History, epidemics and science

A snippet of history to honour the dedication of our epidemiologists and other scientists in these challenging times.

In 1854, a severe outbreak of cholera struck the Broad Street area of London, making thousands ill and killing at least 600 people. At the time, this dreadful disease was thought to be due to ‘bad air’.

Fortunately, a British physician called John Snow had been studying the disease and suspected the source was contaminated water from the raw sewage that seeped into the water system. By plotting cases on a map, Snow identified the Broad Street water pump as the likely source of the disease. He proved it by the simple expedient of removing the handle of the pump.

Cases of cholera immediately declined, although one can imagine how irate locals were about carting water from another pump further from their homes. Just as many people today grumble about hand-washing, wearing masks and social distancing.

Snow is celebrated as one of the founders of epidemiology, the scientific study of the patterns of disease with the population. His ‘germ theory’ of disease would take a while to be accepted, but it would eventually save millions of lives through improved sanitation and water treatment. Tragically, cholera is still shockingly rife in countries without these basics.

Fortunately, science has come a long way since then, thanks to the dedicated research of epidemiologists and other scientists, and 20th century developments in vaccines and antibiotics. Sadly, too late to stop the catastrophic 1918 Flu Pandemic, which infected about one-third of the world’s population and led to at least 50 million deaths.

It is mind-boggling to me that anyone could ignore the advice of the John Snow’s of our age, who dedicate their lives to understanding the nature and spread of disease. I give daily thanks for living in New Zealand, where the government followed scientific advice and took early action to lock the country down.

Voices from the past

Delving into personal memoirs is one of the delights of historical writing – albeit at the risk of disappearing into a black hole of time. There’s nothing quite like reading the words of someone who was present at the time, for the little details and voices that lend authenticity to a story.

Here are a few more snippets about the voyage from Britain to New Zealand, taken from the writings of real passengers.

For ‘The Widow’s Secret’, I made particular use of the published diary of Alfred Fell, an observant cabin passenger who gave a detailed account of all aspects of his voyage on the Lord Auckland in 1841. Fell clearly enjoyed the journey and made good use of his time. He was impressed by the food: “we had an excellent dinner of salmon, soup, roast goose, a saddle of mutton, a couple of fowls, with curry and a Westphalia ham, plum pudding and apple tarts, cheese and bottled water, champagne and sherry, with desert consisting of apples nuts to almonds raisins et cetera.” Not bad fare for a sailing ship!

Food became something of a fixation for some travellers, to the point that Neill Joyce chose the title ‘Plum Duff and Cake’ for his 1975 book, based on the journal of James Nichols in 1874. Like many young men, he showed a keen interest in his food and plum duff in particular.

For a women’s perspective, one of the sources I used was a collection of stories from four voyages, published as part of ‘The adventures of pioneer women in New Zealand’ by Sarah Ell (1992). Here are a few quotes from letters and diaries, reproduced from that book.

Charlotte Godley, 1850, cabin passenger:

  • After six days they were “still not thirty miles from Plymouth, and the wretchedness of those days is not a thing to be spoken lightly of.”
  • Of flying fish: “we had quantities flying about for the last three days and they are beautiful little creatures, but quite small, only about eight inches long.”
  • “But the prettiest thing is to sit on the deck at night quite at the stern and watch the track of the vessel; last night it was like three wreaths of pale green smoke (one from each side and one from the rudder) started with showers of bright stars.”
  • “We are not to consider it hot till the seams on the deck begin to melt. We wake every morning before six with the pump for washing the decks and then the gentlemen all go up on deck to have buckets of water thrown over them.”
  • “The doctor is unsuccessful, as he gets very tipsy.”

Jane Findlayson, 1877, steerage passenger:

  • Of the equatorial heat: “we wear nothing but our dress and shoes on our hard feet, some go without shoes, but that we can’t manage. There is a young Irish girl went wrong in her mind beside us, we did not get any sleep for four nights she talked on, so we complain to the doctor and she has tonight been taken to hospital.”
  • Of crossing the Line: “About 3 o’clock the procession came on deck consisting of King Neptune, his wife, his doctor, clerk and barber as well as six black slaves following them. … he went onto the main deck and shaved all the new hands on board … After being shaved they were plunged into a big tank of water with the slaves were swimming about and ready to give them a proper dunking. It was two hours grand fun, and that did not finish the day, the singers’ names were taken down for a concert in the evening.”
  • 25th November: “Snowing hard this morning.” (They had snow for several days.)
  • “Another birth on board. … The doctor strictly forbids single girls from going near the married quarters, he is trying what he can to prevent measles spreading amongst us here, we have disinfecting powder all over the place, it is a disagreeable smell. … There is no doubt now but we will be quarantined.”

Loire Valley must-see: Château de Chenonceau

Writing about the Loire Valley brought to mind another favourite: the Château de Chenonceau (https://chenonceau.com). Surely one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, built over the Cher River, with its iconic arches reflecting in the water. The land entry is also lovely: hop off the local train or bus and walk through a postcard-perfect village, down a long avenue lined with trees, and past the formal gardens. 

We were fortunate enough to visit in December, when it was decked out for Christmas in one of the most beautiful displays I have ever seen, including a stunning feasting table in the gallery. It was also delightfully quiet, given that Chenonceau is said to be the second-most visited château in France, after Versailles. The whole interior is grand, but for me, the recreated kitchens were a real highlight, with vaulted ceilings, rows of gleaming copper pans, and a pulley-system down to the river to hoist up supplies.

And, of course, it has a fascinating history as the ‘Ladies’ Château’, home to several influential women. The château passed into royal hands in 1535, as part of a debt settlement, and is perhaps best known for its links to an infamous royal love triangle. King Henry II gave it to his favourite, Diane de Poitiers, who wielded more power over both the king and his children than did his queen, Catherine de Medici. After the death of the king while jousting, the queen ousted the mistress and took back Chenonceau for herself and her children. Three of her sons were kings and two daughters were queens, giving the château an impressive royal flavour, reflected in the many masterpieces, tapestries and furnishings.

Catherine de Medici held lavish parties at the château, including the first fireworks display in France, while wielding enormous power as regent for her young sons. Her role in the bloody religious massacres of the era and alleged murders of several important figures have left her with a terrible reputation, perhaps more so than she deserved according to some historians. For a fictionalised take on her life, I enjoyed the novel by C.W. Gortner (The Confessions of Catherine de Medici), which conveys both the challenges she faced in clinging to power as well as the dire consequences of her decisions.  

The château was later home to other women of note, including Louise Dupin, who was famous for her literary salons, welcoming scholars such as Voltaire. She is known for her book on the history and rights of women, written with the assistance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was tutor to her son before he became famous as a philosopher (https://blue-stocking.org.uk/tag/louise-dupin/).

More recently, the Menier (chocolate) family transformed Chenonceau into a military hospital in World War I, with Simone Menier as matron. The beautiful gallery across the river housed rows of wounded men, who reputedly fished out of the windows. Simone and the Mernier family also played a role for the resistance in World War II, using the château as an escape route between the Nazi occupied zone and the free zone on the other side of the river.  

So many fascinating stories just begging to be made into novels!

Voyage to New Zealand

I’ve been asked how much of what happened on the Lady Rosalind (the fictional 1840’s sailing ship in The Widow’s Secret) was based on real events. The short answer is that Elisabeth Godwin’s story is entirely fictional, but the backdrop of shipboard life is based on events from real diaries from various immigrant ships.

The sailing voyage from Britain to New Zealand really did take three to four months, sometimes even longer. Just imagine: a third of a year on a 100-foot (30 metre) wooden vessel in the middle of a vast ocean, alongside a couple of hundred other desperate souls, with land rarely seen and even more rarely visited. Half way around the earth, crossing the tropics, the equator and the truly terrifying Southern Ocean, to a little-know cluster of islands.

The pictures show the approximate route and a painting of the first immigrant ships to reach Wellington from Britain (Clayton, Matthew Thomas, 1831-1922: Settlement of Wellington by the New Zealand Company. Historical gathering of pioneer ships in Port Nicholson, March 8, 1840. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.)  

All too often, the first days were some of the worst, stuck in the vomit-inducing English Channel, unable to move against head-winds. Many were later becalmed in the fierce heat of the doldrums, while in the Southern Ocean, some voyages really did see icebergs, while almost all encountered fierce storms and whales.

The conditions on board were no picnic – jam-packed bunks, tiffs with fellow passengers, rudimentary sanitation, infectious diseases, vermin (rodents, cockroaches and lice are featured in many diaries), childbirth, accidental injuries, and blocked bowels from the stodgy food. It’s a wonder there weren’t more deaths.

The photos show what the steerage bunks would have looked like, compared to a cabin bed, as well as the long central table that ran through steerage. [Taken at the Edwin Fox Museum in Picton, New Zealand, which is well worth a visit. http://www.edwinfoxsociety.com/]

After reading the diaries, I had a vivid picture my ancestors in their steerage bunks. They were tradespeople from the foul backstreets of London, farm-workers from small villages in Kent and crofters from the Scottish islands. Presumably they had little experience of the world beyond a day’s walk or ride. How would they cope, suddenly thrust into an epic adventure? I suspect they survived thanks to a strong streak of stoicism, a tight-knit community of fellow-travellers (often whole families), and a desperation to seek a new life.

Regarding the last of these, there was often little choice, with many being thrown out of their homes and jobs due to changes in land laws and mechanisation in the industrial revolution. Progress, as ever, benefits the rich over the poor. The sailing ships were truly a microcosm of British society, with a small number of wealthy colonists in the cabins and a large horde of working-class emigrants in steerage. Those in cabins enjoyed three-course meals with wine and were destined either for land purchased from the New Zealand Company or for well-paid employment. Those in steerage got a bunk in the communal area, basic meals, and the opportunity to experience such delights as cooking, cleaning, emptying toilet buckets and scrubbing decks.

The picture shows a series of sketches of life on board an emigrant ship. (Reproduced with the permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand; from `The Illustrated New Zealand Herald’, 9 April, 1875.) 

And yet, the voyage had its up-sides. The best ships had a school, ample (if monotonous) food, fresh air and a competent ship’s surgeon, leading to improved health, especially amongst the poorer city children. Irrepressible human spirit meant that all voyages had their own entertainments, including plays, poetry reading, newspapers, wildlife-watching, sketching, games, crafts and dancing (as well as many less-desirable activities such as drinking, fighting, playing pranks and shooting birds with sling-shots). The captain, chief mate and surgeon kept a fairly tight rein, no doubt well aware of how fast the atmosphere might turn sour.

Thirty hours in an economy seat on board an airplane to get to New Zealand suddenly doesn’t seem so bad!

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