As has been outlined in Tom Locke’s article, An Epidemic in England 1727-1730 – Wickhamford’s story, a serious epidemic raged in England between the years 1727 and 1730. This epidemic has virtually been lost to history with very little research done on the subject.
We are fortunate that one of the few in-depth studies of this epidemic concerns Worcestershire. In 1971, J A Johnston, published an article in 1971 in Medical History (Vol 15, Issue 3) entitled The Impact of the Epidemics of 1727-1730 in South-West Worcestershire. He based his study on 71 Worcestershire parishes in the south-west of the county. Speculation about the nature of the epidemic may be read in An Epidemic in England 1727-1730 – Wickhamford’s story, so will not be repeated here. Instead, this article concentrates how the people of Badsey were affected.
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The epidemic as it affected Badsey
It is difficult to tell precisely the population of Badsey in the first half of the 18th century as the first census did not take place until 1801, but it was likely to have been around the 300 mark.
A study of the Badsey parish registers reveals that it appears to have been an epidemic of such enormity that the mortality rate has not been equalled (with one notable exception) any time since parish registers began in 1538. This one exception is not, as you might expect, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, but another catastrophe which affected the whole of Europe in the 1780s, caused by a volcanic eruption in Iceland.
In 1727, a total of 36 people were buried in Badsey. This was the largest number of burials in any one year ever recorded in Badsey’s history. The epidemic appeared to begin to recede in 1728 with 19 burials but then it returned with a vengeance in 1729. A total of 32 people died in this second wave. In the decades prior to this and the decades following, the average number of burials a year was normally in single figures. As a comparison, 18 people were buried in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic.
These were the households that suffered most in the epidemic:
- The Simpson family suffered the most losses with eight members from one family dying. Charles Simpson, the patriarch of the family, was buried on 26th October 1727. His wife, Joan, followed him to the grave on 30th March 1729. Charles and Joan had three surviving sons who had all married and lived in Badsey. The eldest, Thomas, suffered the death of three young sons: Francis (buried 14th March 1728), Thomas (buried 10th December 1729) and Charles (buried 20th December 1729). The youngest, John, succumbed in August 1729 and was buried on 26th; his wife, Ann, was buried on 22nd May 1730. It was John and Ann’s baby daughter, Elizabeth, who was the first member of the Simpson family to die, being buried on 2nd March 1727. It was left to the middle son, Charles Simpson Junior, to carry on the family line, the Simpson name surviving in Badsey into the 19th century.
- The Jones family suffered the loss of seven members of the family dying. Prudence Jones was the first to die, being buried on 22nd March 1726/27. Her husband, Thomas, died at Pirton, but was buried at Badsey on 17th October 1727. Possibly he had gone to Pirton (a village 5 miles north-west of Pershore) to try and escape the epidemic in Badsey? Thomas’ nephew, George Jones, was the next to suffer. First his wife, Joan, was buried on 23rd January 1727, then George succumbed and was buried on 18th February 1727. This left three orphaned children, two of whom also died in the epidemic: George (buried 24th March 1727) and Hester (buried 23rd July 1729). Lastly, Richard Jones (father of George Jones and brother of Thomas Jones who both died) was buried on 26th April 1730. This family of Jones does not appear to be related to the Jones who went on to become major landowners in Badsey.
- It was in 1729 that the family of Samuel Bird (or Byrd as the name also appears) began to suffer. Firstly, Sarah, his four-year-old daughter, was buried on 4th July, to be swiftly followed by Samuel himself who was buried on 22nd July. Seven-year-old Christian succumbed in October 1729 and 11-year-old William in the November. Two earlier Bird deaths had occurred earlier in the epidemic, but it is not known how they are related: Sarah Bird, wife of Thomas, buried 5th November 1727, and James Bird, buried 10th August 1728.
- For about two centuries, Knight was the commonest name in Badsey. The first Knight to arrive in Badsey was Joseph Knight and was father to a good many children. Joseph died at Aldington in September 1727 and was buried on the 22nd September 1727. His grandson, Samuel (son of Henry), had died early in the epidemic and was buried on 23rd March 1726/27. Joseph’s son, John, was buried on 10th January 1728, aged 33. His daughter-in-law, Ann (widow of his son, Thomas), had been buried six days earlier on 4th January 1728. Ann’s youngest son, six-year-old James, was buried on 5th June 1729. The Knight family lost five members.
- The epidemic was no respecter of persons and it was not just the poor that were afflicted. At Badsey Manor House, Eleanor Wilson, daughter-in-law of the Lord of the Manor, died on 10th November 1727, aged 35, and was buried two days later. A ledger in front of the altar in St James’ Church, Badsey, proclaims: “Life is uncertain, death is sure to all.” Eleanor’s father-in-law’s cousin, Mary Harward (née Wilson), a widow, had died in September 1727, just a few days after another cousin, Thomas Wilson (1683-1727), who died on 9th September 1727. Thomas’ wife, Ann, died on 24th August 1728; they left behind two orphaned children. Thomas’ niece, Sarah (baby daughter of his brother, Richard), was buried in January 1727/28.
- William Sharp had married Anne Jelfs at Badsey in 1710. They had five children, but only three were surviving at the start of the epidemic. Edward, the youngest child, aged four, was buried on 15th May 1728. William and Anne succumbed within two months of each other, William being buried on 22nd December 1729 and Anne on 16th February 1729/30.
- Robert Bennet, husband of Mary, was buried on 27th October 1728. Mary lost two more of her family when her sons, John and Samuel, were buried two days apart in October 1729.
- Three members of the Taylor family died. First to die was 40-year-old John Taylor, who died in August 1727. In November 1727, his widowed mother, Elizabeth, died, followed a few weeks later by her daughter, Elizabeth.
- On 24th April 1727, Ann Shepperd was buried at Badsey. Two years later, her 31-year-old son, Charles, was buried on 23rd April 1729. Eleven days later, Thomas Shepperd, Ann’s widowed husband, was buried.
- At Aldington, William, the baby son of Robert and Elizabeth Bowker, was buried on 6th April 1729. Just nine days later, both Robert and Elizabeth themselves were buried on the same day in St James’ churchyard, Badsey. They left behind an orphaned child, John, then aged seven.
- Also at Aldington, three members of the Brassington family died, firstly Mary in December 1727 then, a year later, Anne Brassington in December 1728, followed by her husband, Robert, three months later.
- Mary Grove, the wife of William Grove, was buried on 17th April 1727; she left behind a three-year-old daughter. Two years later, Francis Grove, her widowed husband’s cousin, succumbed. Francis was the youngest son of Francis Grove of Aldington, and he, too, died in this period, being buried on 2nd March 1729/30.
The end in sight
By 1731, the epidemic was beginning to subside with seven burials in that year. Possibly one of the last to die as a result of the epidemic was the incumbent, the Reverend Robert Hill, who was buried on 30th January 1730/31.
The number of burials remained relatively low in the following years until another disaster, just over half a century later, caused the mortality figures to rocket.
What happened in other areas
As has been stated previously, little in-depth research appears to have been done on the subject of this epidemic, but one notable exception is the county of Lancashire. At Deane in Lancashire, the Vicar wrote in June 1729: “Most of these dyed of agues, pluraisy, etc, tho a fever came ye first.” In another note the vicar wrote that: “ ... in some respects ye disorder resembled ye Plague and continued amongst us above two years.”
Charles Creighton, whose book, A History of Epidemics in Britain, Volume II: From the Extinction of Plague to the present time, was published in 1894, wrote:
The great prevalence of these fevers, “intermittents and other fevers,” in the west of England in 1728-29 was known to Dr Rutty of Dublin, who speaks especially of “the neighbourhoods of Gloucester and London, and very mortal in the country places, but less in the cities.” This is confirmed by Dr Dover: “I happened to live in Gloucestershire in the years 1728 and 1729, when a very fatal epidemical fever raged to such a degree as to sweep off whole families, nay almost whole villages. I was called to several houses where eight or nine persons were down at a time; and yet did not so much as lose one patient where I was concerned.”
Why is this the forgotten epidemic?
Johnston notes that there are no surviving direct literary references to the epidemics in south-west Worcestershire in diaries, letters or parish documents. To those living at the time, no one of the bad years on its own would have seemed extraordinary. The rural communities were largely self-contained and few people would have realised that the suffering was being replicated in other parishes, nor have the literacy to record their account of events. Thus a mortality which, if it had been concentrated in a single year, would have ranked with the great disasters of English history, provoked little mention in Worcestershire or in the country as a whole.
According to Johnston, the 1727-1730 epidemic was a widespread but apparently not a national disaster. He felt that In a country where so much history has been written from the evidence and viewpoint of London and the south-east of England, the fact that these seem to have escaped the worst manifestations of the mortality has also contributed to historical neglect.
It is clear, however, that much more research needs to be done on the subject. A quick look at my own family tree reveals that several of my Farrant ancestors living in the village of Palgrave in Suffolk died during that period. Studies of other burial registers throughout the country may well paint a similar picture of increased mortality during the period 1727-1730.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of past epidemics. It is really only in the past year or two that awareness of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 has become more prominent, but it is noteworthy that fewer people died in Badsey in the 1918 epidemic than in the one of 1727-1730.
History teaches us that, even with the advance of medical science, we must never be complacent about the impact that disease can have on a society.
- The Impact of the Epidemics of 1727-1730 in South-West Worcestershire, J A Johnston, Medical History (Vol 15, Issue 3), 1971
- A History of Epidemics in Britain, Volume II: From the Extinction of Plague to the present time, Charles Creighton, Cambridge University Press, 1894
- Socially Selective Mortality during the Population Crisis of 1727–1730: Evidence from Lancashire, Jonathan Healey