At the end of the nineteenth century, the northern port of Liverpool had become the second largest in the United Kingdom. Fast transatlantic steamers to Boston and other American ports exploited this route, increasing the risk of maritime disease epidemics. The 1901–3 epidemic in Liverpool was the last serious smallpox outbreak in Liverpool and was probably seeded from these maritime contacts, which introduced a milder form of the disease that was more difficult to trace because of its long incubation period and occurrence of undiagnosed cases. The characteristics of these epidemics in Boston and Liverpool are described and compared with outbreaks in New York, Glasgow and London between 1900 and 1903. Public health control strategies, notably medical inspection, quarantine and vaccination, differed between the two countries and in both settings were inconsistently applied, often for commercial reasons or due to public unpopularity. As a result, smaller smallpox epidemics spread out from Liverpool until 1905. This paper analyses factors that contributed to this last serious epidemic using the historical epidemiological data available at that time. Though imperfect, these early public health strategies paved the way for better prevention of imported maritime diseases.