At this difficult time of disease, no decent blog would be complete without at least a nod to Coronavirus.  Our modern day plague perhaps spreading across the globe like the Spanish Flu that followed WW1 during 1918-19. 

I read yesterday that two cruise liners belonging to the travel group Saga are docked at Tilbury.  Saga have handed these ships to the Government to use as hospital ships should it become necessary.  No decision has been made to use them but the 2,000 cabins would provide valuable beds for the sick if hospitals are overwhelmed.  This is not the first time ships have been used on the Eastern reaches of the Thames as floating hospitals as I discovered when I was researching Mr Ginandgenealogy’s great-great Grandfather, Adam Miller (1827-1901) who was involved in their construction.

Adam Miller came from humble beginnings, he was born on 2nd November 1827 in Edinburgh, the son of a labourer who died when Adam was young. He served an apprenticeship as Millwright and Engineer from 1840 and qualified as an Extra First Class Engineer.  He spent time as Chief Engineer on various large steamers after which he began to design and develop steam engines and boilers and also steam ships built to bespoke specifications. In 1876 Miller moved to London and set up his own naval design consultancy at Riches Court.

1881 saw the start of the smallpox epidemic in London which created a great strain on hospital beds in the capital. To address this, The Metropolitan Asylum Board chartered two old wooden warships and equipped one for acute cases and the other as an administration block. They were situated on the Thames to the East of London at Long Reach, an isolated stretch of the river, and in 1884 the iron paddle steamer Castalia joined them.  Originally built in 1874, she had been intended to run as a passenger ferry between Dover and Calais but had been unsuccessful and never used.  The MAB bought the ship and commissioned Adam Miller to convert it into a hospital ship.  He removed the engines and paddle wheels and had the space decked over.  He divided the lower deck into five wards and built another five ward blocks on the upper deck and Miller also designed a new ventilation system using “Boyle’s Extractors”.  The ship came into service in July 1884.

Since the three hospital ships were moored some way out of the London, it was necessary for a river ambulance service to transport the sick from the City to the ships or to the hospital at Dartford.  The North Wharf receiving station was built at Rotherhithe by the MAB who required a floating a pier or pontoon so that the ambulances could reach the shore and transfer patients from the wharf to the river at any time regardless of the tide.  Adam Miller incorporated both these features into his design which was connected to the wharf by a gangway.  A galvanized iron canopy was built in 1887. Miller went on to use his designs for two further piers commissioned by the MAB, one at Blackwall and the other at Fulham.

Miller also designed the Red Cross, Ambulance steamer for use on the Thames.

The hospital ships continued in use until 1903 when more a more permanent smallpox hospital was opened nearby. The ships were disposed of by auction and the Castalia sold for £1120. A flood barrier now occupies the site of the Long Reach pier buildings.

We now wait to see how far and how fast the Covid-19 spreads and whether the cruise liners at Tilbury will be needed as hospital ships.

My sources used while researching this part of Adam Miller’s life include:

Metropolitan Asylum District – Board Minutes 1884-85 Vol Xviii. Graces Guide to British Industrial History:, Shipping & Mercantile Gazette. Survey of London: Southern Blackwall: Coldharbour, Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs; originally printed by London County Council, 1994. Contagion, Isolation and Biopolitics in Victorian London, Matthew L Newsom Kerr, Palgrave MacMillan, 2018. Mechanical Engineering Records, 1847-1930. London, UK: Institution of Mechanical Engineers


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