diseases and remedies of the 1800s

This quote by Francis Bacon (1561–1626), English philosopher, essayist, and statesman, often rang true in the 19th Century.

This quote by Francis Bacon (1561–1626), English philosopher, essayist, and statesman, often proved true of those poor souls who were unfortunate enough to pick up a tummy bug or a fever during the 19th century.

A novel side-track on the road to researching my family tree is the amazing first person information I have found. Letters and journals which give a personal narrative of the social and cultural world my ancestors inhabited. I believe it’s called Historiography – studying the social history on a personal level rather than on abstract and analytical circumstances.

If you have read my blog you will know a bit about my 3 times-great-grandfather George WELLINGTON and his large family who lived in Somerset between 1780 and 1850. I have written about sad letters George wrote to his daughter in 1840 which give an insight into his family life. I am also sharing his daughter Susanah’s journal entries and examining the social and cultural aspects of her life from her diary.

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Given George WELLINGTON’s profession as an apothecary and druggist and his knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants and inorganic elements, you would think he and his family might have had a life expectancy over and above the national average. You’d be mistaken.

The last article I posted, susanah’s journal – births, deaths and marriages, got me thinking that maybe George’s profession was not so beneficial to the health and well-being of his family.

  1. Was the frequency that George Wellington come in contact with sick people a risk to his health and the health of other members of his family.
  2. Were the remedies doctors and druggists prescribed to their patients in 1833 worse than the diseases they were treating?

George WELLINGTON and his first wife Elizabeth EDWARDS had eight children: two died soon after birth; four died aged between 29 and 36 years; Elizabeth EDWARDS died giving birth at the age of 43 years. George and his second wife Elizabeth SAMSON had eleven children: three died as infants; and one died at the age of 18 years. Was a 25% infant mortality-rate normal for the time?

There were some very serious diseases floating around in the early 19th Century. Smallpox was beginning to be controlled by the new practice of vaccination. But, outbreaks of influenza, measles, scarlet fever, typhus and whooping cough still regularly took the lives of tens of thousands people – young and old.

In the 1830s and 1840s there were three massive waves of contagious disease. The first, from 1831 to 1833, included two influenza epidemics and the first appearance of cholera which spread from India up through Europe to the British Isles and through trade routes to the rest of the world. Before it ran its course the disease had claimed over 52,000 lives. The second and third waves brought rolling epidemics of typhus, influenza, smallpox and scarlet fever in 1837-38 and 1846-47.

L0006579 Engraving: 'Monster Soup..." by William

A woman drops her teacup upon seeing the monsters swimming around in a drop of Thames water. During the 19th century, sewage and waste contaminated the rivers, making them a prime source of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Etching by William Heath, London, 1828. [www.wellcome.ac.uk]

Cholera was spread by contaminated water, so it affected mainly the poorer and crowded neighbourhoods where public water sources were easily fouled with effluent. Influenza had no economic or social barriers and was spread through close contact with those already infected. A steady stream of coughing and sneezing customers seeking a remedy from their local chemist might increase the spread of infection to other members of his family. But a large family group socialising with their neighbours and gathering in church each week is just as likely to lead to contact with these serious diseases.

Three of the WELLINGTON children who died as infants may have contracted whooping cough, measles typhus or influenza. A solid dose of the flu would undoubtedly kill a small child if left untreated. It is the most probable cause of death of Alexander Samson WELLINGTON who was laid to rest on 10 May 1833 aged just 1 year and 8 months.

The symptoms of the influenza are set out in a pamphlet entitled Rules for the Successful Treatment and Prevention of the Influenza the Prevailing Epidemic which I found in the Wellcome Trust’s online library. In 1833, doctors could not agree on how people contracted the disease, but opinion was that it was propagated by an air-borne contagion.

Some of the symptoms are listed as follows:

The disease commences with the usual symptoms of the common cold, in conjunction with others that are distressing to the patient and alarming to the physician; such as great languor, lowness and oppression, anxiety, with frequent sighing, and violent headache. The pulse is peculiarly quick and irregular, and at night there is often delirium. Sometimes there are severe muscular pains, both general and local.

 The pamphlet goes on to describe the best way to treat the disease:

… our principle object is to clear out the bowels, to promote a determination to the surface of the body, to support the strength of the patient, and to alleviate the hoarseness, cough and oppression at the chest which usually accompanies this complaint.

Extract from a pamphlet on treatments for influenza in 1833 [wellcomecollection.org]

Detail from a pamphlet on treatments for influenza in 1833. Many of the ingredients are quite toxic to humans.  [wellcomecollection.org]

Ingredients such as acetate of ammonia and powdered rhubarb are purgatives which will bring on diarrhea. Sweet spirits of nitre or nitric acid is a highly corrosive mineral acid. Camphor when applied to the skin acts as a vapour rub and as a steam vapour can be beneficial, but if taken orally is poisonous in large doses. Calomel is mercury chloride, which when taken internally is a laxative and disinfectant. Calomel was an ingredient in teething powders in Britain until 1950 and caused widespread mercury poisoning in infants. It was also widely used until the early 20th century to treat syphillis, and was administered to patients in such toxic quantities that their hair and teeth fell out.

If flu symptoms persisted and signs of inflammation of the lungs showed themselves, it was recommended that a course of four or five leeches, or a blister be applied to the chest to relieve the oversupply of blood in the body; bearing in mind to keep the bowels completely open. These don’t seem to me to be treatments designed to support the strength of a patient already weak with infection and fever; and who is now suffering from dehydration, a serious case of diarrhea and mild anemia.

Sick Infants and toddlers did not really stand a chance. They were treated with syrup of squills, an extract from a bulb that grows in the mediterranean area. It was prescribed to babies with whooping cough and croup to induce vomiting. In order to prevent too much inflammation to the stomach, it was frequently combined with a potion of opium or syrup of poppies. Opium was the universal pain-killer of the early nineteenth century. It was used as readily as we use aspirin or ibuprofen today. 

I’m starting to see how disease made such an impact on the lives of families living in the early 1800s. In his book The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture, Bruce Haley sites:

A Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Gt. Britain, by Edwin Chadwick included figures to show that in 1839 for every person who died of old age or violence, eight died of specific diseases. This helps explain why during the second and third decades of the 19th century nearly one infant in three in England failed to reach the age of five. Taken together, measles and whooping cough accounted for 50,000 deaths in England and Wales between 1838 and 1840, and about a quarter of all deaths during this general period have been attributed to tuberculosis or consumption.

The statistics now add up. I am not surprised that only nine of the nineteen WELLINGTON children born between 1799 and 1840 survived into their 50s, 60s and 70s. Five children died as infants; a daughter Mary died aged 33 during child birth; the eldest son George died of heart disease at 36; his brother William died of consumption aged 36; Sophia aged 29 and Susanah aged 18 also died of consumption or pulmonary tuberculosis.

It may be said the accepted medical treatments prescribed by doctors and druggists in the 1800s were harsh and often hurried patients to their deaths. The secret to living through this era was “being strong enough to survive the disease and the remedy”.

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Sources: The Victorian WebThe Healthy Body and Victorian Culture, Bruce Haley; you can view a PDF of the Rules for the Treatment and Prevention of the Influenza pamphlet as well as other library resources and images at the Wellcome Trust websiteSusanah Wellington’s Journal, BUCK family collection. You can read more about it here: susanah’s journal – somerset to sydney.

susanah’s journal – births, deaths and marriages

An extract from the journal of Miss Susanah WELLINGTON (1819-1838) of Yeovil, Somerset. Susanah was almost 14 years old when she transcribed the following family register into her notebook.

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Susanah's account of her family births, deaths and marriages was most likely transcribed from the front of a family bible.

Susanah’s account of her family births, deaths and marriages was most likely transcribed from the front of the family bible.

The family register begins with the birth dates of Susanah’s parents as well as the date of their marriage:

George Wellington born 26th Jany 1781.

Elizabeth Samson born 7th March 1794.

George Wellington & Elizabeth Samson married
22nd Septr 1817.

It is interesting to note that Susanah spells her mother’s maiden name SAMSON and not SAMPSON, which is the more common spelling I have found in the parish registers and GRO records. Presumably Susanah transcribed these word-for-word from a record her father and mother kept in their family bible.

Elizabeth SAMSON’s death on 28th June 1865, has been added at a later date by Susanah’s sister Jane Penelope WELLINGTON who is the first born child listed:

Jane Penelope Wellington born 6th July 1818,
½ past eight A.M.

Susanah Wellington born 20th Augt 1819,
20 minutes before 2 o’clock A.Noon.

Jane has also added the date she married William Henry SUTTON on 23rd December 1842.

The recorded entries follow with a son, Richard who was born to George and Elizabeth in 1820. Sadly he died three months after his first birthday.

Richard George Wellington born 30th Novr 1820,
¼ before 7 O’C A.M. and Died the 1st March 1822, at Eight O’C P.M.

The Wellington family register also includes the time of day of births and deaths.

The Wellington family register also includes the time of day of most births and deaths. A detail I have not seen before in the front of old family bibles.

The family continued to grow, year after year:

Frances Elizabeth Wellington born 28th Febr 1822, at 7 o’clock in the morning.

Rosa Wellington born 16th May 1823, 10 o’clock P.M.

Frederick George Noble Wellington born 30th Novr 1824, ¼ to 10 P.M.

Lucy Wellington born 13th May 1826, ¼ past six P.M.

And then, two more sons die in their infancy:

Richard Wellington born 2nd Augt 1827, ½ past 6 P.M. and died the 5th Jany 1828, at 5 O’C in the evening.

Alexander Samson Wellington born 24th Augt 1831,¼ past one A.Noon & died 10th May 1833, at a ¼ past five o’clock in the morning.

Little Alexander’s death in May 1833, at the age of 20 months, is the reason Susanah has taken the time to record these details. After Alexander’s funeral, the family would have added his date of death to the register in the front of their family bible and I can imagine Susanah would want to take a copy of her family tree to keep for herself and pass on to future generations.

Susanah left space between entries so she would have room to update the records in her journal with marriages and deaths. I think the entry of Rebecca’s birth was written by Susanah two years later, added to the bottom of the page.

Rebekah[cca] Wellington born August 11th 1834, 10 minutes after three P.M.

Ellen Marianna Wellington born Febry 1st 1840.

The correction to the spelling of Rebecca’s name and recording of Ellen’s birth was done by her sister Jane after the death of Susanah from consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis) on 6 June 1838, aged eighteen years and ten months. I find it strange that Jane did not add Susanah’s date of death to the journal as she did when her mother died.

This is not a very uplifting story – it’s quite tragic that Susanah did not live long enough to marry and have children of her own. But, she was loved by her family and friends, and her little journal is helping us to learn about her short life and the life and times of our ancestors.

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Sources: Susanah Wellington’s Journal, BUCK family collection. You can read more about it here: susanah’s journal – somerset to sydney. You can read other post on members of the WELLINGTON family here: george wellington’s lettersthe chemist shop that time forgot;

george wellington’s letters

A transcript of sad correspondence from George WELLINGTON (1781-1847), Chemist of Yeovil to his eldest daughter Mrs Elizabeth Blackaller GROVES at Blandford Forum. 

You can click on the image to enlarge it for reading.

Wellington_George_Letters_1839

1 – Bessie is Elizabeth Wellington GROVES, the eldest daughter of Elizabeth Blackaller WELLINGTON and Simon GROVES, Chemist of Blandford Forum, Dorset. Bessie died Tuesday, 30 April 1839, aged 12 years, cause of death ‘effusion of water on the brain’ or Hydrocephalus.

2 – Lucy is Lucy WELLINGTON the seventh child of George WELLINGTON and his second wife Elizabeth SAMSON. She was 13 years old in May 1839 and she may have been away at boarding school when she fell ill with seizures caused by ‘water on the brain’ and was brought home to her family in Yeovil.

3Leeches and blood-letting were common procedures in 19th Century medical care. The theory followed that fevers, apoplexy and headaches resulted from an excessive build-up of blood. As a chemist in 1839, George WELLINGTON would most likely have administered medicines and the two courses of leeches to his daughter. Remarkably, Lucy actually recovered, she remained single, worked as a fancy needleworker and a draper, lived a long life and died in 1899 aged 73.

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4 & 7 – Mary’s dear babe is Mary Matilda VINING, the eldest daughter of Mary Webb WELLINGTON and James Tally VINING, Solicitor of Yeovil. Mary Matilda Vining died on 18 May 1839, aged 1 year. There is a large obelisk on a plinth in the grounds of Yeovil Parish Church of St John the Baptist with the inscriptions very worn. The monument was erected by James Tally VINING in memory of his wife Mary, the daughter of George WELLINGTON. She died 21 August 1842, aged 33 years. In the same vault are deposited the remains of Mary Matilda and William Richard, the infant children of James and Mary.

5 – Grandma would be Mary EDWARDS, the mother of George WELLINGTON’s first wife, Elizabeth EDWARDS who died in 1815. Grandma EDWARDS most likely travelled from her home in Shepton Mallet, Somerset to visit her family.

6 – George is George Edwards WELLINGTON, the eldest son of George WELLINGTON and Elizabeth EDWARDS. He was a Druggist and Chemist in Yeovil, in partnership with his father, and aged 31 at the time of these letters. George had married Sarah SANDER in May 1838, but fate dealt them a rotten hand, as they had only 5 years and 5 months together. George died of ‘heart disease’, most likely a heart attack, in 1843, aged 36 years at Creech St Michael, Somerset while travelling on business. Sarah died in 1852, aged 33 years. There is a monument to George and his wife Sarah inside the Yeovil Parish Church, you can view it here.

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Sources: Wellingtonia, The History of the Wellington Family, by John Evelyn; GRO Indexes and documents, UK Census 1941 (HO107/0958  Folio 11/8 Page 8), Pigot’s Directories of Somerset and Dorset 1830 to 1840.