Scarlet fever in the 1800s

Scarlet fever in the 1800s was a common disease among children – and a deadly one. And sadly, cleanliness and ventilation were either a luxury for poorer households, or maybe not appreciated as important.

 Cause of death: scarlet fever (malignant) two days, congestion of brain, seven hours.

So reads a death certificate I have from 1875, the victim being the 12-year-old brother of a direct ancestor of mine (who was then aged eight).

Scarlet fever is a highly infectious disease caused by a strain of streptococcus bacteria. Today, antibiotics shorten the course of the disease and reduce the chances of secondary complications. 

In the 1800s, there were of course no antibiotics – and scarlet fever especially affects children between the ages of around two and 12.   So it is perhaps a matter of huge luck (for him and for me!) that my ancestor didn’t also succomb to the illness that killed his brother.

Or perhaps their parents knew enough about contagion to guard against their other children catching it.

For while ‘germ theory may not have been widely accepted, some people at least did recognise the importance of contagion and measures that could be taken to limit the spread of disease. As I touched on in my post on disease and contagion in Carlisle in 1849.

Scarlet fever’s terrible toll

A letter writer identified only as ’T F, Blencowe’ wrote a long letter to the Penrith Observer in 1870 on the subject. 

The letter runs to more than 900 words, starting by describing the prevalence of scarlet fever throughout England and Wales at that time as:

‘a disgrace to the enlightenment of the 19th century…

‘…In a remarkable address, delivered before the last meeting of the British Association at Liverpool. Professor Huxley stated that during the years 1863, 1864, and 1869, no fewer than 90,000 persons fell victims to scarlet fever alone.

‘…We have heard a good deal lately on the subject of the ” germ theory of disease ; ” but whatever that may be it is pretty well agreed that in every body affected with scarlet fever, small-pox, etc, there is produced poisonous matter, which, passing from the diseased body, is capable of retaining vitality for a very long time, and of producing in another body a similar disease to that existing in the body from which it was derived.”

The power of disinfectants

T F goes on to advise households to isolate a scarlet fever patient. And pay strict attention to ventilation and cleanliness.

While ‘poison germs’ are invisible:

‘still there are antidotes as invisible in their effects as they are themselves. These are what are usually called disinfectants, of which the most common are carbolic acid and Coady’s Fluid.’

A triple tragedy in Westmorland

It’s a pity similar advice didn’t reach the Grisedal (or Grisdale) family in Westmorland just a few months earlier. Burton and Holme stationmaster Joseph Grisedale (or Joseph Grisdale) had died after three days with scarlet fever. On the day of his burial, his children Ada and Elizabeth died of the same illness – Elizabeth as her father’s body was being taken out of their home.

Joseph’s wife Elizabeth and their three other children also had scarlet fever, with all ‘in a very precarious state,’ with two of the children with ‘very little hope of recovering.’

Mr Grisedale was described as ‘a sober and industrious man, respected by all for his kind, courteous and obliging manner’.

Joseph was 36, Ada Eliza was four, and little Lizzy (as her death was recorded) was just two years old.

Happily, at least the prognosis for the rest of the family proved wrong. In 1871, Elizabeth Grisedale and the other children were all alive, and living in Little Dockray, Penrith (at no 17).

Elizabeth, aged 34, was making a living as an earthenware dealer. Her surviving children were William 10, Annie 7, and Mary Agnes Grisedale, 1.

Elizabeth married again, to a train driver called James Jackson. In 1881, they show up in Cheshire, with his daughter Sarah Jackson, 13 (born Penrith) and her William Grisedale, 20 (ironmonger’s assistant) and Rachel A Grisedale, 17. Who goes back to being Annie by 1891, when she was a servant in Yorkshire. Mary Agnes is missing from 1881.

Scarlet fever in the 1800s – and the wise T F

There is no one on the 1871 census to identify T F of Blencowe. Whose letter also spoke with feeling about poor-quality housing being a key factor in the prevalence of deadly diseases.

As a sidenote to that, in 1870, in the ‘healthier districts of Cumberland,’ it was recorded that 10 out of every 100 babies born alive died in the first 12 months.