On this day … 25 March 1885

An editorial in the Preston Guardian considered the unacceptably high death rate in Preston, following a report on the issue by the town’s medical officer of health, a Dr Pilkington. The doctor diagnosed bad mothering by working-class women as a primary cause of their children’s deaths.

Dr Pilkington’s concerns were reported in great detail in the rival Preston Chronicle. The total number of deaths in the town in 1884 was 2,540. Many in the adult population died from bronchitis and what was termed ‘inflammation of the lungs’. But among the children of the town, the great scourge in those pre-vaccination days was infectious diseases, and especially that terrible killer of babies, ‘summer diarrhoea’.

During 1884 there were 270 deaths from diarrhoea, and of these, 220 were infants under the age of twelve months, and another forty were children aged between one and five. Elderly people accounted for the other ten deaths.

The doctor reported that many deaths among children had followed an outbreak of measles in the second half of the year, following on from the ‘summer diarrhoea’ outbreak.

Earlier in the year there had been many cases of scarlet fever, especially in St Peter’s, Park and Fishwick wards, three of the poorer wards in the town, with seventy-three deaths, all of children. According to Dr Pilkington, the disease had not ‘assumed a severe epidemic form’, although Preston was among the five large towns most badly affected by the disease.

Another childhood disease, whooping cough, was the cause of twenty-seven deaths in the year. According to the Chronicle report, Dr Pilkington had diagnosed the cause of these deaths:

This is a disease from which many lives are lost that otherwise might be saved, if parents would only exercise greater prudence in preventing their children from taking cold whilst suffering from it, and, as might be expected, a very large proportion of the fatal cases occurred in the families of the working classes.

In this, as in the case of many other diseases, when the mother is employed in the mill, the child is left to the care of a hired nurse, at the best a very unsatisfactory substitute and many, very many, lives might be saved it the mother would remain off work at the commencement of her child’s illness, and not simply for a day or two before its fatal termination.

A correspondent to Chronicle thought he had diagnosed another cause of the spread of infectious diseases, unemptied ashpits:

The evil arising from an ashpit out of order is scarcely to be calculated. Amongst the better and middle classes of our population, we will grant that such a state of things as above described, will not remain long unnoticed; but when it happens to come amongst “the great unwashed,” the evil is allowed to go on for any length of time, and the results are very often bad.

Dr Sir Charles Brown
Simm, William Norris; Dr Sir Charles Brown; Harris Museum & Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/dr-sir-charles-brown-152406

Earlier in the month, the Preston Sanitary Association held its inaugural meeting. It had had been formed at the instigation of Dr (later Sir) Charles Brown, who had been appointed its president, and his speech was reported seemingly verbatim in the Chronicle.

Dr Brown, who was also critical of mill girls’ domestic skills, provided suggestions for the management of childhood diseases that show what life would be like without vaccinations and antibiotics:

… all bed curtains and other hangings, and carpets and all articles of dress and the like in wardrobes and cupboards and unnecessary articles of furniture should be removed; … the floors sprinkled with disinfectant fluid, .. the doors should be kept closed, and covered with sheets which had been steeped in carbolic acid, chloride of lime, or Condy’s fluid …

… everything that passed from the patient should be received into vessels containing either of the foregoing solutions; pieces of rag should be used for wiping discharges from the nose or mouth and burnt immediately afterwards; all cups, glasses, spoons, and such like articles should be placed in some disinfectant solution before leaving the room and afterwards washed in hot water; all bed and body linen should, before leaving the room, be put into a disinfectant solution …

… the patient’s person and bed should be kept scrupulously clean, and during the progress of the disease, when scales or crusts form upon the skin, they should be smeared daily with oil …’

Dr Brown complained that residents in even the most affluent districts of the town were negligent in tackling the causes of disease:

Some years ago, in passing numbers 29 and 30, Winckley-square I encountered a most disgusting smell, and I found that it came up the lobby between the two houses, and had, its origin in what ought to have been merely an ashpit, but which contained a decomposing mass consisting of potato parings, cabbage leaves, egg shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, scrapings of plates, empty sardine tins, cockle and oyster shells, bones, and the non-eatable portions of fish and poultry. When the wind was in a certain direction, the pestiferous stench was disagreeably perceptible near the front door of my own house, No. 27, Winckley-square.’

One thought on “On this day … 25 March 1885

  1. How dreadfully pompous and naïve they were!!!

    “If parents would only exercise greater prudence in preventing their children from taking cold whilst suffering from it, and, as might be expected”

    Absolutely blind to poverty and it’s associated diseases plus the economic necessity of these working class women to stay in employment!!

    Thanks for posting these reminders…. Steph


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