Upton in the Time of Typhus

On 19th December 1846, the following report appeared in The Bucks Gazette:

Mortality among the Agricultural Labourers in Berkshire

So destructive have been the ravages of fever in some parts of Berkshire that in the parish of Upton, a hamlet adjoining Blueberry, in that county, the population of which was 142 seven weeks ago, is now reduced to 73, sixty-nine having died within that short period – many through want. Among the number are four children of the minister, who, on attending the dying beds of the victims, caught the infection and conveyed it to his dwelling, whereby he lost four of his offspring. According to the opinion of the physician of the place, the only alternative appears to be for every individual to quit the village, and for every dwelling to be destroyed, there being no other means left to stay the infection; such is therefore about to be done. Respecting the cause of this awful malady, the following facts are stated: That the labourers’ wages are not half sufficient for the support of their families; that the potatoes they had partly subsisted on for the last three months were poisonous and infectious; that their food was bread alone – and of that not sufficient; that meat or other substantial food they never tasted; that they could not procure firing, hence their huts were always damp and unhealthy, nor the soap necessary for common cleanliness. At length fever broke out, till none remained unvisited by the calamity.

This article, though correct in detailing the shocking conditions in the village at that time, is worth a closer look, because it raises rather more questions than it answers.

To begin with, the population, according to the census return of 1841, was 238 (not 142 as stated) and in 1851 was 279. This last figure is exceptionally high, and there was no sudden increase in the birth-rate to explain it.

Secondly, the mortality rate. The Register of Burials for Blewbury, Upton and Aston Upthorpe at that time shows only seventeen Upton deaths from “fever”, though of course others may have been from the same cause though not specified. Even so, twenty-four seems to have been the highest number of deaths during the period of fever. This is far below the sixty-nine cited in the article.

The third question is, who was the minister who visited the sick? He was certainly not Jacob Macdonald, the vicar at Blewbury at that time, but was most likely to have been a Wesleyan Methodist minister, who would have visited the village rather than lived in it. The first Methodist chapel was built in High Street in about 1840: the building can still be seen in the garden of what is now Lattons. The only person I can find in the register who lost four children to typhus was Steven Andrews, an agricultural labourer from Nottingham Fee in Blewbury.

Although “the physician of the place” suggested that every individual should quit the village and every dwelling be destroyed, this clearly did not happen. The tithe map of 1840 shows there were more cottages in the area of the Crossing at that time, and at the top of what was then Stream Road but is now often called Frog Alley. There were also cottages (tenements) where several families lived, on the right-hand side of Stream Road, halfway down towards Frog Alley Farm. These and others have disappeared by the time of the 1876 survey; but at the same time, we know that the typhus-stricken families stayed on through the 1 840s, and other families came to live in the village. They must have had somewhere to live. My guess is that, in the time-honoured way, nothing much was done. The illness had died out by February the following year, and life went on as before.

This was a year of the great potato famine in Ireland. It is less often realised that over here the same potato blight was partly the reason why agricultural labourers were reduced to a state of near starvation. 1846 was in the middle of the “hungry forties” when conditions in the country were hard, and to add to the workers’ sufferings, the summer was exceptionally hot, with temperatures hovering round the 90s for days on end. Conditions would have been ripe for the spread of an infectious disease. The first victim of typhus in the village was Mary Winter, aged 16, who died on 30 July 1846.

The typhus outbreak is a sad chapter in the history of the village. How widespread was this outbreak of fever? How extensive was the potato blight? The cutting from The Bucks Gazette shows a tantalising glimpse of a very different village from the one we know, and even though the journalist seems to have got his facts all wrong, this is a far more vivid account of the conditions here than the bare facts in the burial register.

References

All the records referred to in this paper can be found at the Berkshire Records Office, Coley Avenue, Reading. The transcript of the Register of Burials was given to me by Roger Cambray.

Juliet Gardiner, Upton 2002