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.

A Bit Of Family History

As I have mentioned previously, I am sporadically tracing my family tree, something I’ve only really become interested in recently. Perhaps it is mainly an older person’s interest, although I don’t think I’ll explore that now. But I’m keen to pass on the information to my children and grandchildren especially, so they can do further research if they feel like it.

As well as the family connection, though, much of my interest is both the exercise of solving a puzzle – it has much in common with a detective story – and to attempt to ‘see’ something of the person behind a list of dates and names. It is comparatively straightforward to accumulate lists of these folk with no more information than a sort of ‘Fred Bloggs born 1750, married Mary Smith 1770 died 1820’ which is really of little interest to me.

But if you know where to look (and how to search) there is often more information available about our ancestors, although you also need a very large slice of luck to dig up interesting details of the lives of the average person. In my research, then, I have found a few folk, of whom I knew absolutely nothing to start with, not even their names, and have been able to build up a bit of a picture of their lives.

That’s what it’s all about, I reckon.

Here, then, is an example:

My Great Great Grandad was Frederick John Platt. He was born in 1826 or 1827; I cannot find his birth record, but all other documents are consistent in his age.

A couple of census entries:

1851 the family are at 2 Wilmot Street, Bethnal Green. They were: William Platt, 49, Handloom weaver, Ann, 59, Frederick J, 24, Sarah Susanah, 22, also William James Platt, 26, his wife Sarah, 28, and William James 4. All bar William James Junior are Handloom weavers.

1861 at 1 Green Street, Bethnal Green. They are: Frederick J Platt, 34, Broad silk weaver, Louisa S, 30, Broad silk weaver, Louisa M, 6, Frederick W, 5, Henry G, 1, George W, 1 month. All were born in Bethnal Green.

So far so good, but then there is a Crisis.

In 1861 Louisa Sarah Platt of 1 Green Street, age 30, died. It must have been very soon after the census was taken (on 7th April) as she was buried on 21st April. I obtained a copy of her entry in the Death Register, and it tells us she died on 14th April 1861 – ‘Found dead at 1 Green Street, Twig Folly Bridge, Bethnal Green’. She was aged thirty and the cause of death was given as ‘exhaustion after her confinement’. You can see on the 1861 census the youngest, George W, is recorded as one month old.

Green Street, Bethnal Green, from Cross’ Map of London 1851. Twig Folly on the right of the map gave its name to the bridge where Green Street crossed Regents Canal.

Then on May 8th 1861 we find the following Poor Law Removal judgement:

Frederick Platt, 34, of 1 Green Street, 5 years last 25 Jan, 3 Parliament Street, Cambridge Road, Mile End, B G (Bethnal Green). Weaver.

Was born at no. 10 Geo. Gardens B G never (ye?) has lived in B G all his life father before him. Had married at St. James the Less 1853, 12 June Co produced to Louisa Sarah, who died 3 weeks ago, Louisa 7, Frederick 5, Henry 17 mos, George 5 weeks, – B G

And then in another hand:

Father pd taxes Harts Lane B G Road about 17 yrs ago and Cranbrook St. about 2 yrs. He lives at 2 Cranbrook St.

I am unclear what the ‘removal’ part of the judgement refers to and can only assume it either means the children were taken from him, or they were all evicted from the property. The final paragraph about his father having paid taxes, I am guessing meant the authorities were then willing to provide some sort of support for the children. He had married Louisa Sarah Whalley sometime between April and June 1853, in Bethnal Green – June 12th according to the Poor Law Judgement – and after she died eight years later, his world seems to have fallen apart. And it seems to have happened so quickly! Less than three weeks after Louisa is buried, this judgement is passed upon the family.

But I suspect the family may already have been in some trouble.

Bethnal Green saw a huge influx of Huguenot immigrants during the late seventeenth and early eighteen centuries, almost exclusively silk weavers. Although I cannot find any evidence to back it up, I was told in my childhood that Mum’s ancestors were Huguenots, and that would suggest the Platts were the ones referred to. Whether Platt is an Anglicized version of a French name, or a Platt had married into a Huguenot family, though, I have not been able to determine. Over the years from the Huguenots’ arrival in Britain, though, various laws were put into effect to protect the British silk industry from foreign competition. However an 1860 treaty with France allowed silks to be imported duty free and very soon the industry was in freefall. Unable to compete in price with the imported cloths, huge numbers of weavers were thrown into poverty.

The next definite sighting of Frederick John Platt is in 1877 when his son, Frederick William, is married. On the form, Frederick John’s occupation is given as undertaker, and Frederick W is a commercial clerk. Clearly, they were no longer part of the weaving community. It is worth noting here that Frederick J’s older brother, William James Platt, has his occupation recorded as undertaker in the 1871 census, having also been a silk weaver prior to this date. It seems probable that Frederick either worked for him, or they were in partnership for a while. William then continues working as an undertaker for the rest of his life

After this, Frederick J seems to again drop off the radar for a while. I have a couple of other possible sightings but cannot find any census record for 1881 that I can be sure are his.

But then on September 15th 1884 Frederick John Platt, widower, 57, marries Sarah Mansfield, widow, 45, at St James the Less, Bethnal Green. By now he is described as a provision merchant of 40 Cranbrook Square.

One way or another, it seems he had managed to rebuild his life.

The 1891 census records a Frederick Platt, 65, ice cream vendor, and Sarah, 52, at 33 Quaker Street, Spitalfields.

And then? A Frederick Platt aged 74 died in Whitechapel, July – September 1899. That seems to be him. If it was, then he seems to have fallen upon hard times again. In January and February 1892 and then frequently from February 1895 through to February 1899 a Frederick Platt, widower, is recorded as being in and out of the workhouse at Stepney. His profession is given variously as wood chopper, labourer, or blacksmith’s assistant, and cause of admission each time as bronchitis or rheumatism.

We don’t realise how lucky we are.

Happy Birthday to my Little Brother

Who would have been 62 today.

Grief is a powerful emotion. It can be debilitating and overwhelming. It can consume people, preventing them from living their lives.

Although it sounds a fictional cliché, In some societies ‘professional’ mourners will attend funerals, intentionally provoking powerful outpourings of grief by almost theatrical displays of wailing and crying; perhaps ripping their clothing, throwing themselves to the ground, and thrashing around in distress. This helps to move the bereaved through the process of loss, by bringing feelings and emotions to the surface, rather than allowing them to linger unexpressed for months or years. It helps the mourners to move on – not to forget, but to allow life to continue.

I can understand this, having met people who have been unable to move through grief, seemingly trapped in an ‘I’m okay’ situation, refusing or unable to display their emotions but presumably storing their grief up inside, unexpressed. Refusing help. People who have appeared unable or unwilling to move on. I was fortunate, my grief striking me like a clenched fist and, for periods, I had no choice but to allow myself to weep and rail at fate. But this allowed me to eventually move on, my grief evolved into sadness.

And for anyone struggling with grief themselves, something that helped me at the time was to write a letter to my brother. In my case after remarking it had been a while since I had heard from him, I filled it with humour, using in-jokes we had shared, although other people might have found a different approach beneficial. And the letter sits on my computer still and every once in a while I read it, and it helps me to smile and remember and, of course it makes me feel sad.

But that’s good.

I shall read it again today, and remember.

Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.

The New Viking

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Long, long ago, (although not in a galaxy far, far away) I posted a poem about Vikings which was called, astonishingly, Vikings. (It can be found here should you wish to re-visit it.

This is a rather tongue-in-cheek follow up.

The New Viking, a Reformed man

 

He brought death and terror to these Saxon lands,

Taking iron and fire to fearful hamlets,

But he was defeated by a woman,

A yellow-haired woman, soft and pliant.

And now the screams of battle are the

Bloodcurdling cries of infants.

 

He beats his sword into a ploughshare,

And grows rows of turnips and cabbages.

His axe cleaves firewood.

Maybe he’ll name his house ‘Dunplundering’.

 

He no longer lives within sight of his beloved sea,

But he watches trees ripple in the wind;

An ocean of billows topped with brilliant green spume.

 

Casting long shadows in warm sunlight,

These immobile giants roaring and sighing,

Desperately attempting to free themselves

Of their earthen shackles

Feel uncomfortably close to home.

 

Those northern winters still call him.

The fire, the mead, the fighting,

The tales of monsters and warriors.

 

Hamstrung by instinct

He shifts uneasily, guiltily, on his chair by the hearth.

His sword fingers twitch and tap and he

Looks for reasons to pick arguments

With his neighbours.

 

Anything would do.

Salt

salt-workers

I should feel like an Egyptian pharaoh,

But I never had all that splendour.

Mine was such a short life,

And then I was mummified for the Hereafter.

 

There was never anyone to wait on me,

To bring me delicacies or fan away the flies.

You could not imagine Liz Taylor

Wanting to play my part in a film.

 

But I want you to take a moment or two,

To imagine that your feet and hands

Are permanently covered in cracks and crevices.

And to imagine the constant burning pain.

 

And contemplate now, the virtual blindness

That comes from seeing – day in and day out –

The bright sun reflected from the brilliant white

Of salt, from horizon to horizon.

 

And breathing, such a natural thing!

But even breathing was slowly killing me.

Coughing, spitting, rasping breath and breathlessness

And worse…

 

And when I died, they could not burn me.

Not properly, for the years of salt had seeped

Into my skin and as a final indignity,

Ensured that even death was not a true escape.

 

 

Sprinkle, sprinkle on your dish,

Shut your eyes and make a wish,

Up above the world so high,

If there’s a watcher in the sky,

Pray they somehow can arrange

For this indignity to change.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the extremely difficult conditions endured by Indian salt workers – and many others all over the world (the link is here should you care to read it) – which I don’t think have eased since then.

As you add salt to your meal today, think of them.

The Enduring Lie of A Golden Age

It seems that huge numbers of people have an impression that there was a ‘Golden Age’ at some previous point of their, or some other, society.

They may not define it in those words, or even acknowledge it as such, but it seems to be very common for people to yearn for another time. Sometimes, this is nostalgia – for the days of their youth – but frequently it is for some far-off time that they feel to be somehow better than the time they live in.

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Fantasy books frequently encourage this sort of thinking. Regardless of the actual storyline, the heroes and villains and cast of other odd characters tend to run around and fight and go on quests and sit around in quaint thatched inns quaffing head-splitting alcoholic drinks and everyone is jolly and no one ever dies of dysentery or bubonic plague in misery and agony and squalor.

The Lord of the Rings is a fine example of this. It is a favourite of mine, but it is very noticeable how no one dies of disease, but mostly lives to an exceedingly old age unless chopped into pieces by Orcs.

Hollywood, too, plays its part in this. To take a film at (almost) random, an old version of ‘Robin Hood’ (set in medieval England, remember) depicts a group of merry men dressed in very strange attire living in the depths of a forest and merrily ambushing the Bad King’s men, merrily dining at long tables out beneath the spreading branches of merry oak trees under starry skies and everyone looks clean and clean shaven and everyone is merry, and it never rains.

Pah!

This is meant to be medieval England. Life expectancy at the time was around 30 years. Huge numbers of people died of dysentery, mainly because there was no concept of hygiene. Occasional plagues carried off massive numbers of people, emptying entire towns and villages. There were no antibiotics or anaesthetics. Disease was sent by God and the only way to cure it was considered to be prayer. Or witchcraft. Women routinely died in childbirth, in great pain. The majority of children never reached their teens. Every peasant in every village was effectively a slave under the command of the local lord, who held the power of life and death over them, and might exercise this on a whim at any moment. The threat of famine was ever present.

Pain and misery was a given.

The majority of people lived, too, in a very real terror of the Devil and the threat of eternal damnation.

The list of horrors is almost endless. The phrase ‘life was nasty, brutish and short’ is an apt description of those times. Certainly, I would not wish to live under those conditions.

There are plenty of other ‘Golden Ages’, of course. Almost any time in history can exercise a fascination on us, if certain aspects of it appeal to us and there are things we dislike about the society we live in. And it is natural to yearn for something better; something more than we have.

And this is not to suggest that every age was a living hell for everyone in that society, but that life in most of these times was reasonably decent for the very few on top of the pile, and pretty miserable for the rest. In fact, the measure of how ‘Golden’ an age was, tends to be the conditions of the upper echelons of that society, and perhaps those of a middle class, if such existed.

There is much wrong with our world today. But the huge advances seen over the last hundred years or so, especially in medicine, have meant that our lives have been improved out of all recognition. No longer does surgery equate to filling the patient with a quart of whisky and then sawing off a leg or an arm. No longer do those patients routinely die of infections after surgery, thanks to antibiotics. High blood pressure is controlled, rather than routinely killing. Children usually survive all the diseases of childhood, rather than being most likely to die. Women rarely die in childbirth, and the pain can be somewhat controlled.

Women and children are no longer the legal chattels of men.

Work conditions are hugely improved. Children do not go down mines or work at dangerous looms 14 hours a day. Instead, most receive a proper education. Adults, too, work fewer hours and under far better conditions than previously. When they are too old or frail to work, the state provides a certain amount of dignified support. People do not as a rule die these days of starvation. We do not execute children for stealing sixpence, or poaching rabbits on the Lord’s estate.

In most cases, for most people, today is the Golden Age.

Despair – a poem.

She counts the tomato flowers:

One, two, three, four,

On the stunted plant.

 

Forever waiting.

Hoping….still hoping.

 

Old plastic sheeting and palm fronds.

Dry ground and hot sun.

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Stunted children,

One, two, three, four.

With spindle legs,

And hard, round stomachs,

Lie beneath the palm fronds.

 

Silently.

 

Flies,

Around dry mouths,

And dull eyes.

 

A few onions,

Some spinach.

Dry soil.

 

He was a farmer.

Drought.

Poor harvests.

And debt.

 

All he grew was hunger.

***

This year, he takes another loan to buy seeds

But this year will be different.

He will keep one tenth of the crop

For the seeds

 

Next year,

There will be no more debt.

 

No more hunger.

 

There is a harvest.

Jubilation.

 

Next year,

Sterile seeds.

 

Although he has paid back some money,

The debt has trebled.

***

That land was his,

Over there,

On the other side of the village.

 

That land covered in waste,

Hope buried under rubbish.

The future smothered with despair.

 

The land that belongs to someone who lives

In the nearby town.

Someone who has never seen it.

 

The next day,

She pulls up one onion.

Picks some spinach.

Boils some water for her children.

One, two three…

 

Her fatherless children.

***

In India every year, large numbers of farmers take their own lives when they become trapped in a cycle of poverty, high-interest debt, and bad harvests. And to compound their problems, certain huge multi-national companies are developing seeds that produce only sterile plants, meaning that the farmer cannot use harvested seed to grow new crops, and has no choice but to buy seed again the following year, sinking further into that hopeless spiral.

The government seems unwilling or unable to do anything to break this cycle.