The current pandemic has prompted me to write about epidemics I have found while researching my family history. The first epidemic I noticed was in the Ringwood parish records during a visit to the Hampshire Record Office. This was a smallpox epidemic. Although the death toll globally from the Covid-19 virus is high, in the small rural town of Ringwood ninety-two people died in one year in 1726. I do not have exact figures for population in Ringwood then but, extrapolating back from 1821, it appears to have represented about five percent of the population. Translating this into equivalent figures for Reading now, for example, it would represent a death toll of 11,000 in one year.
I was researching my Legg and Mew ancestors in Ringwood when I noticed that many burials in 1726 had a note beside them to indicate smallpox. The epidemic started very slowly with three or four deaths at the end of 1725 in December and January, with no smallpox deaths in February. The number then doubled in March, April and May to seven or eight deaths each month. It was June and July when the epidemic took off to reach a peak of twenty deaths from smallpox in August. This number gradually decreased again until the last death from smallpox in November 1726. The R0 value for smallpox is about 5, compared to R0 of 3 for the current Covid virus. Smallpox is therefore much more contagious with each person infecting 5 others if no preventative action is taken.
I have created a graph of the burials from deaths due to smallpox and other causes to demonstrate the progress of the epidemic (see graph at bottom of page). In total, there were one hundred and forty-eight deaths in Ringwood that year, compared to forty-nine deaths in the same period the following year.
The first death recorded was Elizabeth Emberley who was buried on the fourteenth of December 1725. The last death of the epidemic was just recorded as “A child of John Whifin” buried on the sixth of November 1726. John Whifin had died of smallpox earlier that year.
Christmas 1950 smallpox outbreak in Brighton
Much more recently an epidemic was contained through swift action and tight control from the outset. While researching the history of my daughter’s house I found that there was a major event in Brighton and Hove in the early 1950s.
Between 1950 and 1951 Brighton was affected by an outbreak of smallpox. Britain had been free of the disease since 1935. Just before Christmas 1950 there was a full-scale epidemic. It was brought in by an RAF officer who had arrived from India. He was on leave visiting his fiancée in Brighton. The first person affected was the fiancée’s father who was a taxi driver. A major incident was declared, and the outbreak was closely managed including a vaccination programme and tracing all people who had travelled in the taxi. 77,000 people were vaccinated in Brighton and a further 50,000 in Hove. All mass meetings were cancelled, and schools were closed. During the epidemic Brighton “was a city of frightened people and deserted streets”. The outbreak lasted more than six weeks. Infected patients were due to have been taken to Dartford hospital in Kent, but heavy snowfall made it impossible to get there. Ten people died from catching smallpox including the taxi driver, six nurses and hospital workers. A furthertwenty-five who caught the disease survived. The outbreak had been contained through swift action and tight control.
Cholera in Kingston
In another area of my genealogy research an ancestor, Jonathan Jerome, seems to have left Kingston-upon-Thames with his wife and young family in the 1830s owing to the threat from disease. He was in a good trade having been a baker for a number of years but moved to the small village of Shiplake as a (low paid) agricultural labourer. There is no documented reason for the move, but a likely cause appears to have been the growing threat from cholera, which was endemic in Kingston in the early 1800s. R0 for cholera is about 2.
It can be difficult to imagine the constant threat of epidemics to our ancestors, even as recently as 100 years ago. However, as the current pandemic shows, even with our access to modern medicines we are not immune from epidemics.