Killed by cholera

A warning notice
A warning notice

IT’S an exciting time when the family tree researcher comes up with details from their past.

But genealogy can be so much more interesting if you look further than just the name of your ancestor.

CHRIS CORDNER found out how.

THE most fascinating part of family tree research can often be the story behind the person,

After all, what use is a list of names, ages and dates without knowing the background to them?

Sandra McKay is the Reference Services Officer at the Central Library in Hartlepool which holds a Trace Your Ancestors session for the public every Wednesday from 10am.

Sandra is a firm believer that genealogy works best when you research the facts behind your ancestors as well as the people themselves.

For example, my own history shows that my maternal ancestors shared the surname of Pinkney.

There is a reasonable, although as yet unconfirmed possibility, that a woman named Jane Pinkney was a relative of mine and lived in Hartlepool in the 1840s and 1850s.

A little further research shows she died in 1851.

But the keen genealogist would also want to know that Jane died of cholera, aged 30, and she was one of more than 120 people whose lives were taken by the disease between August and September 1854.

Cholera was a terrible disease. It was an infection of the small intestine.

Sufferers would develop symptoms such as abdominal cramps, a dry mouth, dry skin, excessive thirst, glassy or sunken eyes.

But the most profuse signs were vomiting and diarrhoea.

It could kill in large numbers and it know no barriers. The young and old, the rich and the poor, they were all taken.

In fact, town officials warned of the threat in 1848 in a public notice.

As it first became a threat to the public, town Mayor George Green told of “that dreadful scourge of human life which was spreading its devastating influence over many parts; and, from all accounts, the inhabitants of this country have the strongest reasons for dreading its quick approach to these Isles.”

They were all facts which brought to life the conditions in which Jane and other Hartlepool people lived at the time.

Sandra told me: “It’s okay to fill your family tree with dates, names and who married who.

“But my advice is ‘get to know your family’.

“Find out how they lived and the areas they lived in. Find out what their occupation was and why they came to this area. Did they come for work or did they always live here? It all adds life to the story.”

The story of Hartlepool’s cholera scourge is gripping.

It was caused by the contamination of food and water, usually through poor sanitation. And in 1850’s Hartlepool, the sanitation levels were not the greatest.

Cholera was still a town problem in the early 1900s and a report was prepared in 1901 by the town’s Medical Officer for Health Fred Morison.

He said that he examined every house where diarrhoea had contributed to a death.

He found that, in 83 per cent of the cases, the houses had “midden privies” – otherwise known as communal toilets – and all of them were “in a most unsatisfactory condition.”

Sandra added: “There was no sanitation and our ancestors had to live through that.

“Most people who research their family tree will find that their families have been touched by disease, and that can be part of your research.”