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.

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.