Sickness and Diseases

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been researching my family tree, and a few days ago I was looking for details of one of my ancestors who lived in what was then a small village just outside Norwich. Looking on the parish records not only did I find the entry for his burial, but then noticed that the rector at that time had begun noting down what each person had died of. It was by no means complete, though, because he had added these notes for a year or so and then just stopped. Whether he’d got fed up with it or been told to stop for some reason, I obviously have no idea. But as I glanced through them, I became fascinated by them. I felt they left quite a lot of information about the place and time (rural England in the 1850’s) and thought a bit of it worth sharing.

My ancestor was on page 5 of these records, and the burials had all been conducted by the same rector from the first entry on page one. He added these notes from entry number two, through to twenty nine, then again for number thirty three, and then stopped. This is a summary of the relevant entries:

1   Male     5 weeks   Dec 1851

2   Male       44         Dec 1851      paralysis

3   Male       14         Jan 1852       consumption

4   Male       53         Jan 1852       consumption

5   Male         6         Jan 1852       scarlet fever

6   Male         3         Jan 1852       scarlet fever

7   Female    17         Feb 1852      typhus fever

8   Male        33         Feb 1852      consumption

9   Female    3¾        Jan 1852      scarlet fever

10 Male        53         Feb 1852      liver complaints. Publican.

11 Male        61         Mar 1852      paralysis, consumption

12 Male        19         Mar 1852      consumption 2½ years

13 Female    62         Apr 1852       cancer

14 Female    78         May 1852      old age

15 Male        33         Apr 1852      consumption

16 Male        55         May 1852     decline and heart disease

17 Female    69         Aug 1852      old age

18 Female      5         Aug 1852      inflammation of bowels

19 Female    13         Aug 1852      typhus fever

20 female     21         Aug 1852     consumption

21 Female    76         Aug 1852     coroner’s inquest. Verdict died by visitation of God

22 Male        63        Sep 1852     coroner’s inquest. Verdict died from injury in the head caused by fall

23 Female     71        Feb 1853      paralytic stroke and old age

24 Male         49        Apr 1853      labourer. Decline

25 Female     71        Feb 1853      coroner’s inquest. died by visitation of God, She dropped down dead when in perfect health

26 Male        85         Apr 1853      labourer. Paralysis

27 Male      infant      May 1853      jaundice

28 Female    64         Jun 1853      drowned herself in 11 inches of water. Morbid religious depression. A dissenter. Verdict temp insanity

29 Female   infant     Jun 1853      thrush

After this there are no further comments from the rector, other than:

33 Male        72        Sep 1853      disease of heart

There is quite a lot that is of interest here, and just from a statistical point of view we can see that nine of the burials were children under sixteen – just under a third of the total. Of those six were five or under. Lots of children died in those days. Yet somewhat surprisingly, fourteen of them – roughly half – were over fifty, with four in their seventies and one of eighty five. A very good age for the time. There doesn’t seem much difference in the average ages males and females lived to, although this is a tiny sample, of course. All the rural poor had tough lives, both male and female, which brings us to the comments added by the rector.

Number twenty six really caught my eye. Male, aged 85, a labourer, died of what the rector calls paralysis. No old age pension for them, they worked until they dropped. Number twenty four is also described as a labourer. Obviously the rector felt it worth mentioning, although why just those two, who knows?

Then we have the common diseases we’ve pretty well consigned to the past, now. Scarlet fever. Typhoid. Consumption – properly called tuberculosis. They killed frequently, especially the young.

And when the cause of death couldn’t be determined, even by inquest? ‘Visitation of God’. Although why those ones weren’t just put down to old age I can’t imagine. Unless somebody saw something…

Two more comments I have to mention, though. Number ten, male, age 53, died of liver complaints. The rector had to mention he was a publican, of course.

And then there is number twenty eight. Female, aged 64, drowned herself in 11 inches of water. Morbid religious depression. A dissenter. Verdict temp insanity. The rector belonged to the Church of England, and I’m sure he relished the suggestion that dissenters were mad. All the different denominations of the church seem to regularly go to war with the others, which, if you fancy a bit of a giggle, I satirised here some while ago.

35 thoughts on “Sickness and Diseases

  1. It’s kind of addictive, poring over these old records, isn’t it. Speaking of pouring, the last two on your list were a victim of drink and a victim of water. One of my grandmothers mentioned a couple times a “chronic inebriate,” as they used to say, who combined the two endings — got drunk and on his way home, tripped and drowned in a puddle.

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  2. I was intrigued to see scarlet fever on the list; my mother had that disease, although in her time it was called scarletina. Death by visitation by God is intriguing. Maybe when someone apparently healthy dropped dead and someone asked, “What killed her?” the best answer was, “God knows.”

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    1. The visitation of God verdict must have felt like a cop-out even in those days. I really don’t understand why the conclusion couldn’t have just been old age / natural causes – it was used elsewhere.

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    1. They could have been, or heart attacks, perhaps. I wonder how much investigation there would have been into these deaths of poor people in a small village. The fact there are three entries out of thirty where a coroner’s inquest was held surprises me slightly. I wouldn’t have thought that to be common in the 1850’s.

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      1. The history of medicine’s an interesting one. A story of discoveries through history often lost again and then rejected in favour of ‘God’s will’ or some such nonsense. I seem to recall reading that cancer was recognised a long time ago, for example – much further back than the entry on this record. There was probably a big difference between town and country doctors in the mid 1800’s too, although I might be being a little unfair there.

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  3. So interesting and poignant with news that eight young children have died in Britain recently from Strep A infection. All parents and grandparents worry, but we don’t really expect children to suddenly become ill and die. Parents long ago would have felt just as bereft, but probably not so shocked.

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    1. It is a sad thing, tracing some of these lines. I’ve found families where child after child died. One stood out in particular, where their firstborn son Ralph died, then when their next son was born, they gave him the same name. he died. The next son, likewise. It was only the fourth Ralph that lived. I wonder it never occurred to them that their stubbornness might have been bad luck.

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  4. Really fascinating, Mick. As skewed as some of these records may be, it’s great that they exist and are available. You’re right, it’s more than a birth and death record and offers a window into a time that was – and wasn’t – so long ago.

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  5. This is such an interesting post. It brings History alive – funny how prejudiced they were at the time.
    I’m not sure if we have access to records like this in India and if those records are even maintained. Would be a nightmare looking for it here.
    P.S. I had no idea, ‘Consumption’ referred to TB.

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    1. I wrote an earlier piece on my researches, and Arv commented that Hindus can gather information about their ancestors in Haridwar, where pandits keep extensive family records. I don’t if there is anything in India – census records or the like that can be accessed.

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  6. Call me weird, Mark, but as I read the list and encountered the two ” visitation of God” conclusions I noticed both were older women. It made me wonder, did they die with smiles on their faces? The coroner had to have something to make him think a “God” was involved. 😊 😉

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    1. It reads as very strange, doesn’t it? I think it just means they were unable to decide how the victims died. Yet it’s odd, too. As you say, they were both older women and there are other entries where the cause of death has been entered as ‘old age’ so why not those ones too?

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