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Typhoid in Wickhamford milk, 1888

The Medical Officer’s Report

At the Evesham Sanitary Committee meeting on 1st January 1889 the Medical Officer, G. H. Fosbroke (D.P.H. Camb.) handed in and read his report on the recent outbreak of typhoid fever.   Between 25th and 28th November 1888 his attention had been drawn to four cases of typhoid fever in Evesham.  The patients had been under the care of three medical gentlemen.  Then, between 28th November and 4th December two further cases were reported and since then one more case had been found.

He did not disclose the names of those infected but five were aged under 18 years with the youngest being aged four. Of the six original cases, four were male and two female.  Only one death occurred due to the disease.  An adult female had died on 18th December.

He was struck by the fact that the disease was not localised but appeared amongst families in both All Saints and St Lawrence parishes.  The incubation period was usually thought to be from one to three weeks.   The constitution of the person affects the severity of the infection and often one family member may succumb whilst others are free of infection. 

As most cases appeared almost simultaneously after the borough had been free of the disease for a long period there was reason to believe in a common cause.  All of the patients had received the same water supplies and milk.  The former was derived from the Corporation mains supplies so the Medical Officer suspected the milk supply to be the likely cause.   He was aware that two cases of typhoid fever had recently occurred in the family of a dairyman who resided in Wickhamford and who daily sent his milk to Evesham.

This dairyman sold his produce to a purveyor who lived in Evesham and retailed it twice a day.   Of the five families affected by the disease three were supplied regularly with this milk and the other two families occasionally.   Up until 28th October the milk sold by the Evesham purveyor was obtained from the Wickhamford dairyman.  The Medical Officer inspected the purveyor’s premises and found nothing that was liable to contaminate milk, as scrupulous cleanliness was apparent.   He concluded that the Wickhamford milk had acted as the cause of the fever.

The Medical Officer had been suspicious of the Wickhamford milk from the first.  On 22nd October he had been notified of typhoid fever in the village and went there the same day.  He found two of the dairyman’s children were ill.  He was convinced that the disease had been contracted on the premises, which were in a dirty state.   He sampled the water supply for analysis and noted that the family’s stools were being properly disposed of, on the advice of their medical attendant.  He arranged that, if the dairyman carried on his trade, the cows should be removed to other premises further away and that no infected person should come into contact with the cows or milk utensils.  Also, none of the water from the well on the premises was to be used.   Analysis later showed the water supply to be unfit for use.

Notice was given to the purveyor in Evesham of the situation and he ceased to get milk from the Wickhamford source on 28th October.  However, the suspect milk was still being sold in Evesham by another retailer until 28th November.

The Evesham Rural Sanitary Authority had been aware for some years that the water supply in Wickhamford was defective.   It was shortly due to be supplied with mains water.  The dairyman’s children recovered, then, without the Medical Officer’s clearance, the cows were brought back.  Also. on 28th November, milk cans were seen being washed with the polluted water.  The supply of his milk to Evesham was immediately stopped.  After the cows had been brought back and, the well re-used, the Medical Officer seized samples of milk for analysis.  It was found to be adulterated with 10% of water.  He concluded at the end of his report that the dairyman’s well had become polluted without his knowledge.

The Medical Officer had considered whether the dairyman should be prosecuted under the Contagious Disease (Animals) Act, 1886, but this was not done.   This case was reported very fully in the Evesham Journal of 6th January 1889.

Where was the Wickhamford farm and who was the dairyman concerned in this case?

In the 1880s there were four farms in Wickhamford, but Manor Farm did not have cows.  The remaining three were Elm Farm and Pitcher’s Hill Farm in Manor Road and Field Farm to the south of Longdon Hill.

In the census of 1891, two years after the events described above, there are no dairymen recorded at or near the two farms in Manor Road.  However, in the two cottages on Longdon Hill, by Field Farm, there were two men recorded as “Milkman (Agricultural)”.  In 3 Longdon Hill lived Joseph Richard Bailey (21) and his wife Amy (21) and next door in 4 Longdon Hill lived Joseph Taylor (24) and his wife Mary (21).  Neither couple had any children.  At Field Farm itself, Benjamin Carter (48) lived with his wife and six children. 

It would appear that the residents of 3 and 4 Longdon Hill had moved in after the typhoid fever outbreak, so going back to the 1881 census might throw light on the dairyman involved.  That year Zephaniah Belcher lived at number 3 with his wife and a one-year old son.  A daughter was born that year and baptised in Wickhamford, but no further children were baptised in the village.  He was described in 1881 as an agricultural labourer.

 Next door at number 4 was Charles Smith, his wife and seven children.  He was also recorded as an agricultural labourer.  The youngest child had been baptised in Wickhamford in 1880 but there are no later records of baptisms.

We shall probably never know who the dairyman was, unless the Medical Officer’s papers survive in an archive somewhere. 

Severity of the typhoid outbreak

Considering the findings of the Medical Officer is may seem surprising that the number of people suffering from typhoid fever was quite low in this case.   No cases were reported in Wickhamford itself, apart from the two children of the unidentified milkman concerned.  Villagers would not have had milk delivered at this time so would have taken their own containers to a local source.  As most of the population of Wickhamford lived in the Manor Road area they would probably have obtained milk from Pitcher’s Hill Farm and Elm Farm.  This might be circumstantial evidence that the milk concerned was from the more distant Field Farm.

The matter of the dilution of the affected milk with 10% water is also puzzling.  If this dilution was taking place at the milking parlour in Wickhamford the contaminated milk would surely have affected more of the Evesham population?  Perhaps a more plausible explanation for the finding of milk dilution is that it was done by the Evesham purveyor using mains water in the town.

The original contamination occurring at Wickhamford would possibly have only involved some churns, milking bucket or utensils washed out with the farm’s water from the affected well.  This may have been an explanation for the relatively small number of cases of typhoid fever in Evesham.

The burial rate in Evesham and Bengeworth during the October to December period was 15 in 1886, 19 in 1887, 28 in 1888, 24 in 1889 and 27 in 1890.  The increase in 1888 may have be due to other cases of typhoid that went unrecorded but this is purely speculative.

Who was the woman who died of typhoid fever in Evesham?

The Medical Officer stated that the adult woman who succumbed to typhoid fever died on 18th December 1888.   The burial records for Evesham and Bengeworth show that only one adult woman was buried at this time.  Annie Freeman (nee Byrd), aged 64, the wife of Nathan Freeman was buried on 24th December.   In the 1881 census they lived in Brick Kiln Street, Evesham and he was a nail maker.   Ten years earlier they had lived at Badsey Tollgate, Aldington and Annie was the tollgate keeper.  She was buried in Waterside Cemetery, Evesham in an unmarked grave (Plot No. A 733).


Berrow’s Worcester Journal of March 9th 1889 reported on a meeting of Evesham’s Board of Guardians held on March 4th.  Mr Fosbroke had reported on a new case of typhoid at Wickhamford, but no details were given.  The Authority adopted regulations for dealing with dairies and cowsheds, to come into force on May 1st.

In June 1889 Wickhamford houses were supplied with mains water.  A few months too late!

Tom Locke – August 2018