Ashes to Ashes. DISEASE AND DEATH IN EIGHTEENTH CENTURY BARWICK. Back to the Main Historical Society page
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Ashes to Ashes


from The Barwicker No.15

We know almost nothing about the health of Barwickers - about the illnesses they suffered from during their lives and those from which they died - until government medical records began to be kept during the last century; Early burial records gave only the name of the deceased, the date of burial and usually the relationship to the head of the family. In some years, the total number of deaths was significantly greater than the average and such events as a very harsh winter or a bad harvest could be the reason. It was suggested (see "The Barwicker" No.6) that in the year 1638, plague was the reason for the large number of deaths and other records show that in 1832, 20 inhabitants of Barwick contracted cholera, of whom 15 died (see "The Barwicker" No 8).

From 1772 onwards, we have a little more information as the Barwick burial records give the age of the deceased. In addition, for the years 1777 and 1778, the illness or "distemper" from which the person died was recorded in about a third of the cases. In the following year or two, an occasional entry of this kind was made and then the practice ceased. Perhaps the reason for giving this information during these years is revealed in the first entry - the death of a one-year old boy from smallpox.

What kind of picture can be drawn of the health of the inhabitants of Barwick during these years from these scanty records? During the decade 1773-1782, the total number of deaths in Barwick parish was 220, almost half of them from Barwick village. The yearly totals in the parish varied from 12 to 27, It has been suggested that multiplying the average yearly total of deaths by 31 gives the approximate population, The numbers so calculated are 682 for the parish and 329 for the village at this time. Similar calculations for the years 1631-41 gave the figures 812 and 245, indicating that the population of the parish had declined but that of the village had increased. The numbers of people dying in the parish within a particular age band during the decade 1773-82 are given in the chart below,

The number dying in the first ten years of life will be noted. Host of these are described as infants, indicating how critical were the birth itself and the first few days afterwards. Also noteworthy are the significant numbers dying in their teens and twenties. The survivors could expect to live to at least 60 years and some into their eighties and even nineties. The oldest death was that of Helen Varley at the age of 96. She was born in 1685!

In the years 1777 and 1778, a total of 53 people died in the parish. In 34 cases the cause of death is not given. However, 20 of these were 60 years of age or more so that we can suggest that they died of age-related illnesses. Another five of these were aged three or less so we can assume that they died of illnesses associated with early childhood. This leaves only nine, whose deaths are completely unexplained.

The recorded deaths are: smallpox (7), consumption (3), dropsy (2), worm fever (2), "Complant of is Brest" (1), "Convulshon fits" (1), "Kild by a fall from a Cart" (1), "Canser" (1), childbed (1). During the next few years, there were other isolated cases of smallpox, consumption, dropsy and childbed deaths. A five-year old child died of measles and one man was "Kild in Seacroft Coolpitts".

Consumption was tuberculosis of the lungs, an infectious illness which remained a serious health hazard well into this century. Mass X-ray screening, B.C.G. vaccination in childhood and the use of modern drugs have now almost eliminated the problem.

The man who fell from a cart to his death was William Abbott of Barwick village and he was 79 years old. Many records of country districts show deaths of this kind. It must not be imagined that a man of this age was in regular employment. The date gives an explanation - July or haymaking time. For a week or two at this time and during the harvest, every available man, woman and child could find paid employment. William would have left his accustomed seat on the steps of the cross to be given the comparatively light job of laying the hay on the cart. A combination of old age, exhaustion and perhaps too much of the ale that circulated at that thirsty time caused his downfall.

Perhaps the most significant cause of death in the records was smallpox. This very infectious disease is carried by excreta or droplet infection, but particularly by the dried scales on the skin of convalescing patients. The disease begins with shivering, headache and backache, with a very high temperature. On the third day a rash appears, which turns into small blisters on the sixth day and these fill with pus on the ninth day. On the twelfth day they burst and form crusts; always assuming, of course, that the patient lives that long!

Although the disease attacks people of all ages, all the deaths recorded in Barwick were of children of one to three years of age, Six of them occurred in Barwick village between August and November 1778. All the victims were from different households. Overcrowding could not have been a factor in the mortalities as there were only four other children living in these homes at the time. Four of the deceased were the only children in their families. Bearing in mind that the habits of toddlers are unlikely to have changed much in the last two hundred years, one can guess at the reason why this age group was so vulnerable. A child of this age is very mobile and inquisitive, picks up any object in sight and invariably puts it into his or her mouth!

In the country as a whole, the proportion of deaths from smallpox was alarming. It was estimated at this time that 36,000 people each year died from the disease in Great Britain and Ireland out of a total population of about 12 million. In the eighteenth century perhaps 60 million Europeans died from this cause.

One remedy, namely inoculation, had been practised in the East from ancient times and involved insertion of "matter" from a pustule of an infected person into the vein of a healthy child. This produced a mild attack of the disease from which the child quickly recovered and which gave lifelong immunity.

The introduction of inoculation into this country in the 1720's has been credited to Lady Mary Wortly Montague, who had observed the method when in Constantinople. Medical opinion was divided but, after some experiments on condemned criminals and orphan children, it found favour in high places and in 1722 two of the daughters of Princess Caroline of Vales were inoculated.

The remedy fell out of favour following several deaths but in the middle years of the century it was revived. A smallpox hospital was opened in London in 1746, where inoculations were performed. The practice proved quite lucrative and the Suttons, father and son, made substantial sums after developing a safe technique in which they treated only healthy children, nursed them with great care, took great pains over cleanliness and made the wound as small as possible, only Just puncturing the skin. The method proved effective in most cases but fatalities continued and it probably helped to spread the disease to untreated people.

The method was practised locally as can be seen from the following extract from the diary of Mrs Philippa Brooksbank, wife of the Lord of the Manor of Healaugh. It shows the treatment, isolation and symptoms of her children, and the anxiety in the village when she allowed her children to be used to inoculate the village children.

"1787. April 7th. Mr Brooksbank and Mr Shann went round the village to prepare for inoculation. The children took physick and my beloved children were inoculated on April 14th. and we went with them to sleep at Robert Archbell's farm house; that was my son Stamp and Philippa. Little James was not strong enough to take the disorder. My darling little boy was very feverish and ill all night and both were very poorly until the pox came out upon them very full. It was a very anxious time for me and my dear husband. Happily all worked well. 14 children were inoculated from our children. One child died, not from small pox but from scarlet fever. It was a very great alarm in the village. We sent for Dr. Hunter to satisfy the people. Another child died that would not be inoculated and had it very badly, I mean its parents objected to it and in general it was objected to in the village."

The outbreak of the disease in Barwick in 1778 was repeated in many parts of the country. William Jenner, a Gloucestershire doctor, in that year began his work on the connection between smallpox and the much less dangerous disease of cowpox, contracted in country districts from infected cattle and which gave protection from smallpox. Injection of matter from pustules on people with cowpox, was introduced and eventually accepted by the medical authorities. Vaccination, as the treatment came to be called, was made compulsory for infants in Britain in 1852. It has been so successful that now smallpox has been almost eliminated, but the death of a worker who accidentally caught the disease in a research establishment a few years ago highlights its potency.


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