Through researching my family tree, I’ve discovered some new connections to the land.

It’s not just that I’ve found ancestors in new parts of the country, although that certainly has a bearing on things, it’s more that I have a reinforced sense of a long personal connection to the land, this land, where my ancestors spent their entire lives living and working. A connection so many of us seem to have lost these days. I’m following the threads of folk who scraped a living in villages in Norfolk or Essex or Hampshire, frequently living in poverty or at the very least on the very edges of it. A hard life for most of them. Widows with no way of supporting themselves other than plaiting ‘straw dollies’ for a few pence, labourers in their seventies still having to endure hard physical graft to stay out of the workhouse (where they would have had to work even harder, for even less reward). People for whom starvation would have been a very real threat. Even comparatively healthy families would have relied on all the womenfolk trying to bring a few extra pennies into the household.

Some of these connections are selective – I can reject a connection I’m uncomfortable with, such as through industrial work in towns or cities which is something I have little experience of, and no love of in the first place, but I cannot claim a connection that isn’t there in the first place.

And within this experience, there is the time element – both how long ago these events were, but also how long they lasted, which contributes to the intensity of this connection for me.

These folk weren’t just the very poorest, of course. Amongst my ancestors there are also a wide range of craftsmen and women such as weavers, shoemakers, and printers, but also other poor labourers such as shop assistants, launderesses, servants, stokers, coal porters, cable hands…the list goes on and on. Not that there’s anything special about my family tree – everyone has these folk in their past.

I think – I know – some people just look for royalty or knights in armour when they research their trees. They dream of having the right to a coat of arms, or bragging rights to a famous name. None of us come into it completely open to what we find. We all have some expectations – to push our ‘lines’ back as far as we can, for example, or discover connections to the famous. Personally, I’m delighted to find my ancestors were the urban and rural poor. I don’t want to find the rich and privileged in my tree. Is that inverse snobbery? Perhaps.

But it’s the connection to the land I’m referring to here. I’ve always felt a strong personal connection to the land, to the physical world, and every census entry or marriage certificate I come across showing my ancestors earning their living that way seems to strengthen my own connections as well as a sense of continuity with my forebears.

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.