England Epidemics and Major Causes of Death A to R (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Epidemics and Major Killers[edit | edit source]

Cancer[edit | edit source]

Cancer was regarded as purely a female disorder in the 18th century as the common ones, breast and cervical cancer, were often obvious. At the same time most cancers were misdiagnosed as consumption or old age, and until 1883 fatal blood loss due to cervical cancer in post-menopausal women was called menstruation of old age—a marvel but also a portent of death.

Cholera[edit | edit source]

There are two types of cholera that the genealogist will meet:

  • Before the 1830s the term referred to cholera nostra, also known English cholera or summer diarrhoea, and could include any acute intestinal disorder.
  • After 1830 the virulent cholera morbus or Asiatic cholera reached England as part of the first pandemic (world-wide epidemic). Between 1831 and 1834 it had cause 60,000 deaths in the population of 14 million. Cholera was greatly feared because of its horrible symptoms, and there were further imported outbreaks in 1848-1849 (125,000 deaths), 1853-1854 (30,000 deaths), and 1866 (18,000 deaths). In addition cholera exacted a regular toll every year particularly in ports and coastal cities liable to infection from abroad. My second great grandmother Sophia Thom, wife of a mast maker in Rotherhithe, Surrey on the River Thames died of it on her 37th birthday on 17th Aug 1849 at the height of the 2nd English cholera epidemic.

Cholera was often improperly treated with purgatives, consequently most sufferers died. One of the major symptoms, diarrhoea, may have been given as the cause of death, perhaps for fear of causing public alarm. If your ancestor died of this during one of these major epidemic years it may really have been cholera.

Cholera was mainly a disease that afflicted the poorer, malnourished sections of society through dirty water and food. During 1832 the local boards of health were required to send in reports with full details of each person contracting the disease; these may still be found in The National Archives (Goddard).

The 1848 Public Health Act started to address the problem of adequate sanitation and clean water supplies but it was not until London’s Great Stink of 1858 that a suitable sewage collection and treatment system was formulated. Halliday’s book on the subject is titled The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis, and Don Felgate’s (1993, 1999) articles gives a shorter account of the polluted water problem, including the toshers who scavenged in the sewers whilst fighting off rats, and Bazalgette’s plan for the Embankment and the lost rivers of London.

Diarrhoea[edit | edit source]

This is a symptom of many diseases, but was quoted as the foremost cause of infant death, and was prevalent in dirty home conditions where poor or incorrect food was supplied. Calomel was used ‘to get rid of the poison’ but as this is a purgative it was precisely the wrong treatment. Naturally the children of the poor suffered most, and up to 50% of illegitimate children died in their first year. Often, these babies were weaned far too early so mother could go back to work, or given opium or laudanum to quiet them so mother could sleep.

Diphtheria[edit | edit source]

Although rare at the beginning of the 1800s and not clearly differentiated from other ulcerative throat diseases until 1819, it spread from the continent from 1855. It was one of the commonest childhood infectious diseases and a major cause of death in children well into the 20th century. There is a very touching account by Biggs using the Medical Officer’s Report and detailed maps of an outbreak in Lewisham, Kent in 1896 and its effects on one family. Most families have some experience with the disease; my mother nearly died of diphtheria around her 4th birthday in July 1918. Her cousin, Edith Grace Batey, died on 14 Mar 1920 at 48 Vanbrugh Hill, Greenwich, Kent (the address of the workhouse infirmary) age 3 years ofDiphtheria certified by L. Buchanan M.D.

Influenza[edit | edit source]

Virulent forms of influenza have been amongst the greatest killers of the past. The epidemic termed sweating sickness and thenew ague noted in parish registers in the 1550s, and particularly 1557-59 was probably influenza.

The worst international outbreak (pandemic) ever recorded was after the First World War, when half the world’s population was infected and estimates of deaths range from 15 to 40 million, more than the total number killed in the Great War (WWI) itself. It was known at the time as the Spanish Flu, because it was first reported by newspapers in Spain, they being neutral in the war. It was unusual also because it was most deadly for those between the ages of 20 and 40, whereas most influenza strains wreak havoc amongst young children and the elderly. The World Influenza Centre was established in London in 1946 to prevent a recurrence of the 1918-19 pandemic, and by identifying the causal strain and quickly developing a vaccine they were able to reduce the fatality rate during the 1957-58Asian flu pandemic, and the Hong Kong one in 1968.

Measles[edit | edit source]

This was a killer as it lay dormant between major outbreaks thus no immunity was built up by those born after the last outbreak. Measles often lead to pneumonia and death before it was controlled by vaccination in the 20th century.

Plague (Bubonic Plague or Black Death)[edit | edit source]

Bubonic plague was first seen in England in Kent in 664, and again in 829, with several more isolated outbreaks before the huge outbreak of 1348-1352. This epidemic was given the name Black Death some 200 years later. They were probably all caused by similar organisms although there may have been confusion with anthrax and pneumonic plague. Climatic changes in the early 14th century gave rise to a series of poor harvests causing starvation and malnutrition for the peasants across Europe. This resulted in significant depopulation of the land, and by reducing the health of the majority contributed to the severity of the epidemic. A third or more of the population died as a result of these conditions and the black death, the clergy suffering a death rate of 40-45% judging by the number of vacant benefices (Hey). Jenny Mukerji comments on the various causes of European depopulation in the 14th century in her 1996 article, European Population Levels in the 14th Century - It’s a Wonder We Are Here at All! (Root and Branch, West Surrey FHS, Vol 23 #2, page 60-61).

There were subsequent epidemics in 1360-1362 and 1369 and the total social and economic consequences were staggering. For the first time labourers were in short supply and were able to force an increase in wages and benefits, as well as liberating themselves to move to a better job elsewhere rather than being tied to their home manor.

Many settlements became moribund and some villages were abandoned as the population moved to create viable units. There are few records of names of those dying because this was before the advent of parish registers (1538). However, manorial records indicate a loss of between one-third and two-thirds of tenants in this 21-year period. Occasionally there are records of specific instances, such as in Canterbury, Kent in 1593 (Collins) when levies were imposed for preventative action and the city records show payments as: … to Goodman Ledes, watching Anthony Howes dore … when his house was infected with plague …

The disease, transmitted to humans by fleas carried by the black rat, remained endemic in Britain until the 1660s with major epidemics in 1563 and 1603 in London and others elsewhere but particularly in the south-east of England. Occasional references are therefore found in the burial registers, as in the following two examples:

Chart: Plague in Parish Registers

1604 St. Sidwell, Exeter, Devon Burials
Apr 10 Richard ---, out of Peter Mogridge's house in ye plague
Apr 12 Emlyn d/o Edmond Burnill ditto
Apr 12 Bridget d/o John Hocklie ditto
Apr 27 ---, wife and Elizabeth d/o John Hocklie ditto
Apr 29 John Hocklie ditto
Apr 29 Phillip s/o Richard Stone ditto
Apr 30 Marie d/o William Pearse ditto
May 1 Peter s/o Richard Stone ditto
May 5 John Webber senior ditto
May 5 Ambrose s/o John Hocklie ditto
May 6 Jeremie s/o Edward Wills
May 7 Richard wife of Thomas Coblie
May 9 Marie wife of Geilles Smyth
May 10 William s/o William Pearse in ye plague
May 11 Richard s/o William Pearse ditto
May 14 Martyn s/o Thomas Jeffrye ditto
May 14 Grace d/o William Pearse ditto
May 15 Alce wife of John Hamlyn ditto
May 15 Marie Peryman d-in-lawe unto Phillipp Williams ditto
May 17 Rebecca d/o Jeremie Reepe ditto
May 22 Jane d/o John Moore
May 22 Alce d/o John Pitford (out of Mr Gallerise barne) dwelling in ye cytie but because of the sickness is theare removed in ye plague
May 23 John Harris, weaver ditto
May 25 Jarus s/o John Pitforde ditto
May 30 Gowen --- servant unto Jeremie Reepe, who died in St. David's parish ot of Cold ... bor in ye plague
May 30 John Pitforde out of ye barne ditto

1636 Aldenham, Hertfordshire Burials
Sep 16 Widow Clarke de pest
Sep 20 Richard sonne of Richard Fusslowe de pest
Sep 24 Elisabeth daughter of Thomas Stoner de pest
Sep 25 Willia~ sonne of John Bouchmore de pest
Sep 27 Joane ye wife of John Palmer de pest
Sep 27 Kathrin ye wife of Frances Sansum
Oct 2 John son of John Brackmore de pest
Oct 4 Willia~ son of Richard Fusslowe de pest

The Great Plague of 1665 is well-known, notably from the mortality schedules of London and the heroism of the villagers of Eyam, Derbyshire. Eyam’s tailor had received a box of cloth and old clothes from London and he was the first to contract the plague which brought about his death four days later. It spread rapidly in the village and the two ministers lead the parishioners in isolating themselves so that no other villages would be affected. Eyam lost 267 of its 350 inhabitants (Mee).

Havell describes the effect on another rural town, Needham Market, Suffolk which lost possibly 80% of its population in 1665. The cause of plague was then unknown but it was known to be highly contagious. The parishioners voluntarily isolated themselves by erecting a chain across the two roads into their town, and left money in bowls of vinegar there to exchange for food from nearby villages. They had no permanent minister and no records survive of burials in the mass graves, unlike the village of Eyam, Derbyshire who had a burial register and whose ministers survived to write the records.

The symptoms started with red, circular rings on the skin, followed by fever and sneezing, and death came usually within hours. It was much feared and various folk remedies were believed to ward off the disease, such as carrying a posy of flowers in front of one’s face, or a pomander or chewing certain herbs. The nursery rhyme comes from this time:
Ring a ring of rosies
A pocketful of posies
A-tishoo, a-tishoo
We all fall down

Chart: Prevention of the Plague

A Pomander good to preserve the bearers thereof from the Plague

Take the quantity if a good Aple of yeollowe waxe, a good spoonefull of tarre and 5 or 6 spoonefulles of good wine Vinegar. Boyle these togeather, and then putt thereto so much of the powder of wormewoode as will make it very thicke and well it is well stirred togeather take it of the fyer and when it is colde make it upp in Balles, and make an foole throughe one of them and with a stringe weare it about your neck in tyme of sicknesse, and by Gods grace it will preserve you from infection. Also a pease of the roote of Angelica or a peese of the pyll of a Lemmon or Orange or a Leafe of Sorrell, any of these beynge caried in your mouthe and chewed a Litle is very good against the infection.

From the collection of recipes of Anne Dacre, Countess of Arundel (1557-1638), a noted medical practitioner and herbalist, held at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine; some punctuation added.

Perry discusses the general 1665 bill of mortality for 125 parishes in and around the City of London, and an example for one parish is given below. In total over 70% of the 97,306 deaths were caused by the plague.

Chart: Mortality Schedule for a London Parish

The Diseases and Casualties this Week
Abortive 6 Murthured in Stepney 1
Aged 54 Palsie 2
Apoplexic 1 Plague 3880
Bedridden 1 Plurisie 1
Cancer 2 Quinsie 6
Childbed 23 Rickets 23
Chrisomes 15 Rising of the Lights 19
Collick 1 Rupture 2
Consumption 174 Sciatica 1
Convultion 88 Scowring 1
Dropsie 40 Scurvy 1
Drowned 2 Sore legge 1
Feaver 353 Spotted Feaver and Purples 190
Fistula 1
Flox and Small-pox 10 Starved at Nurse 1
Flux 2 Stilborn 8
Found dead in the street 1 Stone 2
Frighted 1 Stopping in the stomach 16
Gangrene 1 Strangury 1
Gowt 1 Suddenly 1
Grief 1 Surfeit 87
Griping in he Guts 74 Teeth 113
Jaundies 3 Thrush 3
Imposthume 18 Tissick 6
Infants 21 Ulcer 2
Killed by a fall down stairs 1 Vomiting 7
Kingsevil 10 Winde 8
Lethargy 1 Wormes 18

Christened Males


In all




Buried Males


In all






Increased in the burials this week 1289
Parishes clear of the plague 34 Parishes Infected 96

Goddard (1997) has contributed a thoughtful piece on the effect of the plague on families. After the 1665 epidemic subsided the plague never returned to the British Isles, although no satisfactory explanation has yet been found. In London the Great Fire of 1666 certainly destroyed some 13,000 rat-infested houses which indubitably helped.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.