Francesca’s been investigating the death certificates of her ancestors in the hope it will help her with research for her novel.
For anyone who’s been watching the TV series, Poldark, you’ll know that one of the characters died of something they called ‘putrid throat’. (I won’t say which, in case you haven’t caught up with the first series.) This revolting sounding affliction, it would appear, is what we in modern times call Diphtheria. There have been other names for it over the centuries like ‘putrid fever’ and ‘membranous croup’.
Although I tend to write more contemporary then historical fiction, I’ve recently been writing a novel set in 1915. In it, one of the characters, a young woman, dies, and I’ve had to consider what might be the cause. Her mining village is based on the one some of my ancestors lived in around this time, so I thought this might be a good place to start.
A couple of years ago I ordered a few certificates – birth, marriage and death – from the General Register Office, having found several family members on an ancestry site. I discovered that three of my female ancestors – my great gran’s mother (M), sister (S) and daughter (D) – died at age 42, 16 and 28 respectively, in 1891, 1899 and 1935.
S is recorded as dying with phthysis, D with phthsis pulmonales, while D died of pulmonary tuberculosis. Clearly the last one was TB, but I was surprised to discover the first two were also.
TB is clearly a strong contender for the death of my character. But why did so many people contract it? What conditions caused it? Was it rife in that area? Why did it only seem to strike the women in my family? These are all aspects to look into to make my story stronger.
It seems unlikely that everyday Victorian folk referred to the disease as phthisis. More likely they called it tuberculosis, TB, or consumption. Other terms over the years have included lung disease, scrofula and white plague.
Looking at death certificates for the other side of my mother’s family, I’ve discovered one great-great grandfather died in 1892, aged 46, of apoplexy. Until I read that, I thought apoplexy was a description of someone getting extremely angry. Medically it’s a type of stroke. Worth remembering.
His son died on the operating table aged 36, in 1927, during a second operation for appendectomy complications. Talking to a friend about it she asked how it would have been paid for before the NHS came into being. Good point. The 1911 National Insurance Act provided only basic medical care. This great grandfather was also a miner, and I believe that hospitals were often provided by mine owners or jointly by them and workers via subs. Could they have paid for him to go to the Cardiff Royal Infirmary for the op? Perhaps my family simply had some savings?
Considering all this has certainly thrown up more questions than answers so far. Finding out what they died of is only the beginning. There is much scope for research.
If, like me, you can mine family records, (sorry, no pun intended), they can be a good start for research. A word of caution: discovering family deaths and their circumstances can be harrowing. I cried when I found out why sixteen-year-old S had disappeared from the census. I cried again when the certificates confirmed my mother’s story of not only D’s death from TB, but that of her prematurely born baby a month later. I try to imagine how Great Gran must have felt, losing all those family members. She was ninety-seven when she died, but never talked about it. She also lost a toddler son in 1922 and two other sons in World War Two. Life was cruel.
Perhaps if I can inject a little of that emotion into writing about a character’s death, I’ll not go far wrong.
A big thank you to my cousin Janine who lives in Australia. She also has undertaken much interesting research into our shared family.
Another word of caution: if you’re interested in finding your ancestors’ certificates, whether death, birth or marriage, the various ancestry web sites are a good place to start, but don’t buy them from those sites, as they’ll cost you three times as much than they will from the General Register office, which you can find here.
Another interesting web page about old names for illnesses, The Glossary of Old Medical terms, can be found here.