In Sickness

Shelagh Ryan

A sick boy in bed clutching a hot water bottle in his hands witha bottle of medicine to his left and a half full syringe to his right

The saddest part of the research into this book, was coming across entries relating to sickness and death in the log books. Now, when we are all (or should be) having our children inoculated against measles and whooping cough, it is all too easy to forget the horror these ‘childhood’ diseases evoked in the Victorian mother’s heart. It was not just the disease itself that was a danger. Many children lived in insanitary conditions and could not afford the services of the doctor or any of the, admittedly scarce, medicines. Many of the children were left permanently damaged or dead.

We are lucky theses days that the infant mortality rate is so much lower than it was in 1869. The head teacher does not have to make entries such as

April 1869 Three admitted. One dead since last week.’

Another child died in November and one in each of the next two years. Measles was the worst of the epidemics. In April 1871, the average attendance was 81. By mid May 53 were absent with measles and more were falling ill. One little girl died of it and many more were left with weak eyes and chests.

Scarlet fever and whooping cough were the major illness. In 1882 the school finished a week early for Christmas as there were so many children already absent with whooping cough. The school was closed nine times altogether due to measles. Once they closed due to whooping cough and reopened only to have most of the children succumb to measles. July 1944 was the worst month in the school’s history. They had German measles, chicken pox, (called blister pox in the 19th century), whooping cough, mumps and air raids to contend with.

In 1912 there was an outbreak of diphtheria. One infant and one boy died and the school was closed for a month. In December, another child contacted it and all his brothers and sisters were sent home. There were more outbreaks in 1920, 1026 and 1934 but mercifully, no more deaths.

Scarlet fever was another illness dreaded at the time. In the 1930s, a child with scarlet fever was taken to an isolation hospital and kept there until their skin stopped ‘peeling’. No contact with anyone other than the nursing and medical staff was allowed and the child could sometimes be in there for two months. The school and the home had to be thoroughly disinfected each time.

Each war seemed to bring an epidemic in its wake. After the first world war there was a country wide epidemic of Influenza and many people died. The school was closed in October 1918 because it and full attendance was not really achieved until the following May. Even then only 29 out of the 55 children on the register were fit enough to return to school.

Polio was the epidemic of the second world war and one child in the Infant school contracted it.

The early school children relied a lot on prayer to see them through their childhood. On September 20th 1870 there were several children absent through illness. The following day, the scripture lesson was ‘Our Saviour among the doctors’.

Compulsory medical inspections were started in 1908. Each new entrant to the school had to have a medical. However, in the early days they did not seem to follow up the findings very quickly. Medical inspections were followed in 1933 by dental inspection. Of 27 six year olds inspected, 20 needed treatment! And we all remember the nit nurse, don’t we?

Interestingly enough, after the introduction of the measles vaccination in 1968, the log books ‘sick records’ consists almost entirely of staff illness!

What of the staff? Today, if a teacher is off sick, there is a system of supply teachers on whom the head can call to fill the gap. In 1871, things were not so simple. Louisa Cannon went off sick on June 9th but managed to stagger back on the 16th before falling sick again on the 19th. For a week, 76 children aged between 2 and 7 were taught by a young girl, an old lady and the rector’s two daughters, none of whom were qualified for the job. Louisa’s sister Marion, mistress of the girl’s school looked in twice a day to take the registers. By the 23rd it was obvious that Miss Cannon was not going to make a quick recovery and a former Pupil Teacher Mrs Porter was persuaded to come in and take charge. Miss Cannon finally came back to work, on a part time basis at first, at the end of July. She never fully recovered her strength.

The favourite staff illness seems to have been nervous hysterics (monitors and Pupil Teachers) and ‘relaxed throat’ (mistress). Considering the conditions they worked under, it is a wonder that they managed to work at all!

This page was added on 16/12/2023.

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