October 13, 202012:11 pmLeave a Comment

Image of the Earth from space with a face mask superimposed on itI was chatting to a friend the other day while she bemoaned the fact that the only thing anyone ever talks about these days is Covid-19 and how it is affecting us. She has a point but as I remarked, it’s probably because we’ve had to completely change how we live and work in order to keep ourselves and others as safe as possible, and also, we’re only just starting to do other things that we can talk about! Never in my lifetime (or at least that I can remember) has a health concern impacted on my life as much as Covid-19 and I suspect I’m not alone.

This got me thinking about how our ancestors dealt with epidemics and how we can find out a bit more about them.
Without getting a death certificate, it’s often difficult to know what our ancestors died of. Even then, without a medical degree it can be a challenge (hooray for the internet!) and even the expert medical diagnosis of the day can add to the confusion.

For example, I was searching for the death of an Irish ancestor the other day and ploughing through the death certificates for 1880 on www.irishgenealogy.ie. During my search I came across causes of death such as Old Age, Decline, Spasms, Worms, Irish Cholera (not sure how this different from any other form of Cholera) and Infantile Wasting, to name but a few. Some of these are not particularly helpful and some seem to us today to be bizarre – could you die of worms in 1880? Obviously, doctors at the time thought you could!

Image of All Saints Headley Burial Register

All Saints Headley Burial Register SHC Ref HED/4/3

Very occasionally an incumbent will note a cause of death in a burial register. The ever vigilant Reverend Laverty of Headley parish (of whom I have spoken before and you can find out more about him and his parish at http://www.johnowensmith.co.uk/headley/laverty.htm) noted many causes of death in his registers such as a child who had died of a Teething Fit, a man who had died of Kidneys Etc (not sure what the ‘Etc’ meant) and one tragic entry for an 18 month little boy “During temporary absence of mother, the child got hold of a lighted candle and having on a flannelette nightdress, was so severely burnt that it died in a couple of days”.

Quite often parish registers will note if there is an epidemic and record the cause of deaths. Laverty makes a note of children who had died of measles and whooping cough and I’ve seen this elsewhere in other burial registers.

Newspapers are a good source for discovering epidemics in specific areas and if you find that you have two or three family members (particularly children) dying within days of each other, check newspapers to see if any epidemics were rife in the area – particularly in more urban areas. Sanitary Authority records often contain Medical Officer’s reports which include details of infectious disease outbreaks by area. Cholera was a terrifying prospect in the 19th century as before the pioneering Dr Snow discovered that it was a water-borne disease, no-one knew how it appeared. It could act with terrifying speed so that a victim could be feeling mildly unwell in the morning and be dead by the next day.
Finally, once source you may not always think of are school log books. They often record large absences of children due to various epidemics of childhood diseases which today often only warrant a few days away from school (Scarlet Fever, for instance) but which could be fatal to our 19th century ancestors.

Portrait of John Snow, traced the source of a cholera outbreak in London, in 1854

John Snow, traced the source of a cholera outbreak in London, in 1854. Originally from en.wikipedia; https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=403227

So how worried were our forebears about epidemics and infections? Well, the cholera outbreak of 1832, which killed over 55,000 people in the UK, caused riots in some areas and local authorities were quick to try and contain the disease, although sadly without knowing how it was spread and often to little effect. The Morning Post of 25 August 1832 quotes terrifying mortality rates which included 53% of children under 5 and 62% under 20 years of age in Leeds, with Bradford, Beeston and Holbeck not much better. The south was somewhat better, with London at 38% of children under 5 and 46% under 20 and Rutland 29% under 5 and 37.5% under 20. The dense overcrowding and factory conditions in the north obviously took their toll.

Newspapers of the day are full of various potions and notions designed to prevent and /or cure cholera, ranging from bicarbonate of soda to castor oil and we all have first-hand knowledge of just how stressful and scary it was for our ancestors having to try and live through this epidemic.

Although smallpox was not the scourge it once was in the 18th century, outbreaks still occurred and in 1853 authorities felt sufficiently justified to make smallpox vaccination compulsory in England and Wales. Incidentally, if you are visiting a record office it’s worth seeing if their Poor Law Union records contain vaccination records. These were compiled from local birth certificates and give dates of births for children and occasionally (although sadly not always) the mother’s maiden name.

So our concerns today are not new. As we all strive to get back to some semblance of normality, while coping with the stresses and strains imposed upon us by this awful virus, we should also remember how terrifying it was for our ancestors, who didn’t have the drugs, care and support of our amazing National Health Service.

Well, I hope I haven’t made everyone thoroughly depressed but these are the sort of things which we are dwelling on just now. However, as Jane Austin so succinctly put it “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery…” – Surrey History Centre is now re-opened for the time being and we’re doing a roaring trade! It’s great to see both our regulars and first time visitors in the building and we thank you all for your support and lovely comments throughout these strange and difficult times. We don’t know what the next few weeks hold in store but we will keep working hard to make sure that you and our collectons are kept safe.

Find out about Surrey Poor Law Union vaccination registers 1872 to 1909 and links to indexes to the registers.

Here’s to a Covid-Free future!

Keep safe and well and Happy Researching!

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Written by Jane Lewis - Modified by ESP Admin

2 thoughts on “Epidemic”

  1. Joe says:

    Hi. As to causes of death, my father died about twenty one years ago, a few days short of his ninety second birthday; his recorded death certificate was he died of old age.

    1. Jane Lewis says:

      Hi Joe – I hadn’t realised that doctors were still recording a cause of death as ‘old age’ as recently as that? I suspect that a lot of it is to do with the circumstances surrounding the death but I would be interested to know if doctors can still cite this as a cause of death on a certificate. Thank you for your comment. Jane

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