At the time of writing, the world is on the verge of a Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As it is dominating the news and many discussions, I have been thinking about how my ancestors and their families might have been affected by epidemic diseases. It is rare to find historical information about those who survived infections, although I would guess that many of my ancestors suffered from infectious illness during their lifetimes. It is easier to find out about those who didn’t survive where their cause of death is recorded on death certificates or, occasionally, in parish registers.
My ancestor James Jesse Blake wrote his life story. Sometime in the 1880’s, he caught small pox and was lucky to survive. Here his experience is documented in his own words:
A vessel came into the London Docks from Jamaica, W.I., some work had to be done hurriedly, so Mr Buchan sent me to get measurements, as the ship had to get away to sea again. I felt quite ill when I got home that night, but went to work again the next day, but I soon became worse. I went home, and sent for Dr Bowkett of Poplar. He said I had got smallpox and must be isolated. It being a very respectable neighbourhood, the authorities came making enquiries. Dr Bowkett opposed them, giving all directions what to do. I became blind. My poor wife wore herself out. My mother also came and sat up with me many nights. 3 months elapsed after getting my sight before the doctor would let me go out. My sister Catherine, the mother of many children, often came to see me. My brother in Law and I went for a four days trip to the Isle of Wight. After that I went to work again, at the same shop, under Mr Buchan. One of my mates suggested I should belong to the Royal Standard Sick Benefit Society, which I did do, I am thankful to say.
It is interesting to see that at the time, he was put in isolation and the authorities investigated the case; not so different to the stories dominating the news at the moment. James Jesse Blake would have known all too well how bad small pox could be. His sister-in-law, Emma Ginn nee Macro (aka Todd)* was widowed when her husband, George, died of the disease in 1871, leaving behind two young sons.
My ancestor Mary Ann Elliston nee Simmonds (aka Hardy)*, mother of three, died of small pox in 1885. She lived in West Ham, not that far away from Limehouse where James Jesse Blake lived, so maybe they were infected during the same epidemic.
Several of my ancestors lost children to small pox:
- Malcolm Macdonald and Agnes Donaldson’s son Angus died of the disease aged 4, in 1837 in Glasgow, Scotland. Maybe other family members caught the disease and survived.
- Two of Jonathan Henshaw and Amy Blonk’s adult children, Major and Anne, died of the disease in 1746 in Wicken, Northamptonshire. I do not know why they called one of their sons “Major”. They were the only two recorded as having the disease so I wonder if Major brought it from elsewhere and his spinster sister nursed him, catching the disease.
James Jesse Blake lost one son to dysentery, a highly infectious disease. Henry Earnest Blake was a merchant seaman who got caught up in the Boar War and died at Ladysmith, in 1900, of the disease, rather than from battle wounds.
The flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed two of my ancestors, husband and wife Oscar John Kirby and Harriet Kirby nee Partridge. While my great grandmother, Constance Mary Charley nee Macdonald died of flu and pneumonia shortly after arriving in New York from Australia, in January 1929. She left her husband Walter George Charley a widower with four sons to look after. He had been in Cuba when she fell ill. Seasonal flu still kills many people but vaccination has reduced the number of fatalities.
Of course, the most famous pandemic is the Black Death or Bubonic Plague. I don’t know if any of my ancestors or their families died during the original pandemic of 1347-1351, records from that period are scarce, but I guess it is likely. I do have ancestors (on my Briggs line) who died of the Black Death in later epidemics. Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, died of the disease in 1369 and Peter of Luxembourg, Count of St Pol, died of Black Death in 1433.
For so many of my ancestors and their children, I have no idea of their cause of death, but I am sure many died of infectious diseases that I haven’t had to worry about because of vaccines, good hygiene and modern medicine. My direct ancestors were, of course, survivors who grew up to have children. Many lived long enough to die of age related causes rather than infection.
*The two women with multiple surnames listed were illegitimate and used their step-father’s surname after their mothers married.