A serious epidemic raged in England during 1727 to 1730. In Wickhamford, the Burial Register for the years prior to this recorded one burial in 1723, three in 1724, three in 1725 and one in 1726. Then there were 13 in 1727, 10 in 1728 and 12 in 1729 before the numbers returned to normal in 1730 with one man and two new-born children the only burials registered.
A similar pattern occurred in Badsey, with 19 burials in the three years 1724-26, then up to 88 in 1727-29, and finally reducing to 18 in 1730-32. The details of the Wickhamford deaths are covered in this article, before the possible cause of the epidemic is discussed.
The Julian Calendar changed to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, so the months of January to March are recorded here as, for example, 1726/27.
The first case?
After the last pre-epidemic burial in Wickhamford, of Anne Jones, a child, on 16th December 1726, another child was buried on 21st February 1726/1727. The Register records that he was an infant and ‘advena’ or incomer, so he did not live in the village. His name was James Byrche and there are no other references to this surname in the area at this time. As the spate of deaths occurred in Wickhamford soon after this, it is quite possible that his family had brought the disease with them.
The deaths below are dealt with mainly in chronological order, but where members of the same family died, these are mentioned after the first member who died. Full details of dates of burial can be found in the Burial Register.
- John Williams was buried in February 1726/27.
- Then, in the following month, March, Elizabeth Richardson (née Seedland) the wife of Thomas Richardson was buried. Thomas then died in August 1727 and their son, Robert in April the following year.
- Mary Blissard died in June 1727 followed by George Blissard in December 1728 and Susannah Blissard in June 1729. Their relationship is unknown.
- In August 1727, John Hughes died, as did his wife Mary.
- In that month, Mary Soulden - ‘wife of Thomas’ – died and their son, John, died the following month. Thomas himself died a year and a half later in April of 1728/29.
- In September 1727, Elizabeth Clark (née Warmington), wife of Richard Clark, died. Their daughter, also Elizabeth, died in October 1729, before her third birthday.
- William Fisher died in October 1727 and his father, also William, the following month. The father’s will was granted Probate on 18th June 1728 and mentions his wife, Mary, and children, Ralph, Margaret and Stephen.
- John Bayliss, died in December 1727. He had six children according to probate records, but the deaths of no other members of his family died around this time. His will was proved on 1st October 1728.
- Sarah Widows, the wife of Francis Widows, died in February 1727/28 and her daughter, Sarah, died the following month, around the time of her 14th birthday. Her father, Francis, died in May 1729.
- Hester Harris died in February 1728/29 and a widow, Elizabeth Roberts, in the following April. No other death of person with these surnames died at this time.
- The Wells family were the next to suffer multiple deaths. Seven-year-old Mary died in April 1728; her mother, also Mary, that May and her father, William, a little over a year later, in July 1729.
- Five-year-old Robert Richardson, son of Thomas and Elizabeth, died in April 1728/29, but his parents survived.
- In June 1728, Elizabeth Langstone, a married woman, died. She was followed by Richard Rook, 6-month-old son of Thomas Rook, in October that year.
- Another baby, Anne Mason, daughter of Richard, died in February 1728/29. In October 1729, Judith Mason, a widow, died and she was Richard’s grandmother.
- William Jones died in March 1728/29.
- Tragedy then hit the Durnal family. Thomas died in March 1728/29; Giles then died in May and his wife, Mary in August.
After October 1729, when Judith Mason died, there were no more burials until May 1730, so it seems that the disease had run its course in Wickhamford.
The vicar of Wickhamford, and of Badsey, at this time was Reverend Robert Hill. He came as vicar in 1705 and would have been in contact with many diseased parishioners during the epidemic. His wife, Alice, died in July 1728 and he in January 1730/31. He was about 50 years of age. Both were buried in Badsey.
Death rate in the village population
As census counts were not started until 1801, the exact population in Wickhamford around 1726, before the epidemic, is not recorded. In the three census years 1801, 1811 and 1821 the population was steady at around 130. Based on the number of burials at that time and those in 1700- 1725, it would not be unreasonable to assume the population in 1726 was similar to that in the early 19th century. As there were 36 burials in 1726-1729, this would represent about 25-30% of the population.
The cause of the epidemic
Contemporary records only tell of a fever, but the exact type is unknown. Bubonic plague can be ruled out, as the epidemic of 1727-1730 was widespread and as serious in rural areas as in towns and cities. Other possibilities are cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever, smallpox and influenza, but the most likely cause is typhus or typhoid. J.A. Johnston, wrote 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 quotes Sir Richard Manningham’s essay, ‘Little Fever’, of 1746, not long after the event, as saying the disease was most dangerous to ‘valetudinarians, delicate persons and those in the decline of life.’ (Valetudinarians are hypochondriacs, so he seems to have underestimated the seriousness of the epidemic.)
Johnston pointed out that most deaths occurred in the summer and autumn (see below), a fact borne out by the Wickhamford Burial Register. The Middle and North Littleton Burial Register is said to state that the fever ‘proved very mortal’. Another factor in the high death rate may have been that the harvests in Worcestershire were bad in 1727 and 1728, which would have led to a less healthy population. Johnston’s article contains the following summary:
Problems concern the nature of the epidemic itself. There seems little doubt that the major killing agent was a fever or fevers. Contemporary description of an illness was frequently descriptive rather than clinical. Types of fever were usually described as nervous, hysteric, comatose, inflammatory, relapsing or variolus. Such terminology must often have overlapped in that these terms would have been used to describe the dominant symptom of the same fever at different stages in its progression. Moreover, high temperature was a common symptom of many diseases and the word 'fever' a convenient term to which death from a wide range of illness could be attributed, especially by those unskilled in medicine. The difficulties of historical diagnosis are made worse by the possibility that the high death rate between 1727 and 1730 was the work of a fever which is now extinct and beyond the knowledge of medical science. The disastrous fever epidemics of 1727-30 could have sprung from the latter. In modern terminology the killing fevers are cholera, diphtheria, dysentery, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhoid and typhus. From contemporary description and experience it seems likely that one or both of the last two named, or a disease similar to them, were responsible for many of the deaths in the 1727-30 epidemics. Typhus is acutely infectious and is characterized by rapid spreading and widespread epidemics. It is particularly destructive of age groups over fifty years, and this does seem to have been a feature of the years 1727-30. It is moreover frequently associated with national catastrophes like war or famine, and the years 1727 and 1728 were the only two consecutive years between 1711 and 1740 in which there were bad harvests. However, the eruptions on the skin which are the most obvious symptoms are not often mentioned in contemporary accounts. The most commonly reported symptoms of a nervous, remittent fever are more likely to record the prevalence of typhoid, a disease often borne by water, from which Worcester suffered severely until 1895.
Typhus fever is a bacterial infected transmitted by body lice. Typhoid fever is also bacterial, associated with contaminated water supplies, or food, and it can spread from person to person in faecal matter. There is no reason why these two diseases could not be concurrent in an epidemic.
Eighteen surnames occur in the Wickhamford Burial Register during the epidemic years. The number of households in the village in the first detailed census of 1841 was 27. The number in 1727-30 is likely to have been similar and, if so, the majority of families would have lost at least one member. Most of the people would have lived in small cottages, with the only larger properties being the Manor, Mill and three farmhouses.
Wickhamford Manor and estate was in the hands of the Sandys family at this time, but they had recently had Ombersley Court built and lived there. The Manor house was rented to the Timbrill family. No burials were recorded for any member during epidemic, but there is a memorial in the church to Thomas Timbrill, son of the tenant, who died in late 1731, aged 33. His parents, Thomas and Elizabeth, lived on until 1737 and 1752 respectively. Two men who died in this period left wills, which may indicate that they were tenants at larger properties, such as the farms. They were Ralph Fisher and John Bayliss.
Although a few gravestones survive in the churchyard of St John the Baptist from before the epidemic and some from the mid-18th century, none exist from period 1727-1730. The parish may have been too overwhelmed to consider such things, or more likely, fewer occupants of wealthier households died in this period?
Whatever the cause of this fever, Wickhamford population numbers recovered over the next decades.
Tom Locke – November 2021