ON FRIDAY July 11, 1925, 13-year-old Charlie Matthews left his home in Northwood to walk into Cowes where he worked for Mr Albert Colley at the Isle of Wight Hair Company.

The premises were in some buildings at the rear of 30 Newport Road, Cowes (once home to the Esso garage for readers who know Cowes of old).

As anthrax is not photogenic, scroll through the gallery of pictures above to see more historic images of Cowes...

Mr Colley employed 24 girls and four boys, aged 13 to 30, to wash and disinfect large amounts of animal hair, usually horse hair.

Charlie felt ill this morning and at 8.15am he decided to go home, complaining of a headache and feeling sick. His condition worsened and on the Sunday morning a doctor was summoned. Two hours later, Charlie was dead.

Isle of Wight County Press: Alan Stroud - Cowes pictures

An advert for the IW Hair Company from the County Press in 1927.

On close examination, the doctor found a small red pustule on Charlie’s arm which raised suspicions in his mind. He removed it and sent it for microscopic examination. A few days later the results came back — Charlie had died of anthrax.

Anthrax is one of the most toxic diseases known to man. Its germs can live for decades and the disease is often fatal, depending on the way it enters the body.

It is passed on to humans from livestock or horses through direct contact with them, usually through cuts or by breathing the spores in.

Charlie was employed as a ‘wet-hackler’, someone who disentangled wet horse hair using a large metal comb, and he was handling horse hair in industrial quantities every day.

In the days when nothing was wasted, animal hair had many uses. It was used for stuffing upholstery, making fabric for covering furniture, making bows for violins and it was widely used in the building trade to bulk out plaster.

Charlie would also have been familiar with badger hair, which was widely used in fine art paint brushes and shaving brushes. The downside to all this admirable re-cycling was anthrax.

A few weeks later a coroner’s inquest was held into Charlie’s death. Mr Colley, Charlie’s employer, came in for some tough questioning:

Q. Have you had any case of anthrax at your factory before? No Sir.

Q. Haven’t other employees complained of the same thing - headache and sickness? Well, perhaps boys and girls have gone home with headache or sickness.

Q. You have had this sort of thing many times before? I cannot say. We have had nothing unusual.

Mr Colley went on to tell the coroner he had been in the horse-hair business since he was 14 and had been using horse hair from Russia and Siberia since June, 1924.

All his raw hair came from London agents and he personally supervised the disinfecting using the method approved by the Home Office.

The disinfectant solution was heated to 160°C and the hair submerged in it for an hour to destroy the anthrax bacilli.

Q. I suppose there is no doubt that the boy caught anthrax at his work? That is the doctor’s evidence. If the doctor said it is anthrax I am not going against it.

Q. I take it that you put the bales of hair directly in the disinfectant and any risk there is, has been taken by yourself? Yes.

Q. If the disinfection is incomplete, the deceased would be the first person to touch the unfit hair? It is quite possible. I disinfect about £200 of hair at a time. I sometimes have a boy to help me carry a bale to the tank but I always open the bale myself.

In a surprise move, the coroner announced that there was a boy present from the factory. The CP reported, “Mr Palmer, for the boy’s family, said he should like the boy called.

Thomas Jones, 16, of Cross Street, Cowes, said he worked with deceased. They sometimes helped to put raw hair into the disinfecting tanks.

Q. If Mr Colley says that no boys opened those bales to put hair into the disinfectant tank, it is an inaccurate statement?Yes. They sometimes helped to put raw hair into the disinfecting tank. He thought four boys had opened bales.

Mr. Palmer asked Jones, “Has Mr Colley had any conversation with you about what you were going to say here today? Yes. He told me not to say too much.

Q. Did he give you anything? Yes, sir. He gave me a shilling.

Mr Colley: “I did not tell him what to say here.”

At that, Jones blurted out: “You told me not to say too much about the sorting!”

It was embarrassing evidence for Mr. Colley, but not incriminating.

Even in the 1920s, the treatment and handling of animal hair was highly regulated by law and Mr. Colley did appear to have followed the law.

Not surprisingly, the coroner’s verdict was that poor Charlie had died from anthrax poisoning, the last person on the Isle of Wight to have done so — not much of a claim to fame.

Today, anthrax is still with us. In December 2009, an outbreak occurred in heroin addicts in Scotland, killing 14. The source this time was bone meal from Afghanistan.

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