Smallpox, Vaccinations, and my Ancestors in Essex

One branch of my family came from Essex. In the eighteen hundreds they lived in the Ashen area, in Ashen, Ovington, Clare, and, I expect, other nearby villages. Extended families all living within a few minutes walk of each other as was the way then, both in urban and rural areas. They were all farm labourers making more or less of a living and I would imagine they found life quite a struggle. Most did.

Yesterday I made a systematic search through the parish records for the Ashen area, looking at every page between 1800-odd and 1890-odd. The pages up to approximately 1815 are water-stained and virtually indecipherable, and they finish around 1890. This branch of the family were named Hickford and I decided to extract every entry of that name to help me piece together the relationships. These records are of Births and burials and, before 1837, marriages. After this date the marriage records were held in London.

I don’t propose to bore you with any details of the family, but I was particularly struck by the following entry:

Mary Hickford was only thirty five when she died on June 16th, 1839. What is interesting is the note appended to her burial record by the rector. And it was the only such record I noticed, although I might have overlooked one for another family. It reads:

She died of the small-pox between 3 and 4 o’clock on Sunday the 16th and buried a little after midnight. I read the burial service over her grave at 10 o’clock this same morning. L Squire, Rector of Ashen.

So much haste! No sooner is she dead than she is buried – in the small hours of the morning, no less. The gravediggers must have started work almost as soon as she had breathed her last. It illustrates how terrified people would have been of catching the disease.

We have forgotten how virulent and frightening smallpox was, since it was finally eradicated by vaccination in 1979. Up until the 1800’s it killed thousands of people, and disfigured many more than that. Attempts to protect people from it by vaccination go back much further than Edmund Jenner famously inoculating a boy with ‘cow pox’, essential a milder form of the same virus, to produce antibodies that would protect against smallpox. He had learned that country folk had noticed that milkmaids who worked with cattle all the time might develop cowpox, but rarely caught smallpox, and would occasionally inoculate themselves with cowpox to ward of smallpox.

A thousand years ago in China, healthy people inhaled a powder made from smallpox scabs which provided some protection against the disease. Another method was to scratch the surface of the skin and introduce the powder into the body that way. Versions of this circulated around Asia and Africa until stories reached the west in the 1700’s.

Since the disease killed so many, especially children, parents were keen to have their children inoculated. But naturally there were scare stories. There was an anti-vaccine movement ridiculed in this well-known cartoon by the then prominent cartoonist Gilray, in which patients are seen developing cow-like pustules as soon as they are innoculated.

These, of course, were the nineteenth century version of today’s anti-vaxxers protesting with no proof whatsoever that the vaccine is a way of inserting microchips to monitor and control the population, of ignorance rejecting science. And just as true.

45 thoughts on “Smallpox, Vaccinations, and my Ancestors in Essex

  1. There’s a smallpox cemetery in Galveston, Texas. The number of children buried there is amazing, and there are the same records of hasty burial. “A pox on thee!” was a far more horrifying curse than we immediately sense today.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I thought about that curse while I was writing this post. Horrifying indeed, as even if you survived it you were likely to bear awful scars for life. And for children, the more severe form had (I believe) a 72% mortality. That’s why parents were so keen to have their children inoculated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I believe that 72% figure. When I was working in Liberia, the mortality rate from measles in the under-fives was 50%, and the folk saying was, “Don’t name your children until the measles has passed.” I’d love to put a few Liberian mothers and a few anti-vaxxers in the same room for an hour.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I can think of a few places I’d like to place them.

          As far as naming children is concerned, it used to be more a case of naming them as soon as they were born, and if they showed any sign of sickness baptising them as soon as possible as an unbaptised child who died would languish in purgatory. Sadly, the parish records are plentifully supplied with records of children being buried ‘aged 1’ or ‘3 days’, etc.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Sadly there are people who can listen to any amount of scientific data and choose to ignore it, then watch some frothing madman on YouTube screaming that 5G will turn you into an armadillo or the Covid-19 vaccine is designed to make us all point north when Bill gates farts and believe it. *sigh*

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, the rector’s note really summons up quite a scene – the hastily-dug grave, villagers looking out their windows and seeing the dim light from lanterns in the churchyard after midnight, knowing what it was about, and wondering if it was their turn next.
    The various smallpox epidemics over the centuries varied in lethality. I read a book a few years ago, about the horrifying plague that hit North America, and coincided almost exactly with the American Revolution. It swept from Mexico City to Hudson Bay, destroying indigenous villages, a regiment of escaped slaves recruited by the British army, etc. George Washington was reluctantly forced to inoculate his army, despite the risks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really paints the picture, doesn’t it? Just a short note but, as you say, you immediately begin to picture all the details.
      It made me think, too, of the waves of bubonic plague that swept Asia and Europe over the centuries; no inoculation against those, and everyone even more terrified of contracting it. The dead left to rot in their houses while villagers fled into the woods and fields, whole villages wiped out. One of the plagues wiped out over half the population of Britain.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mick, one does tend to forget the horrors of smallpox and I didn’t realise it wasn’t fully eradicated until 1979! The children’s mortality rate you quote in a comment is horrific – your detailed and well-researched post does put the current pandemic into a new light.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it demonstrates that all these things are horrific, Annika. Think of the figures for Bubonic plague, the Black Death, as I mentioned to Robert. In comparison with those, we’ve got off lightly, although in no small degree due to the greater knowledge we have today.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting thing to share. I have read that Egyptian practiced the surface scratching and using a needle to infect the surface with a very small quantity in small kids. This was also done later in 1700s in England. So this was the previous version of vaccine as the body would build antibodies.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating Mick. History repeats itself constantly doesn’t it and we don’t always learn from it? Crazy. Don’t have a clue why anyone in their right minds would not get vaccinated right now, seems unbelievably short-sighted and ridiculous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t think myself into that mindset, Jonno. It’s not even as if vaccination is something that’s just been invented. Presumably all the anti-vaxxers were given jabs as children and it hasn’t turned them all into…oh, wait…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Very interesting read, Mick. I remember being vaccinated against small pox in childhood.
    I am listening to the Russian Rulers podcast these days (so fascinated by Russian history!) and was amazed to hear that Catherine the Great had herself ‘vaccinated’ against small pox in 1796 itself. She ‘survived’ and that apparently convinced others at court and the rest of the country to follow her example.

    Liked by 1 person

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