Illness claimed the lives of countless young children in Victorian times. Daniel and Sarah Arscott, my great-grandparents, lost four children in the 19th Century – three in just 48 days. Here, I look at how diphtheria brought tragedy to their family. And at how the death of Daniel and Sarah’s daughter, Eva, led to mandatory reporting of the infectious disease in the Tiverton area.
Two graves standing about 50ft apart in a remote Devon cemetery are a stark reminder of a great family tragedy more than a century ago.
One is the last resting place of farmer Daniel Arscott. The other is where his wife, Sarah, and their four infant children are buried.
Daniel and Sarah, my great-grandparents, lost a daughter and three young sons in four years in the 1890s.
Three died within a few weeks of each other, two from the highly infectious disease, diphtheria.
Known as the ‘children’s plague’, it caused the deaths of thousands of children every year in the UK before a vaccine was introduced in 1940.
Daniel and Sarah’s three-year-old daughter, Eva Charlotte, died from diphtheria at their family farm on April 13, 1892.
She had fought for her life for five days before succumbing to the infection at Stickeridge, on the outskirts of Cruwys Morchard.
Eva’s death – believed to have been caused by her ‘drinking water from a polluted well’ at the farm – was discussed a month later at a meeting of the Tiverton Board of Guardians.
The Western Times reported that almost a month elapsed before Tiverton Rural Sanitary Authority had been told of the circumstances of her death. At the time, diphtheria was not a notifiable disease.
Shocked by this delay, Tiverton Board of Guardians’ member, draper John Trowey Periam, of Bampton, called for the organisation to take urgent action to prevent a similar occurrence.
He urged that the board adopt the Compulsory Notification Infectious Diseases Act, which was first introduced in 1889 in London districts and urban, rural and port sanitary areas.
On May 2,1892 – 19 days after Eva’s death and eight days before the board met – Daniel and Sarah lost their 13-month-old son, Sydney Ernest, after an eight-day battle against bronchitis at Stickeridge.
And just 29 days later, on May 31, 1892, Eva and Sydney’s five-year-old brother, Charles Thomas, died from diphtheria on the family farm after a month-long fight against the infection.
On June 22 that year – just over three weeks after Charlie’s death – the Tiverton Board of Guardians finally agreed to adopt the Compulsory Notification Infectious Diseases Act.
This meant that it was mandatory for families and medical practitioners to report diphtheria and a number of other infectious diseases including small-pox and scarlet and typhoid fever.
Tragedy struck Daniel and Sarah again four years later when their newest son, Charley Ernest, died from convulsions at Stickeridge on May 8, 1896. He was three years old.
Sarah, broken by the loss of four infant children, died on January 16, 1900 at Stickeridge, aged just 48. She had been suffering from meningitis and acute rheumatism.
Sarah’s grave, at the remote Way Village Congregational Church Cemetery, near Cruwys Morchard remained undiscovered for decades – until my wife, Jenny found it by pure chance when we visited the cemetery in the early 2000s.
Jenny started to clean an old headstone to read the name on it when she found it was Sarah’s and that of her children who died between 1892 and 1896 – Eva Charlotte, Sydney Ernest, Charlie Thomas and Charley Ernest.
The grave of Sarah’s husband, Daniel, who died 22 years later, stands immediately opposite, but about 50ft away.
There is a strange symmetry to the two final resting places of a husband and wife who had been married for almost 33 years.
Why had Daniel – who remarried a year after Sarah’s death – chosen to be buried in a grave facing that of Sarah and four of their eight children, but so far apart from them?
It’s a mystery that probably will never be solved.
Daniel and Sarah had four other children, who all survived into adulthood. Born between 1878 and 1884, they included my grandfather, William Henry Arscott (1883-1936).
Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice died from diphtheria on December 14, 1878, aged 35. Alice’s four-year-old daughter, Princess Marie also died from diphtheria, on November 16, 1878.
John Trowey Periam was a member of the Tiverton Board of Guardians for 30 years. When he died in 1917, The Western Times reported that he was ‘the originator of the scheme for the distribution of water through (Bampton) in place of the old plan of fetching supplies from the springs in pitchers and buckets’.
THE FULL STORY OF DANIEL AND SARAH ARSCOTT IS TOLD IN MY DETAILED FAMILY TREE
Sarah Arscott (nee Tancock), my great-grandmother.
Daniel Arscott, my great grandfather.
Daniel and Sarah’s graves at Way Village Congregational Church Cemetery.