in Cumbria and Yorkshire and may be the work of itinerant sculptors bringing new ideas into the West, or patrons ordering forms and patterns which they had seen elsewhere. However, the possibility that the patrons may have been Scandinavian settlers cannot be excluded.


Years: 1503 - 1750 Subject: History, Regional and National History
Publisher: HistoryWorld Online Publication Date: 2012
Current online version: 2012 eISBN: 9780191736247

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Early Anglo-Saxon Britain

Settlement
We know very little of the first few hundred years of the Anglo-Saxon, or "English", era, primarily because the invaders were an illiterate people. Our earliest records of them are little more than highly inventive lists of rulers. We know that they established separate kingdoms, the Saxons settling in the south and west, the Angles in the east and north, and the Jutes on the Isle of Wight and the mainland opposite. They probably thought of themselves as separate peoples, but they shared a common language and similar customs.

The king's power
One of these customs was fighting everyone in sight. A king's power was not hereditary it depended solely on his ability to win battles and so gain land, treasure, and slaves to give his supporters. He was obliged to fight and keep fighting. If not, he would find himself out of a job or deprived of his life, or both.

Succession from father to son was never a foregone conclusion. Any relative of the old king who could muster enough support could make a bid for the throne. This helps to explain why the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came and went so quickly. The power of any kingdom over its neighbours was only as solid as the strength of its king in battle.

King Offa
Roughly speaking, the 7th century was the age of Northumbrian ascendance, with Mercia playing second fiddle. In the 8th century, these roles reversed. The most powerful and well known of the Mercian kings was Offa, who ruled from 758-796. A successful warrior (which is a given for anyone in those days who managed to hold onto power for so long), he defeated kings in Sussex, Anglia, and Wessex, proclaiming himself King of the English.

Offa's DykeOffa caused to be built the earthwork that still bears his name, Offa's Dyke, which stretches the 150-mile length of the Welsh border. Begun in the 780s, the purpose of the dyke seems to have been as a fortified frontier barrier, much as Hadrian's Wall some six centuries previous.

In most places the ditch was 25 feet from the bottom of the cut to the top of the bank, with wood or stone walling on top of that. The work involved has been compared to the building of the Great Pyramid. This gives us some idea of the power wielded by Offa. It seems that the dyke was not permanently manned, the Mercians relying instead on the warning given by a series of beacons.

Foreign attack
The upper hand enjoyed by the Mercians did not long survive Offa's death. In the 820s a series of victories by Egbert, king of Wessex, broke Mercian control in the south-east. The 9th century may well have turned into a struggle for the upper hand between Mercia and Wessex if not for one thing England was once again the subject of recurring raids from across the seas. This time it was the Danes and Norwegians. The Danes attacked the east coast of England, the Norwegians attacked the north by way of Ireland and Scotland.

The Danes
The Danes found rich pickings in the undefended monastic settlements on Lindisfarne Island and Jarrow, in Northumbria, but they were not out solely for loot. The Danish raids were partly a response to population pressures in their homeland, so they wanted new lands to settle, not merely easy plunder. They made good use of fortified settlements as bases to expand, and their use of helmets, shields, chain mail, and particularly the long-handled battle-axe, meant they were better armed than most of their foes.


Viking Origins and the Danelaw

The Vikings were responsible for originating the names of many English towns and villages. The area that incorporates Yorkshire, East Anglia, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire show heavy Viking settlement in their place names, this is due to the existence of the Danelaw between the ninth and eleventh century.

The Danelaw was the area of England that the Danish Vikings claimed by warfare from the Anglo-Saxons who had previously settled the area. It was a colony of the Danish leaders and it kept the Anglo-Saxon leaders on edge for many generations. In this time period, the Anglo Saxon inhabitants were joined by Scandinavian settlers and they lived under the rule of their Norse neighbours. Life would have continued without too much drastic change, but new words would enter the embryonic English language and they would appear in the names of new settlements.

Place names ending in -by , such as Selby, Grimsby, Derby or Whitby are places that the Vikings first settled. These (-by) endings, effectively meant it was a village or settlement. For example, Derby can be broken down to this basic explanation.

"Der" means deer, so Derby is a settlement with or near many herds of Deer.

In Yorkshire alone there are over 200 (-by) place names, this was due to the large Yorkshire coastline acting as a gateway to fresh settlement from Scandinavia. . The (-by) has since passed into common usage in the English language and can be seen in &aposby-law&apos which means the local law of the town or village.

The Norse settlers also added other place names to the landscape. Place names ending in -thorpe, such as in Scunthorpe are dotted across the English countryside. These place names usually refer to where farms once existed, but they can also refer to where a secondary settlement once stood. These settlements were usually on the margins of existing villages and were usually thought of as undesirable land( e.g Flood plains).

Scunthorpe translates as either Scun&aposs farm or Scun&aposs land.

There are place names that advertise a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Viking words for example Caws-ton (Kalf&aposs town) or Grimton (Grim&aposs town).

There are several arguments connected with these place names. Some historians have argued that the Viking invasions involved very large numbers of people because there are so many Viking place names. Other experts have argued that once the Viking language became the main language of the region, place names would naturally be named using Viking words. Another factor is that few large Viking settlements were on entirely new sites: many Viking settlements continued on the traditional Anglo-Saxon sites.


Years: 1503 - 1750 Subject: History, Regional and National History
Publisher: HistoryWorld Online Publication Date: 2012
Current online version: 2012 eISBN: 9780191736247

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The Danish Invasion

Ethelred was the second son of King Edgar. He was ten years old when his brother Edward the Martyr was murdered in 978AD. The Chronicle says of Edward that “Men murdered him but God magnified him”. In keeping with its prophecies of doom that are usually written in times of turmoil, it goes on to say that “In the same year a bloody cloud was seen in the likeness of fire, most often manifested at midnight”. With the approaching millennium, the church was also forecasting “gathering darkness and natural disaster”.

Ethelred comes down to us in history as “the Unready” taken nowadays to mean ill prepared. It should be remembered however, that the nickname was first recorded in the 1180s, more than 150 years after his death and it unlikely that he was known by the name in his time. He was clearly no warrior king and his reign is remembered for his constant “buying off” of the Norsemen and his inability to muster and direct his forces, which, if properly commanded, could have withstood and defeated them. Once these traits became known to the raiders, they raided at will throughout the country.

A better explanation of the title is “Unraed”, which in Old English means “ill advised” or “bad counsel” and refers to the bad feeling among some of the nobility over the continuing struggle between the gentry and the clergy over the gifts and allocations of land made by Edgar and later, Edward to the church. These nobles wanted Ethelred to return the lands to the original owners and felt that his clerical advisors in the Witan were preventing this. It was this questionable counsel from the Witan that led to Ethelred’s soubriquet of “ill advised”.

Furthermore, the suspicion of his involvement in the death of Edward did much to diminish the moral authority of the Crown at a time when strong leadership was sorely needed.

Nevertheless, when Ethelred was finally consecrated as king around 980AD, contemporary sources state that “there was great joy at his consecration,” and describes the young king as “elegant in manners, attractive in face and handsome appearance”. In 985AD he married Elgifu, daughter of Thored, Eoldorman of York with whom he was to have six sons and four daughters before her death in 1002AD. His reign was to be marked by the next wave of attacks in greater numbers from Scandinavia, this time by the Danish King Swein Forkbeard and his Norwegian vassal, Olaf Tryggvason.

The first warning of trouble with the Danes was when some small Danish raiding parties attacked Hampshire and Thanet. Ethelred, or more probably his advisors, compounded the problem by blaming locals for not resisting the attacks and in a fit of spiteful retaliation, sent his troops to ravage Rochester as a punishment for their lack of spirit. In 981AD further raids were made around Devon and Cornwall and more raids were made in Dorset one year later. Strangely, the raids ceased for the next six years until 988AD when a larger raid was carried out in Devon and the local thegns raised a force and drove them away.

The raids themselves, while being mostly minor, did create tension between the English court and Normandy. The Normans, no doubt remembering their Scandinavian origins, were favourably disposed to the Danish raiders who would often shelter in Norman ports following their raids. This led to much hostility between the Normans and the English, so much so that Pope John XV convened a meeting in 991AD between the two sides at Rouen where a treaty of mutual support was ratified, but with little change in the actual situation.

However, in the same year, a much larger Danish force, led, according to some sources, by the Norwegian subking, Olaf Tryggvason, and others by Sweyn Forkbeard himself, arrived off Folkestone and sailed around the south east coast to the River Blackwater and occupied Northey Island situated near Maldon where on the 10th of August 991AD he was confronted by Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex and his troops. The size of his force is not known, but it is recorded that he was heavily outnumbered by the Danes who were reckoned to have between 2000 and 4000 men. The monks of Ely, writing of the battle in their Liber Eliensis, notes that Byrhtnoth “was neither shaken by the small number of his men, nor fearful of the multitude of the enemy”.

The island was connected to the mainland by a causeway which was only usable at low tide and Byrhtnoth stationed Wulfstan, “the war hardened warrior”, and two others on the landward end of the causeway. The arrogant Danes shouted insults at the force and demanded payment of tribute. As the tide ebbed, the Danes began to stream over the causeway, but it was so narrow that only a few could cross at a time and these were easily cut down by besiegers. In a rare glimpse of the attitude to war and honour of the time, the Danes called out asking to be allowed to cross the causeway unhindered and fight on equal terms. Surprisingly Byrhtnoth agreed to this, a move that even his admirers reckoned as “ofermode” or over courage. The Danes crossed and with their superior numbers began to overwhelm the Essex men. The battle ended when Byrhtnoth was cut down and his horse was grabbed by a Saxon named Godric who fled the field together with his brothers Godwine and Godwig.

The remaining Saxons, recognizing Byrhtnoth’s horse and thinking he was deserting them, tried to escape but were slaughtered as they ran, the only exception being the household troops of Byrhtnoth who, knowing that the battle was lost, bravely fought on the death to avenge their leader.

The defeat clearly shook Ethelred and a meeting of the Witan was hurriedly convened to decide what should be done. On the advice of Archbishop Sigeric it was agreed to “buy off” the Danes and a payment recorded by the Chronicle as Ten Thousand Pounds was made to the invaders.

When word reached Denmark of Ethelred’s willingness to pay Danegeld, even more raiders set sail to join those already harrying Britain’s coastline. The king’s response was to order all serviceable ships to be assembled in London and sent to destroy the invaders. An Ealdorman named Aelfric was given command of the fleet by the king, which turned out to be a poor choice because, as the Chronicle records, “Then Aelfric sent a command that the force (the Danes) be warned, and in the night he fled from his troops to his own great disgrace”.

It goes on to relate that the force then met the ships of East Anglia and London “and made much slaughter of them”. Ethelred, still seeking to appease the Danes, met with Olaf Tryggvason and his warlords and concluded a treaty whereby laws and regulations, settlements and disputes were to be enacted peaceably and, more importantly, that the ravaging and slaughter of the previous year be forgotten. The treaty also noted that 22,000 pounds of silver and gold had been paid to the Danes as the price of peace.

Despite the agreement, the year 993AD saw more raiding, this time in the north. Olaf Tryggvason, together with Swein Forkbeard, king of Denmark and ruler of much of Norway, attacked and destroyed Bamburgh “seizing much plunder”. They sailed to the mouth of the Humber and ravaged throughout Northumbria, “doing much evil”. An army was gathered to oppose the raiders, but its appointed leaders, Fraena, Godwine and Frithegist clearly had no stomach for the fight and in the Chronicle’s words, “were the first to set the example of flight”.

The king’s indecision, plus the poor state of his armies made it easy for the Danes to roam almost at will. The attackers had also learned the advantage of cavalry which enabled them to travel great distances quickly as well as being able to break shield walls. The British were much slower in developing this form of warfare and suffered for it. Ethelred’s spite can further be seen in his ordering of the blinding of Aelfgar, the son of Aelfric in punishment for his father’s desertion earlier and perhaps also to stiffen his remaining officers.

The next year Olaf and Swein, with a force of ninety four ships, attacked London, but Ethelred had gathered his forces on London Bridge and drove the raiders off. The Danes retreated and began some savage raiding in Essex, before moving on to attack the coastline of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. These raids were recorded as particularly vicious with contemporary writers noting that, “they wrought the most evil that any force had ever done and worked unspeakable evil”. Still Ethelred refused to confront the raiders instead, after consulting with the Witan, he offered yet more tribute payment, plus provisions in return for an end to the raiding. The Danes agreed and took winter quarters in Southampton where, according to the Chronicle, “they were provisioned throughout the West Saxon kingdom” and given Danegeld of sixteen thousand pounds.


Leadership Chaos

Ethelred 979-1016 (10 when crowned)

Ethelred the Unready. Step brother of Edward the Martyr. Father King Edgar, mother Elfrida.
Ethelred had two wives, first Elfled of Northumbria and then Emma of Normandy. His son by Elfled became Edmund Ironside and his son via Emma, Edward the Confessor.
The word “Unready” actually was the Saxon word “unraed” which means he was uncouncilled or would not listen to his advisors. His long 37 year reign was an unmitigated disaster.
The Danish Vikings recommenced their interest in England with a landing in the south east, (Essex) in 980. Ethelred’s response was to buy them off with cash by imposing a tax called Danegelt which raised £10,000.

Now in 980 AD in Ethelred’s reign

  • Many people thought 1000 years after Jesus heralded the end of the world.
  • England had had two pathetic kings who had lost the confidence of his powerful earls who were his source of fighting men.
  • The Danes and Norwegian Vikings attacked simultaneously
  • King Ethelred married Emma the daughter of the Norman ruler Richard, in the vain hope that the Normans would provide an army to see off this latest wave of Vikings.
  • Ethelred paid handsomely to persuade the Vikings to leave.
  • Some Vikings did go and those who didn’t Ethelred sought out and massacred. Unfortunately for him this included Gunhild the sister of the Danish ruler Sweyn who in 1003 returned to avenge the brutal killing of his sister. After 10 years of intermittent but brutal fighting Ethelred fled to Normandy and the Danish Viking leader Sweyn Forkbbeard was appointed king of England by the Witan.

This was not the end of the leadership chaos because within the year, Sweyn not yet crowned, fell from his horse and died. This created the opportunity to recall Ethelred who ruled in competition with Canute the son of Sweyn Forkbeard. Ethelred died soon after his return and his son Edmund Ironside reigned as the Witan appointed King for 8 months in 1016. Like his father Edmund he did not have the support of the whole country in his fight against the now resident Danes and was murdered (probably) in November 1016. Canute was crowned king of England to the relief of all, almost immediately.


This London Building Tells the Story of a Century’s Worth of Disease and Epidemics

Coming down with an infectious disease in early 1900s London would have been a pretty unsettling experience. Not only were effective treatments hard to come by, but the municipality had the legal right to enter your home and disinfect it. City workers could seize your belongings and take them away for steam cleaning, all in the name of public health. Yet these precautions were not draconian or even heartless: If this process rendered you homeless, you would be offered overnight accommodation in a comfortable, modern one-bedroom apartment alongside the building where your possessions were being sanitized.

Measures to contain today’s pandemic, such as stay-at-home orders and compulsory mask wearing, may feel to some like an unwelcome intrusion by the state into their daily lives. At the Hackney Borough Council Disinfecting Station, however, anti-disease actions were more of a public amenity, a way to keep the public healthy and a cohesive unit

The local government that oversaw the disinfecting station, the Metropolitan Borough of Hackney (MBH) in northeast London, came into being in 1899 as part of the London Government Act. The culmination of a series of legislative changes that began in 1855, the law brought a major reorganization and standardization to local government in the British capital. Formerly a civic parish in Middlesex, a county bordering the City of London (an area with its own jurisdiction), Hackney’s ancient boundaries did not change much when it became a metropolitan borough of the new ‘County of London’. But the way the area was governed did, reflecting the expansion of the capital into what were once its leafy suburbs.

Home to a largely working-class population living in often terribly overcrowded dwellings, Hackney was subject during this period to frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough. Though public health outcomes were much improved by 19th-century investment in sanitation infrastructure and hygiene procedures, Britons were still dying from infectious diseases in high numbers, with children at particular risk. In 1899, the year the MBH was created, 116 Hackney residents died of the measles, 115 of them children under the age of 15. All 47 of the borough’s whooping cough deaths were in children, and a further 252 died from diphtheria. Infant mortality (deaths of children under the age of 1) was 165 per 1,000 live births. To put this context, in 2018, the figure was 4 per 1,000.

Public health disinfecting station on Millfields Row, circa 1912 (Hackney Archives, Libraries and Heritage Services)

“If you survived, it was very common for you to have had at least one of those diseases in your childhood. And as much as the mortality that's important, it's also the morbidity. There was a lot of sickness around,” says Graham Mooney, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. “They were fairly common diseases but it doesn't mean to say they weren't devastating, or they didn't actually have a big emotional and practical toll on people's lives, because they did.”

Local authorities had been disinfecting domestic premises and articles of clothing and bedding in England since at least 1866, when the government introduced a law that required them to administer disinfection equipment. The practice was widespread across the country but provisions varied widely and Hackney’s operation was a modest one. By 1892, a municipal sanitary committee denounced it as “thoroughly and dangerously inefficient for the requirements of the District.”

A dedicated facility opened in 1893, complete with modern steam disinfecting equipment, but Hackney’s medical officer for health, John King Warry, didn’t stop there. Backed up by new national legislation that permitted his team to spend what it liked to cleanse people and premises “infested with vermin”, he campaigned for the creation of a state-of-the-art disinfecting and disinfesting station that included accommodation for whoever required it.

The result of King Warry’s efforts, a three-building complex completed in 1901 at a cost of just under 㾶,000 (around ٟ.25 million today), was used for decades. A groundplan of the building held by Hackney Archives, the official repository for the historic records of the MBH and its successor, Hackney London Borough Council, shows ‘Infected’ and ‘Disinfected’ rooms connected by a large boiler, a workshop, bathrooms for men and women, a laundry, ironing room and drying room, as well as stables and cart sheds. Infected people and their possessions would enter the station from one side, move through the process of steam disinfection and exit out the other side. Metal hoppers in which people would have placed their infested clothes before taking a sulphur bath to treat their scabies could be found in the men’s and women’s bathrooms.

“One of the concerns was that if people were ill with infection, in order to make sure that they didn't pass on the infection, cleaning and disinfecting and cleansing, both where they lived, and the things that they owned and had contact with, was a way of eradicating germs,” says Mooney.

“So a lot of health authorities, as well as having isolation hospitals, they would build these disinfection stations that perform that disinfecting ritual. These sorts of places were really common and they were a very important part of how Victorian and Edwardian local authorities responded to outbreaks,” he adds.

Disinfection killed the germs associated with diseases, as well as common vermin like lice, fleas, bed bugs and cockroaches. (Hackney Archives, Libraries and Heritage Services)

Changes to the station over the years track advances in public health strategy.

Sending teams of government employees out to disinfect and disinfest homes across the borough was always a significant part of local medical officers’ work. In 1902, the station’s first full year of its operation, 2,838 rooms were fumigated, with 1,009 of these having their walls stripped of paper and washed with carbolic solution. That same year, 24,226 articles of furniture, bedding and clothing were disinfected at the station, all according to the annual report of Hackney’s health department, available online as part of the digital archives of the Wellcome Collection.

The shelter house itself was little used, despite the busyness of the rest of the complex. In 1902, only 97 people stayed overnight, and by 1905 the borough was having to advertise the existence of the apartments. From the 1930s onward, demand was so low that the shelter house was turned into staff accommodation for people working in the department of the medical officer of health. In all likelihood, says Tim Walder, a conservation and design officer at Hackney Council, who studied the station in 2015, its schedule of disinfection and disinfestation rendered overnight stays mostly unnecessary. After all, even the most comprehensive fumigation process only takes a couple of hours.

One might expect the station to have been in greater demand than usual during the 1918 flu pandemic, but this was not the case. Though 698 people died of flu in Hackney that year, up from just 28 in 1917, the number of rooms fumigated and items disinfected actually fell, from 1,988 and 12,626 respectively in 1917 to 1,347 and 11,491 the following year. The reason interventions by the station fell rather than rose, suggests Andrea Tanner in her article “The Spanish Lady Comes to London: the Influenza Pandemic 1918�,” is that the government of the day encouraged local authorities to “concentrate their activities on providing nursing services and home helps” rather than disinfection measures. It did so, Tanner suggests, because experience from the prior flu pandemic of 1889-92 showed that sanitary measures were largely ineffective. In addition to that, the war effort meant that many of the staff that would have been required for disinfection had been called up for military or civilian service.

In the 1930s, as infectious diseases became less virulent and more treatable thanks to a combination of vaccines and antibiotics, the complex shifted to house citizens displaced by clearing out slums. A film produced by the borough’s public health department in 1935 on its slum clearance and re-housing program shows tightly packed terraces of run-down homes with rickety rear additions and broken windows and fences. Inside, rooms are narrow and low ceilinged, and mold proliferates. Later in the film, footage reveals the new apartment blocks that the local authority built to replace the slums: Towering above the older housing stock around them, they are tidy, with large windows and balconies.

“You were removed from your slum, which the council was demolishing to build lovely new [government] housing, and they wanted to make sure that you didn't take your vermin with you,” says Walder. In 1934, the local authority built a drive-in fumigation and airing shed at the Hackney station with a capacity of 3,400 cubic feet, large enough to fit an entire removal truck containing the “holding the effects of one to three families”, according to the 1936 report. Fitted with an enormous sliding door lined with zinc, the chamber had a roof of reinforced concrete covered with asphalt.

The shed still survives today, its utilitarian design at odds with the pleasing aesthetics of the earlier architecture. It’s here where the story takes on a disquieting tone. Large enough to disinfest entire trucks loaded up with furniture, the sheds used Zyklon B to produce hydrogen cyanide gas, the same chemical used by the Nazis in their death camps. As Walder wrote in his report on the building, “the use of Zyklon B in 1930s Hackney was for genuine, if paternalistic, public health reasons (to destroy vermin).

“This innocent use of the chemical was widespread on contemporary continental Europe. The evil came when this innocent use was perverted for sinister purposes through a political process which equated certain groups of people with vermin.”

A worker sprays disinfectant and prepares to remove bedding for steam disinfection at the Millfields Station in 1951. (Hackney Archives, Libraries and Heritage Services)

The disinfecting station’s other roles over the years included disinfecting library books (as many as 4,348 a year in the 1960s) to help prevent outbreaks of disease between households and, during World War II, treating civil defense personnel suffering with scabies.

The station continued operations until 1984, disinfecting second-hand clothing prior to export sales abroad on the one hand, and treating headlice on the other. Its decline was inevitable, says Martin Gorsky, a professor in the history of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a consequence of vastly improved health outcomes—“vaccines were in, infant mortality was solved”—and the founding of the National Health Service in 1948, which took power away from local authorities. “The modern safe public health hygienic environment was in place,” he says.

Today, it can be found tucked between a waste depot and an electricity substation close to Hackney’s eastern boundary. Out of use since the mid-1980s, the “rare and complete survival of a purpose-built disinfecting station” has long been deemed at-risk by Historic England, the public body charged with protecting the country’s historic buildings.

Walder was asked to report on the state of the disinfecting station soon after taking on the role of principal conservation and design officer for Hackney Council. “Some of the doors hadn't been opened for a very long time. I had to get a man with a crowbar to open some of them,” says Walder.

As Walder wandered through the loosely Arts and Crafts-style building, he came upon disinfection and fumigation machinery dating from throughout the life of the station. A control panel located between two disinfectors bears a plaque from an engineering company more than 120 miles away in Nottingham.

It took quite some time to get to the bottom of it all, he says. “Some of it was old and we didn't really know what we were looking at. Also the building's been altered - it wasn't always clear what was original or later, what was interesting and what was less interesting.”

Walder pieced it together after poring over documents held by Hackney Archives, Wellcome Collection, London Metropolitan Archives and the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects, as well as consulting with experts at groups including Historic England, the Victorian Society and the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society.

Across the yard from the station sit a three-bedroom Caretaker’s Lodge and a Shelter House, which comprises four almost identical one-bedroom apartments. Now the headquarters of a literacy charity and home to live-in guardians, respectively, these buildings remained in fairly good condition.

The same can’t be said of the disinfectant station itself, unfortunately, unsurprising given that it had been out of use for nearly 40 years. That said, the scale and ambition of the place are still clear to see. Compared to other disinfecting stations built during this period, mostly alongside hospitals, orphanages and the like (none of which survive today, as far as Walder can gather), the Hackney site was “particularly big and elaborate and expensive”, says the officer.

“You might expect something industrial and plain but it's not: it's got ornamental leadwork and rather fancy Portland stone,” says Walder.

The site has its roots in late Victorian municipal concerns about the health and hygiene of Hackney’s population. (Hackney Archives, Libraries and Heritage Services)

In the fall of 2020, Hackney Council announced, based on Walder’s report, that it would be mothballing the station in the hope of safeguarding it for the future. The roof and guttering will be repaired to stop any more water getting in, the windows and doors will be boarded up and any internal pipes that once held noxious chemicals will be drained.

Walder’s hunch is that the site was a “prestige project” for the borough, “a kind of municipal showing off” in the form of what looks to be the first public building built since creation of the MBH in 1899. King Warry’s annual report for 1900, in which he states that, “Hackney will be the most completely equipped district in London for dealing with infectious and contagious disease,” certainly supports Walder’s theory.

“Public health, because it was part of local governments, became part of local government politics as well,” says Gorsky. “It was an area of tax and spend. There were things that were put on the agenda because electorates might like them.”

Grand public baths, for people who didn’t have bathing facilities at home, were another example of this type of spending by municipalities serving economically disadvantaged communities, adds Gorsky. The Hackney Disinfecting Station would have served a similar purpose.

Walder would one day like to see the Disinfecting Station turned into workshops or offices, along with a foyer display to illustrate the history of the site. “I can't see a situation where it became the National Museum of Disinfecting Stations because there's only one and it's in such an out of the way place,” he adds with a smile.

When Walder was writing his report on the building for the council, he recalls that “it felt terribly abstract, like something from another age.” The events of the last year have changed all that: “Now it really feels close to home.”


20th century: Invention of the future

To infinity and beyond . detail from Long Live the First Cosmonaut YA Gagarin! by Valentin Petrovich Viktorov (1961). Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty

There can be no doubt that technology hugely changed the ways in which we lived and died in the 20th century. However, it also masks changes that are arguably even more profound. In 1900 few people seriously considered the future. William Morris and a few socialists wrote utopian visions of the world they wanted to see, but there was little serious consideration of where we were going as a society. Today we predict almost everything: what the weather will be, what housing we will need, what our pensions will be worth, where we will dispose of our rubbish for the next 30 years and so on. The UN predicts world population levels up to the year 2300. Global warming reports are hot news. Novels about the future are 10 a penny. Newspapers and online newsfeeds are increasingly full of stories of what will happen, not what has happened. With limited resources on a limited planet, this is not a shift that is likely ever to change. In a thousand years or so, if society continues that long, the 20th century may well be viewed as the threshold when the modern world began – when humanity started to consider the future as well as the present and the past.

Centuries of Change by Ian Mortimer is published by Bodley Head (£20)