Daughters of England


Stedham - OS 1st edn publ 1813

Stedham and Iping on the 1st edtion Ordnance Survey Map, 1813.  By the 1880s the area called ‘Trotton Common’ was known as Stedham Common, and was the site of the temporary hospital.

This piece is a small contribution to women’s history, for International Women’s Day. It looks at the events of two terrible months in a part of Victorian Sussex, and what they tell us about the lives of local people, particularly those of women.

The village of Iping stands on the banks of the river Rother, a few miles west of the small West Sussex market town of Midhurst.  Before the 20th century the local economy was mostly based on agriculture, but industry was not entirely absent.  In the early 1700s a watermill at Iping was converted into a paper mill.   The mill had an extraordinarily long working life and remained in production until it was destroyed by fire in 1930 (1).

By the early 1880s the mill was owned by Warren & Co and produced blotting paper.   This was made from the fibres of cloth rags – typically cotton and linen.  The bales of cloth came from sources in both Britain and abroad, and were transported to the area by train, arriving at the now long-vanished station at nearby Elsted.   A wagon took the bales to the paper mill, where they were sorted, dusted and cut into small pieces. Boiling and bleaching followed, after which the cloth was made into paper. The whole process, from opening a bale to the finished paper, took about two days.

The rag-loft was an old wooden building that stood on the opposite side of the river to the mill itself.   Described as ‘admitting plenty of air’, it was probably a freezing place to work in winter, and it is likely that the work carried on there was dirty and unpleasant. Fourteen women worked in the rag-loft as sorters, with two men employed to open the bales and to carry the sorted rags over Iping bridge to the mill.   The millworkers mostly lived in and around Iping, though some came from the neighbouring village of Stedham.

The story of what happened there in 1883 relies on local health records, including the report of Dr Charles Kelly, who was the Medical Officer of Health for the West Sussex Sanitary District (2).   Kelly gave the people mentioned in his report a modicum of anonymity by refraining from the use of surnames – he referred to them as ‘Ann D’, ‘Emily H’ and so-on.

On 8 May 1883, a 20 year-old Iping rag-sorter named Emily H went down with a headache and backpain.   Shortly after, she developed a rash.  The rash was caused by smallpox.

Emily had been vaccinated against smallpox before, and soon recovered.  However, Clara H, aged 15, was not so lucky. Like Emily, she fell ill at the rag-loft on 8 May and went home to her family cottage in Iping.   The disease progressed with horrifying rapidity and the girl slipped into a coma on the evening of the 11th. She was dead the next day, and buried by nightfall.

Dr Kelly had gone to Iping on 11 May, having heard of the outbreak there.  He had also received disturbing news that it had already spread to Stedham.   The first Stedham victim was one of the two men who worked in the rag-loft, Frederick D, aged 21 years.   He had felt unwell on 5 and 6 May.  He must have dragged himself into work on the 8th, because he returned home almost at once, feeling very ill.   Frederick went to bed, and by the evening the characteristic smallpox rash had appeared.

Former New Inn, StedhamThe former New Inn (later called the Gnu Inn), Stedham.  Frederick D was probably once one of its customers (image C) Ian Friel 2016

Frederick lived in what was little more than a two-up, two-down cottage with his parents, James (60) and Ann (48), and four siblings, Charlotte (17), James (junior, 10) Lettice (7) and a baby sister. James (the father) took the three middle children to stay with him in an empty cottage.  Ann remained at home to care for Frederick, but also had to look after the baby.

Each of the family members had been vaccinated twice before, and two were revaccinated on 12 May, but this may have been scant reassurance in the face of such an aggressive and terrible disease. As matters proved, vaccination did not offer total protection either: it had not prevented Frederick for catching smallpox, and within a few days his younger brother had it, too. James junior went back to the family home to be looked after by his mother. He was in a bad way by 23 May, but eventually recovered.   It’s difficult to imagine what must have passed through Ann’s mind as she nursed her younger son, for on 18 May the disease had killed Frederick.

Smallpox continued to spread. A 58 year-old Iping rag-sorter, Mrs H, died on the same day as Frederick.   Dr Kelly quickly identified infected rags as the source of the disease. As the people who handled the rags came from the poorer parts of society, it is little wonder that the epidemic seems to have been confined to the poor of the district.   Certainly, all of the victims seem to have lived in cottages, dwellings that were often cramped and crowded, far from being the sort of ‘des res’ some of them would become in the 20th century.

A programme of vaccination was tried, but met with little response.  Isolation was the only alternative treatment available, so infected cottages were quarantined. In  places where a death occurred, the rooms were fumigated with burning sulphur, and sickroom bedding and clothes were burnt. The local Poor Law Guardians supplied quarantined households with food and other necessaries, as did some of their neighbours.   Men were employed at each place to act as messengers, taking supplies to the infected homes and bringing news back.

However, this form of ‘care in the community’ did not work. The smallpox continued to spread. Kelly decided to take the sick people out of their homes and put them in complete isolation.  He got powers to do this from the Midhurst Sanitary Authority, and at the end of May a tented isolation hospital was set up on Stedham Common, to the south of both villages.  Fortunately, the weather was warm and dry.

A big 40 x 20 ft marquee was put up on the Common on 31 May and used to house most of the patients.  Five or more bell tents were also acquired, along with beds, bedding, wooden boards to make temporary floors and a mangle for laundry use. Two trained nurses were employed to work at the hospital, and they were assisted by quaratined relatives of the patients, who were accomodated in the bell tents.  By 1 June there were 25 people at the hospital, rising to 29 two weeks later.  Their homes were each fumigated three times in their absence, and any bedding or clothing remaining in them was either destroyed or disinfected by carbolic acid and boiling water. One elderly man died at the hospital, but he was the fifth and last to be killed by this outbreak, which was declared to be over on 30 June.

In the end, the epidemic seems to have been contained by a number of things.  One was a history of past vaccination in the area.  Many people had already been vaccinated, some as far back as the 1820s, and so had a measure of protection.  Kelly’s decision to move all of the cases to the isolation hospital was clearly a key factor in stopping the smallpox from spreading further. The disease was also defeated by courage – the bravery of the messengers who kept the infected families supplied, of the doctors and nurses and of the family members who tended their sick.

One of these, in particular, stands out: Ann D.   At the risk of her own life she nursed her two sons through a terrible disease and saw one of them die. We cannot know how she coped with the grief and yet was still able to keep her baby safe and see her other son through his deadly ordeal. If asked, she might have denied that this was courage, and have said that this was just what a mother had to do.  We cannot know. However, it is important to remember women like her, who carried – and still carry – enormous burdens and yet manage to keep life going. Her name was Ann Denyer.

(1)      L F Salzman (ed), A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 4, The Rape of Chichester, London (Victoria County History), p 63.

(2)     West Sussex Record Office WDC/CL74/1/1884, pp 93-106; WSRO WG7/59/3, minutes of the Midhurst Rural Sanitary Authority 1879-85, pp 264-65, 267-78; 1881 Census information, identifying the Denyer family, via http://www.findmypast.co.uk.

I came across the report on the smallpox epidemic whilst undertaking research into a house history for some clients: it is thanks to their commission that the story has come to light.

© Ian Friel 2016



A young couple photographed at Southsea, Hampshire, probably early 1900s

A young couple photographed at Southsea, Hampshire, probably early 1900s

One hundred and seventy-five years ago this year, the invention of photography was announced to the world.   In January 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot read a paper at the Royal Society in London on his process of ‘photogenic drawing’; eight months or so later, Louis Daguerre’s rather different photographic technique was made public at the Institut de France. Both announcements followed years of experimentation, and Daguerre had been the partner of the brilliant French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (died 1833), whose ‘heliography’ produced the first true photograph in 1826-27.  The term ‘photography’ or ‘drawing with light’, seems to have been first coined in France, not long after Niépce’s pioneering picture; the word first appeared in an English publication in 1839 (1).  Identifying a single inventor for a new piece of technology is not always easy, and as the historian Michel Frizot points out, ‘photography was not invented by one person’ (2).  This blog is not aimed at reopening the issue of Who Got There First.

Instead, I want to write about the fascination of historic photographs. By this, I don’t just mean images of major historical events, or portraits of the Great and the Good. To me, the term denotes photographs of anyone, anything or any place in the past. I know that people’s definitions of where ‘the past’ begins differ enormously, but that’s another issue I’m going to sidestep here.

What photography has given us is the ability to seize a moment and hold it forever – or at least for as long as the image will last.   In the days of print cameras, the technology and expense of print film and cameras meant that most people only took photos on special occasions – birthdays, weddings, holidays and so-on, or they visited a professional photographer.  Nowadays, photography has become ubiquitous, even habitual, thanks to the advent of point-and-click camera controls, digital photography and the internet, along with mobile phone cameras.   Our lives can be documented visually as never before.

'The past is a foreign country': sometimes it really looks like it, too. 'Grecian' dancing, c 1900-1920?

‘The past is a foreign country’: sometimes it really looks like it, too. ‘Grecian’ dancing, c 1900-1920?

To my mind, this makes the photographic record of the pre-digital world even more valuable.  That includes those images which at first might be dismissed as banal or dull – you know, studio portraits of unknown people, album shots of holidaymakers in deckchairs, unremarkable street scenes.  Some photos of this kind do get into archive collections or books, but a great number seem to end up at boot sales or in junk shops, the product of estranged families, solitary old age and house clearances. There’s a good chance that many of these images might end up in landfill if no-one buys them.

Market-day in Dinant, Belgium, summer 1938: from the album of a British tourist

Market-day in Dinant, Belgium, summer 1938: from the album of a British tourist

You might ask why any of this matters, if there’s no-one left to care what happens to the photos? With many of these images, the names of the people in them are unknown, the exact locations are uncertain and the only way you can date them is by reference to clothes, vehicles, and so-on. What use are they?

A Thames lighter being 'sculled' under old London Bridge, c 1930

A Thames lighter being ‘sculled’ under old London Bridge, c 1930

The answer to this is that each photo, however inconsequential it may seem, is a fragment of history, made all the more precious because it relates not to famous figures or events, but to ‘ordinary’ people. For example, the historian Avril Lansdell made telling use of pictures of this kind to show how British people actually dressed in the 20th century, as opposed to what the contemporary fashion mags might suggest was worn (3).  And in amongst all those portraits and holiday snaps are images of vanished buildings, long-gone street scenes and landscapes, and sometimes evidence of dramatic historical events. For all these reasons, such photos are worth preserving.

There can also be something terribly poignant about looking at people in an old photograph, like the attractive young couple at the head of this blog.   The photo was taken in the Hampshire seaside resort of Southsea, and their not-quite solemn expressions and linked arms suggest happiness – people on a day out, on holiday, or even honeymooning.  Judging by the clothes, the image dates from the early 1900s, and it is quite possible that they could have lived into the 1960s or later. Two World Wars, the Depression and the Cold War awaited them, but also the welfare state, rising standards of education and greater equality.  Standing in the photographer’s studio on that Edwardian day, they could have no idea of what was to come.  A similar thing could be said of us, staring out of a Facebook or Instagram page. Think of that next time you take a selfie.

Cuddly old 'Uncle Joe', Germany 1945.  Photo from the album of a British soldier who was part of the occupation forces

Cuddly old ‘Uncle Joe’, Germany 1945. Photo from the album of a British soldier who was part of the occupation forces

Blog © Ian Friel 2014

The photos in this blog come from my personal collection, most of them bought at boot sales.   The first stage in preserving such images is for them to be acquired by someone who cares about them.  The second stage is to find an eventual home for the collection – perhaps museums, libraries or archives  – where the original images can be looked after in the long term and made accessible to the public.

(1) Oxford English Dictionary, oed.com

(2) M Frizot (ed), A New History of Photography, Cologne 1998, p 23.

(3) A Lansdell, Everyday Fashions of the 20th Century, Shire Publications, Princes Risborough 1999.

Where’s the hero now?


Still a hero?  A reconstruction of Drake’s Golden Hind, London 2013.

People have all sorts of heroes and heroines – actors, musicians, sports stars, even politicians.  The late Tony Benn, who sadly died a couple of days ago, was a hero to many people, because of his dedication to his beliefs.  And an anti-hero to others, for the same reason (1).

The word ‘hero’ used to be mainly associated with people engaged in war or politics, but the definition of heroism has changed a lot over time.  The association with conflict is still there, but the notion of ‘who can be considered heroic’ has widened.  It now includes people who fight indomitably against ill-health or adverse social conditions, or achieve something else of importance against great odds.

However, the more you know about heroes in history, the more problematic they can become.    For example, the Victorian historian J A Froude acknowledged that there was something of the pirate about Francis Drake and John Hawkins, the great 16th-century English seafarers, but also wrote that ‘the instinct of their countrymen gave them a place among the fighting heroes of England, from which I do not think they will be deposed by the eventual verdict of history’ (2).

Froude saw liberty and Protestantism as interlinked, and in his opinion Drake and his colleagues saved England from the tyranny of 16th-century Catholic Spain. Nowadays, though, we tend to take a much more relativistic view of the past than did Froude.  We have far less faith in ‘the eventual verdict of history’ and recognise that historical ideas tend to change as society itself changes.   Does this make people like Drake any less heroic?  Undeniably, he led the second-ever circumnavigation of the globe, fought the Spanish Empire and played a big part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  Equally undeniably, Drake also operated as a pirate, took part in the transatlantic slave trade with Hawkins, helped to ramp-up the tension between England and Spain, and deserted his post at a critical point in the Armada campaign to go after a prize ship.   Where’s the hero now?

The answer is that Drake was all of these things – one of the first English national heroes to come from humble origins and a defender of his country, but also a pirate and sometime slave-trader.   The great heroes of history were probably all flawed, in one way or another, because they were human beings.  This doesn’t mean that you cannot admire the good and brave things they did, just that uncritical hero-worship needs to be avoided (3).  In the wrong hands, the legend of a national hero from the past can end up being used to justify bludgeoning people in the present.

Do I have a hero from history?  Sort of.  It’s unlikely that you will have heard of him.   He was an English master shipwright named Henry Hellewarde, who lived in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.   His only known major achievement was the successful construction of a large war galley for King Edward I, one of a number of such vessels built between 1294 and 1296 (4).  Short of building a castle or a cathedral, constructing a big galley was one of the most daunting engineering projects of the time.  The galley had about 80 oars and was built at York, a big city, but a long way from the sea and not a good place to build a large warship, even then.

The building account for the galley allows us to work out a few things about Hellewarde: as a master shipwright, he knew how to design and make a complex oared fighting ship; he was an able man, managing a large team and overseeing a major project that consumed a great deal of valuable raw materials;  he was a canny operator, emerging from the project as one its highest earners (the other high earners were all officials or merchants); he was a successful craftsman, able to complete the galley and get it into service at sea.

Little else is known about Hellewarde.  On another occasion he was accused of taking part in theft of goods from a ship, but there is no way of knowing if the accusation was true.  What is true is that he was able to create one of the most challenging vessels of his day and make it work.  For those things, I admire him.   I don’t know what he thought about the poor or the position of women, what he was like to his kids (though three of them seem to have worked for him), or much else that belongs to conventional biography.  Perhaps that’s just as well.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014, photo © Ian Friel 2013

(1)      I know that using the word ‘heroine’ (the person) is becoming less and less common, partly because it sounds like ‘heroin’  (the drug), but also for reasons of feminism, though compromising on the male form of a name as the current usage does not strike me as a particularly feminist thing to do.

(2)      J A Froude, English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century, London 1909, p 140.

(3)      John Cummins’ biography, Francis Drake.  The Lives of a Hero (London 1995), is particularly good on the question of the reality of Drake’s life and the subsequent myth-making.

(4)      The original document is in The National Archives (TNA),  E101/5/8.  You can find out more about Hellewarde, the York vessel and the other 1295 vessels in my 2013 Gresham College Lecture, ‘1295: the Year of the Galleys’: the transcript and a video are available at http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/1295-the-year-of-the-galleys; the video can also be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rp3R46dAmj0.