By Rosemary Bailey
This article was published in the August 2020 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society
I had to take an article out of the journal at short notice because the author wanted to do more research which left me with five pages to fill – a bit of a dilemma! So I put my thinking hat on, asked a few of the members and came up with this idea to fill some of the space.
The Covid-19 pandemic made me think about family historians in the future who might sadly come across it as a reason for death of an ancestor and reflect (hopefully) it was no longer around to kill people. But what about the diseases we see as causes of deaths for our ancestors? So many of them either just don’t occur now, or are perfectly treatable… and here are some examples:
Thomas Saul died of asthma on 11th August 1866, aged 76. He was my great-great grandfather and was baptised in Clayden, Oxfordshire in 1790 the son of Peter Saul and Hannah Hanton, which is the furthest I can get his family back. His family moved to Oldbury in the Black Country where he was an engineer. Although he did live to a good old age for the time, asthma is treatable now and has been for about 50 years with the introduction of inhalers. But there are still thousands of deaths a year in the UK. It wasn’t really till a decade or so after Thomas’ death that the causes of asthma were being looked at.
Samuel Sale died of measles and convulsions on 12th April 1857 in Oldbury aged one. I am not entirely sure who Samuel is, but I suspect he is part of my family with a mis-spelt surname and so is descended from Peter Saul mentioned above. I ordered the certificate in error a while ago, but hung onto it. It is likely that the convulsions were caused by a spike in temperature because of the measles. Of course we have a vaccine for measles now, given as part of the MMR in the UK although I expect many of our members, like me, had measles as children. There has been a rise in the number of measles cases of late due to a decline in the uptake of the vaccine.
John Saul died of pneumonia which he had suffered from for a month and typhus fever which he had suffered from for two months — poor chap. He died on 15th March 1955 aged 23 and was a coal miner which I don’t suppose helped his pneumonia. Most pneumonias these days are treatable with antibiotics unless the patient has other illnesses going on. Typhus fever is an infection transmitted by flea or tick bites and is different to typhoid which is a water born infection. Typhus fever is still fairly prevalent in parts of Africa, and there are rare outbreaks elsewhere. John Saul was descended from Peter Saul and Hannah Hanton, see above.
Martha Saul died of ‘scarlatina maligna’ on 12th April 1855, aged 9 months. She was the granddaughter of Thomas Saul above. Scarlatina is more commonly known as scarlet fever and before the advent of antibiotics was extremely serious, often causing long periods of illness and death. However scarlatina maligna often occurred during an epidemic and may have had none of the normal symptoms of scarlet fever with death occurring in just hours, although for poor Martha it took five days. She was the granddaughter of Thomas Saul above.
John Slaughter our research-coordinator for the Saul surname sent me the following about three children in his family who died within just a few hours of each other:
My ancestor was a James Wood who had married Eliza Clark at Cottered, Hertfordshire on 2 April 1836. Their first three children were Ellen (baptised 20 November 1836), Reuben (baptised 21 April 1839) and Caroline (baptised 20 June 1841). They lived at Hare Street, a very small hamlet in the parish of Ardeley, Hertfordshire. The Ardeley burial register records the burials of Ellen on 4 September 1842 aged 5 years, Reuben on 7 September 1842 aged 3 years and Caroline on 11 September 1842 aged 15 months. Obtaining the death certificate for Caroline revealed that she had died on 8 September 1842 from scarlet fever. Scarlet fever is mainly a childhood disease and was highly feared back in 1842. It is highly contagious and then carried a high mortality rate. It was capable of quickly wiping out all the children of a family as clearly happened here, they lost all their then three children in the space of a few days. The burial register at Ardeley also revealed that two young children of the Shepherd family had died in September 1842. The 1841 census revealed that the Woods and Shepherds lived next door to each other in Hare Street and no doubt the children would have played together spreading the disease with devastating consequences. Thankfully the contagion appears to have been confined to these two households, but that would have been of little comfort to the parents who must have been devastated by the death of three children in the space of a week. Thankfully they did go on and have eight more children.
Bob Sheldon has sent me the cause of death of some of his ancestors. All his ancestors were born, lived and died in east Kent. He has traced the James Sole below back three further generations to William Sole (his six times great grandfather who was born around 1710, possibly in Reculver, married Ann Tanner in Canterbury in 1733 and died in Reculver in 1760.)
James Sole (Bob’s three times great grandfather) died aged 54 in 1850 from dropsy. Dropsy is now known as oedema and is really a symptom, not an separate illness. It can be caused by heart failure, liver failure and kidney failure amongst other things. There are often treatments these days tincluding diuretics. James was born in Monkton in 1796, married Elizabeth Wiles in the village of St Nicholas in 1823 and died in the there in 1850. They had six children including Bob’s great-grandfather Henry Sole.
Elizabeth Sole (Bob’s great aunt) died in the Minster Workhouse aged 28 in 1864 from chronic diarrhoea. The most common cause of diarrhoea is a bacterial, viral or parasite infection of the gut which we would probably call gastroenteritis today. These infections are often acquired from food or water that has been contaminated by faeces, or directly from another person who is infected. Obviously we can’t possibly know, but it may very well be that Elizabeth’s source of drinking water was contaminated as many were back in the Victorian era. During the late 19th century and early 20th century public health interventions including treatment of sewage succeeded in drastically reducing the incidence of water-borne diseases and were an important cause in increasing life expectancy. Intravenous fluids and electrolytes are used now to replace those lost now due chronic diarrhoea. Elizabeth was born in 1836 and was the daughter in law of James Sole above, marrying his son James in 1855 in St. Nicholas and sister in law of Henry (Bob’s great grandfather). Sadly Elizabeth’s husband James died before her in 1859.
Henry SOLE died aged 66 in 1906 from Morbus Cordis. It seems that morbus cordis was a catch all phrase when the doctor was sure it was death by natural causes most likely heart, but wasn’t exactly sure what. Henry was Bob’s great great grandfather and was born in 1839 in St Nicholas. He married Susannah Doughty in 1862 at Margate and died in 1906 also in the Minster workhouse. They had 12 children including Eli Sole who was Bob’s Grandfather, and was born in Ramsgate and died in Margate
Ian Sewell, our research co-ordinator for the surname Sewell sent me the following details about two of his ancestors:
Henry Sewell died in Bolton, Lancashire aged 39 from a fracture of his thigh in 1876. He was a carter by trade and so Ian thinks it is likely that he was kicked by a horse which broke his leg, he died five days later from gangrene infection. It seems that fractures that don’t either break the skin or rupture a blood vessel were survivable at the time and would have been set. However if the skin had been broken and the bone exposed it is likely that infection would get into the wound and the patient would die as presumably was the case with Henry. These days surgery and antibiotics would have solved the problem.
Susan Dinan nee Fitzgerald (Ian’s mother’s line) died aged 47 in November 1918 from Influenza – the last great pandemic. This was the ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic of 1918-1919 caused by H1N1 avian influenza, a viral infectious disease. It is estimated to have killed 17 to 50 or more million people worldwide over about a year in 1918 and 1919 and it was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. Although there have been epidemics caused by H1N1 viruses since non have been as catastrophic.
Member Linda Brand sent me the photo of her grandmother, Charles Sole’s youngest daughter and wrote:
‘The photo is of Annie West nee Sole, with four of her seven children. It was taken in 1918 . Two of her children are yet to be born and my mother is not in the photo as she was eight years old and living with her aunt at the time. The baby, Nancy Margaret West died the following year of Spanish flu brought back from the first world war by returning soldiers. Luckily all the other children survived.
Nancy Margaret West, far right, daughter of Anne West, nee Sole who died in the Spanish flu epidemic
Nancy Margaret, the baby, was the great grand daughter of Edward Sole of Woodnesborough Kent. He was baptised in Herne Kent 1798, married 1823 and died in 1890.
Life expectancy has increased from between 30 and 40 in the 1800s to somewhere in the 80s for western countries now. Low life expectancy in the 1800s was due to infectious diseases, poor medical attention, harsh living conditions including poor nutrition and over crowding.
Increased standards of living meant generally cleaner and more spacious living conditions and improved nutrition plus education resulted in knowledge of precautions in sanitation needed during outbreaks of contagious diseases. With knowledge about how germs spread and laws about clean water, adults and children were getting ill less often from the start of the 20th century onwards.
Illnesses were becoming more treatable too. With the development of antibiotics in the 1940s many infectious diseases became treatable and vaccines have led to elimination of some otherwise fatal diseases. Advances in technology has meant unimaginable improvement in medical care. Doctors have a huge range of drugs available to them as well as diagnostic tests and other therapies.