Sickness and Mortality in South Down schools

Sickness and Mortality in South Down schools

Current life expectancy in this country is 80 years of age; fifty years ago it was 70. One hundred years ago it was 56, and until the 1860s, it was around 43, and had remained at that level for several centuries. During the late medieval period, people were lucky to live into their mid-30s. So, there is no denying that one of the great achievements of improved housing, sanitation, and medicine, is that most of us can expect to live to be old. At no other time in human history have so many people lived for so long.

One of the things that lowered life expectancy in previous centuries was infant mortality. It was not unusual for families, even the families of the rich, to lose most of their children before they reached adulthood. Grief and loss were therefore part and parcel of everyday life for nearly every mother and father until the twentieth century.

While looking through West Sussex school log books for the period 1863 – 1920, this stark and terrible reality became all too apparent.

Schools were constantly having to deal with outbreaks of serious illness, including mumps, measles, diptheria, whooping cough, influenza, as well as less potentially deadly maladies, such as jaundice, ringworm, broken chilblains (which could split and become infected), and ‘sore feet’ (many children had woefully inadequate footwear). There could also be outbreaks of typhoid, although cholera – a big killer at one time – is absent from West Sussex schools during the period I studied. There are also reports  of consumption (TB), smallpox (although vaccination  rather than actual cases), and on-going health issues related to hygiene and nutrition.

It was not uncommon for schools to be closed for several weeks until the danger of infection had passed. Even when schools remained open, we frequently read of as many as a quarter of the children being absent due to illness. Schools tried to mitigate the danger by encouraging parents to keep sick children at home, although this aim was somewhat in conflict with their other objective of maximising attendance. We also read of schools being ‘washed out,’ usually with hot water, as disinfectant was not readily available at this time. Whether this practice actually helped mitigate disease, it is hard to know, but at least the idea of hygiene was taking hold, in a way unknown to earlier generations.

During the research for this project, I read in full or in part, log books for eight West Sussex schools. Every school recorded the death of pupils from disease and illness, but no school suffered on the scale of Harting School. Why mortality should have been so high here, I cannot tell. Perhaps they were just unlucky? It was shocking to read of the deaths of so many children and my mind kept returning to their parents and how this must have felt, but also the impact these epidemics had on the teachers and the surviving children.

Scarlet Fever gripped the school during the autumn of 1882. On 28th October, Dr. Kelly, the West Sussex Medical Officer, ordered the school to close for a ‘fortnight at least.’ But this action seems to have come too late. Eleven children died during the course of a few weeks. To put that in some context, the head teacher was generally pleased with an attendance of 100 children, so we must assume about one in ten of the children died. Most harrowing of all, one family lost all their children. Absalom and Mary Elliott lost their daughters, Elizabeth, aged eight, and Annie, aged three, and their son, Percy, aged five. How did they cope with such a loss? They never had any more children. Absalom, an agricultural labourer, died in Harting in 1898, aged 59, followed by his wife, Mary in 1902, aged 65.

Harting School was again closed in 1893, when measles, mumps and diphtheria were raging among the children. That year five children died. Even when children were not dying, illness was an ever present concern. This extract from head teacher, William Webster’s log for 13th February 1891, indicates the everyday challenges he had to contend with –

Charles and Winifred Furmdem have been absent two weeks from scalds. Augusta Shier is absent attending to her sick grandmother. Mabel and Bertha Maywell are absent with broken chilblains. Wm. Matthews and Percy New are absent with ringworm. Walter Hunt has been absent three weeks with pleurisy. Caroline Love has been absent three weeks waiting upon her mother who is ill. Israel Langdon has been absent since Jan 6 with bad feet. Edith Smith returned on Monday after an absence of ten weeks, the roads being very bad. Eliza Languish returned on Monday having been absent with bad feet.

Some of the children attending Harting School at that time had to walk several miles to reach the school. The roads were all tracks at that time with no permanent surfacing. During the winter the conditions could be atrocious and parents simply kept their children at home rather than send them through the mire to school. It should also be remembered that many children had ill-fitting, ‘hand-me-down’ shoes, as parents could not afford to keep buying new.

No wonder children had ‘sore feet’ when their shoes were ill-fitting and they had to trudge along unmade roads to get to school.

The Rev.H.D.Gordon, vicar of South Harting, who was also the superintendent of the village school, seems to have alighted on illness during his pastoral visits. Gordon’s travels to the more remote rural areas of his parish often uncovered illness, which was alluded to in the school log book. On 23rd July 1894 Gordon visited a family named Bulbeck at Eckenfields and found the family stricken with diphtheria. A child aged six was dead, and the father and his youngest son, aged four, both dangerously ill. He warned those living at Foxcombe Cottages and Foxcombe Farm not to visit their neighbours.


Two years later, he came across three cases of typhoid fever at Foxcombe, which he claimed were ‘imported from Chichester.’ Today we associate Chichester with the very highest standards of housing and cleanliness. It comes as a bit of a shock to learn how poor sanitary conditions were in the city at that time. The naturalist and writer, W.H.Hudson, who visited Chichester in 1899, complained of the foul stench of sewage that pervaded the air, and that the conditions were so bad that people were frequently in ill-health, and that those afflicted in this way were said to be suffering from ‘The Chichesters.’

Foxcombe cottages have been rebuilt since the days when Rev. Gordon found a father and his son desperately ill there, and another son already dead. One wonders what interest, if any, the occupants of near-by Foxcombe House, took in the plight of their poor neighbours?

It was not only children that died, parents died too. It was not uncommon to see reports of children being away from school to attend the funeral of a parent. Surely none was more poignant than the case of Thomas Kingshott. His mother died in childbirth when Thomas was not yet seven years old. It would seem that his father was unable to take care of him and on 7th March 1884, Thomas was sent to the workhouse. Thomas’ sister Kate, was five years of age and it would seem she was taken in by another village family and did not have to go to the workhouse.

The father, Edmund, found love with another woman and had a child with her, whom, they rather strangely (cruelly?) named Kate. They moved to London and later married. Edmund died in an industrial accident at Collindale, North London, in 1920.

The first Kate was still living as a boarder (lodger) in Harting in 1891. Of Thomas, no more can be learned. He is not on the 1891 census and we could find no death recorded for him. Possibly, when he was old enough, he joined the army and died overseas, if indeded, he survived into adulthood at all. Interestingly, Mary Elliott, who lost her three children to Scarlet Fever in 1882, was Mary Kingshott before she married. What a sad and unlucky family they were.

In 1893 Worthing was hit by a very serious typhoid epidemic that killed 188 people, several of them children. Nearly all the fatal cases were in the town centre. The first wave of infection took place in May, followed by a far more severe outbreak in July. Christ Church School, in Portland Road, was in the heart of the most infected part of town. On 29th May it was recorded that Rose May was ‘very ill’ with typhoid fever, but she does appear to have recovered. Her family lived in a very poor part of town. By 1901 she and her sister Ada, had moved to South Norwood, where they were both working as domestic servants.

Ambrose Place, Worthing, with Christ Church in the distance, a few years before the typhoid epidemic of 1893 (photograph reproduced courtesy of West Sussex Library Service).

However the school log book entry for 7th July 1893, reports ‘a great many’ children absent, not just with typhoid, but also whopping cough. Three days later it was reported that pupils, John Strut and Frank Hobbs were gravely ill with the fever. We were not able to find any trace of them in the census records or whether or not they survived their illness.

The school closed for the summer holidays on 12th July. When it reopened only 14th August, only 45 children, less than half the school were present. Three days later the head teacher recorded the sad news that Kate Dunn had died and that “she was a quiet and intelligent child and one of the brightest in her class.” On 21st August, there is a note that Edith Brazier has leave of absence to attend the funeral of her sister, Florence. The Braziers lived at the Clifton Arms, Clifton Road, where father, David, was the publican. One son, George, also became a publican, of The Globe in Newland Road. One of his daughters, Phyliss, did very well for herself and married into the wealthy and influential Jordan family, estate agents and auctioneers in Worthing. She lived to be 102 and died in Ferring in 2015, 122 years after her aunt had died of typhoid.

Another town centre school, Holy Trinity,(which opened in 1885), also suffered from the typhoid, although there do not appear to have been any deaths. Even in its first year, the school inspector noted “the prevalence of sickness in the district.” The last death from typhoid in the town was that of the vicar of Holy Trinity, The Rev. Joseph Lancaster, on 30th November 1893. The school log book stated: “our beloved vicar this day passed away.”

Sickness is a recurring theme in all the school log books I researched. A chronological sweep through the log books for Fittleworth reveal something of the ongoing battle with ill health that the school had to contend with, which included the sickness of staff, as well as children.

July 1863, ‘The Itch’ had broken out reducing school attendances (it is not explained what ‘the itch’ was – possibly scabies?)

September 1863, Visited the parents of several of the children who were kept at home through fear of the Small Pox. Sent Flora Caplin and her brother home as they resided next door to the home where the case of Small Pox was. This was to allay the fears of the parents and children. Attendance 38.

1866 Outbreak of mumps and whooping cough.

On 27th July 1866 there were 20 children absent with whooping cough.

8th April 1867, children being vaccinated against smallpox.

7th February 1873, The attendance has been low for the last month owing to the weather and sickness, especially measles. Fever has now broken out and frightened many from school.

1875 whooping cough.

1879, whooping cough again.

March and April 1881, Headmaster, James Kelly, absent from school due to illness. Kelly’s wife and daughter ran the school in his absence.

December 1883. Death of Mrs Kelly, mother of the headteacher: There was no school meeting [of the managers/ governors] on Thursday owing to the funeral of the Principal Teacher’s mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Kelly, who was for several years Assistant Mistress and Sewing Mistress in the school. No songs were sung during the week in consequence of the above sad event.

December 1884, death of Alice Budd, pupil, from ‘inflammation of the brain.’

January 1885, Whooping cough outbreak

December 1885, death of sisters, Alice and Martha Jones from diphtheria.

November 1891, Assistant Mistress (probably Harriette Kelly) ‘too ill to work.’ The school managers closed the school under ‘Medical Authority.’ Her illness is not specified, but she is later described as “being dangerously ill” The school remained closed and the buildings were “washed out thoroughly.”

April 1896. Outbreak of measles. The school washed out again, “a case having broken out in the master’s house.”

March 1898, Ringworm.

November 1898, “diphtheria spreading.”

July 1901, “Serious illness of Principal Teacher” – “Removed to London Hospital.” The Assistant Mistress and her sister take over the duties.

May 1902, school closed because of Scarlet Fever outbreak.

October 1904, death at the school of Harriette Kelly, Assistant Mistress and elder daughter of James Kelly, Principal Teacher.

August 1906, “very sudden and serious illness of Blanche Kelly,” younger daughter of James Kelly.

1908, James Kelly seriously ill again and died shortly afterwards.

Members of the Kelly family are buried in the churchyard at Fittleworth.

Blanche Kelly remained a school teacher and was living in retirement in Bognor Regis in 1939. She died in 1964, aged 81 and left an estate of £17,000. Given that you could buy a semi-detached house in 1964 for £3,000, and a detached home for about £4,500, she had done very well. She died unmarried, but her bother, Ronald, had a son who became an airline pilot. So, in three generations, the Kellys went from being aspiring working class, to school teachers, to affluent middle class.

Miss Brown, the headteacher at Heene School seems to have been more ill than well during our her headship. She was signed off work for several weeks in the spring of 1904 with influenza, which was described as a ‘relapse’ in her health. In November that year, she left school one morning, complaining of feeling unwell. The Rector visited her and gave orders for the school to close. Her fragile health does not improve and on 9th February 1906, she resigned her position.

As with the other schools we have learned about, Heene suffered its pandemics too. The school suffered an outbreak of diphtheria in January 1909. The classrooms were thoroughly washed out and disinfected. Although the school did not close, parents seem to have decided to keep their children at home. The log book entry for 5th February records a ‘deplorable attendance’ of just 33 pupils.

The school managers acted more swiftly when the Spanish ‘flu epidemic descended on the town and the school was closed from 22nd October 1918 until 18th November. Further closures followed as the epidemic continued to break out over the next two years. It should be remembered that the average age of death from Spanish ‘flu was 28, while with Covid the average aged of death has been 82 – Spanish ‘flu was a great risk and danger to the young.

Not all the health concerns of head teachers were as troubling as fatal pandemics. The head teacher at Pulborough School had one thing above all on his mind when he took over the school in 1863: headlice!

His entry for 4th May 1863 reads –

One of the parents complained to me that during the past week his daughter caught some unpleasant companions through sitting by the side of a girl known to be very dirty – I assured him we gave no encouragement to the increase of vermin and that all children were sent home if any signs of filth or vermin manifested themselves in them (the girl complained of had been frequently sent home). With this assurance the parent seemed satisfied…”

Then on 12th July 1864: A boy and a girl sent home for having too much livestock. Not allowed to return for two days. The whole of this family seems alike filthy.

If only headlice had been the only health issue to trouble our Victorian and Edwardian headteachers!

Notes and research by Chris Hare, with additional research by Phil Wood.