Saturday, 14 February 2009

Love in the time of cholera

I'm not a fan of Valentine's Day. It's not just the fact that I'm the mother of one child still in elementary school; any mother of elementary school students hates Valentine's Day unless she's crazy. Or Martha Stewart. Which amounts to the same thing. (For the record, we distributed hand-made valentines until second daughter hit Grade Three. At that time, I gave up and went for cheap drug store valentines.) It's the commercialism, the forced, fake romanticism, and the underlying idea that it's imperative to get laid on that date. I don't mind the chocolate aspect; I am a fan of chocolate.

So it was with some relief that I headed off for the first post-bus-strike meeting of the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa (BIFHSGO -- members pronounce it "Bufizgo") this morning. I arrived at the National Library and Archives, and the meeting area was packed. I'm not sure whether this was because the bus strike is over or because Alison Hare was speaking.

Alison Hare is a professional genealogist and she has spoken to BIFHSGO (and many other family history societies and organizations) before. Her talks always get high ratings. She's not a flashy speaker, but she is thorough and clear. This morning she was speaking (apologetically, given the subject matter and the date) of the cholera epidemics that hit Great Britain several times during the nineteenth century, in particular the epidemic of 1854 and of a pump in Broad Street in the Soho district of London that became a turning point in the understanding of how cholera was spread. This has been written about extensively and I can link you to Stevyn Colgan's recent blog for a quick overview.

Alison Hare's interest in the Broad Street cholera epidemic is personal. See, the British physician (and anaesthesia pioneer) John Snow demonstrated that the pump on Broad Street was contaminated by mapping out the deaths from cholera during those few, terrible September weeks in 1854 in the streets surrounding the water pump on Broad Street. Each death appeared as a line, and sure enough, the houses closest to the contaminated pump had the highest number of lines. One of the lines in nearby Bentinck Street should represent Alison Hare's ancestor Harriet Iddiols who fell ill with cholera while heavily pregnant, but she was hastily evacuated to Gravesend with her family. She died within a few days and the particulars of her death appear in John Snow's notes, although she is not named.

So Alison Hare set out to provide some names for the lines on John Snow's maps, using her skills as a genealogist. With the birth/marriage/death index, the censuses, some strategically-ordered death certificates (it would be hideously expensive to order more than a few), and other online documents, she hunted down the name of the baby who was the starting point for this terrifying breakout that decimated the neighbourhood. Her name was Frances Lewis; she was six months old and when she fell ill with cholera, her mother rinsed her diapers into the sewer which was only a couple of feet from the water pump. Cracks in the lining of the sewer allowed the vibrio cholerae bacterium to enter the well that supplied the pump. Baby Frances died hours later. Towards the end of the epidemic two weeks later, her father succumbed as well.

Alison made up her own maps and charts for her presentation and instead of lines or dots, there were names, and with the names came stories of families trying desperately to care for one another, suffering and fear, love and loss, pieced together from the data and from contemporary accounts, particularly those of Henry Whitehead, the local Church of England minister trying to comfort the living and dying in his parish. He didn't give names either, but because Alison Hare knew the circumstances of Harriet's neighbours on Bentinck Street, she could figure out which families Whitehead was visiting in those frantic days.

A distant relative heard of her search and sent her photographs of Harriet Iddiol's husband John who remarried five months after his wife's death ("He had to," Alison told us, "There were young children."), and subsequently moved to Nova Scotia. There was also a portrait of one of Harriet and John's daughters. "They look like nice people," said Alison. "They had gentle faces." The faces looked almost exactly like her own.

1 comment:

Rob said...

I always feel a special kind of wonder when otherwise anonymous historical statistics are given names and faces.