Local History

Past pandemics and panics

Wimbledon has suffered epidemics in the past. Your Local History Group recalls previous ‘unprecedented times’. With Around the Table contributions from Sheila Dunman and Monica Ellison, Charles Toase leads the charge.

The Black Death, 1348
“Though there is no direct evidence of that first epidemic in the records, the bubonic plague is assumed to be the cause of a loss of population, with a notable effect on farming in following decades. By 1389, a quarter of the farm land was not being worked, presumably because of lack of men to till it and this area had increased to a half by 1437. A part of Wimbledon around Copse Hill, once under cultivation became known as the ‘Wild Land’.”
Richard Milward in Historic Wimbledon quotes from a document of 1481 describing the area: “from ancient time arable, but for many years overgrown with bramble and furze”.

Plague Years
“Outbreaks of plague occurred here no less than eight times before disappearing after the outbreak of 1665. The parish register records an unusually high number of deaths in the years 1603-1604, though no cause of death is given. In those years, William Lingard (Lyngard) and seven of his children died within eight weeks of each other and were buried in St Mary’s churchyard”.
The Lingards were farmers, well off and well known. William’s father, Hugh Lingard blamed the death of his wife – following the birth of their 13th child – on the “incantations and enchantments” of Jane Baldwyn, who was tried for “murder by witchcraft” and sentenced to hanging. Commonsense prevailed and Wimbledon’s “witch” though, jailed for a year was reprieved, becoming a local “wise woman” whose recipes for potions, published in 1580 included a plague antidote that contained onions and ‘water of dragon’. Two further plague outbreaks are recorded: in 1636 when Thomas Rounde and two of his sons and a daughter died of the plague, and in 1643, when six burials took place in one week.

The Great Plague, 1665-66
It is disappointing to learn that the connection between the Ring a Ring o’ Roses nursery rhyme and the Great Plague is unproven, since interpreters of the “all fall down” rhyme before World War Two make no such association.

The origin of Wimbledon’s beloved, Grade II listed building, Southside House is also uncertain. Though undoubtedly historic, the claim that this ‘double house’, “whose facade is believed to date from 1687 was built by Robert Pennington as a safe haven for his family after his son died in the Great Plague of London” may also prove shaky. Nevertheless Wimbledon gained the reputation of being a healthy place to live. That epidemic is thought to have been brought to an end by the Great Fire of London, a conflagration which must have been clearly visible from the heights of Wimbledon Village.

Smallpox and the good ‘Doctor’
There are mentions of local epidemics of smallpox from 1752-53. Many attempts at inoculation had been made until Edward Jenner’s method of vaccination was popularised in the 1790s. John Sanford, the local apothecary used the new technique of ‘cowpox’ inoculation. Despite Sanford’s best efforts, in 1802 William Terry, the parish clerk, his wife and two children all died in a space of three weeks, and a number of the ‘nurse children’ from St. James’s parish were also buried. ‘Dr Sanford’ was an enthusiastic vaccinator and his treatment of 200 local children seemed to contain the epidemic of 1808. He lived to a great age in the Village at Ashford House, opposite Eagle House, earning a reputation for his care of the poor as well as being a martinet with the syringe.

Hygiene and Dr Pocklington
Before John Snow (father of epidemiology) proved the connection between cholera and contaminated water in Soho by the closure of the Broad Street pump in 1854, an 1850 call for clean water in areas of South London, notably Brixton, was fortuitous for the building of new cast-iron pipelines through the designated area of ‘new Wimbledon’. Along with health benefits, this added to its attraction for development. Despite the progress brought by clean water and Joseph Bazalgette’s London sewer, the end of the 19th century saw frequent health threats.

Recorded amongst those in Wimbledon were a diphtheria outbreak in 1885-86 (11 cases, five fatal), scarlet fever in 1886 and 1887, influenza in 1890, and measles in 1898. The scarlet fever epidemic is of special interest because of the research and actions taken by the Borough Surveyor CH Cooper and Wimbledon’s first Medical Officer of Health, Dr Evelyn Pocklington.

In 1876, Dr Pocklington established the Durnsford Lodge Fever Hospital for infectious diseases which played an important part in keeping epidemics under control. During the last week of December 1886 and the first week of January 1887, 592 cases of scarlatina and similar throat infections occurred in Wimbledon and Merton; the one thing they had in common was that victims all had their milk from the same dairy. Dr Pocklington stopped the milk supply, as a result there were only five fatalities and one of those was a monkey partial to milk, known as the ‘Wimbledon monkey’.

By the time of Dr Pocklington’s retirement in 1909, the death rate in the Borough was just over half the national average.
Unfortunately the Fever Hospital was inadequate and ill-served by its sewerage system as was the added small Isolation Unit in Gap Road. Both were eventually condemned.

‘Spanish’ Flu, WWI, 1918-1919
“The Prime Minister lay ill in a hospital ward. He had succumbed to the terrible pandemic that was taking the lives of so many of his fellow Britons. He needed help breathing. It was said to be ‘touch and go’.” The PM was David Lloyd George, the date September 1918.1
Despite the plight of the Prime Minister, people between the ages of 20 to 30 were more susceptible to this virus than the elderly. The chilling little ditty of the day was:
I had a little bird / its name was Enza / I opened the window, / and in-flu-enza.
There were between 228,000 and 250,000 deaths in the UK. Locally 144 victims died in 1918 and a further 62 in 1919.

WWII Evacuation
The Scheme was set up by the Government in June 1939, although at the time, war did not seem imminent. From the records, Sheila Dunman tells of the evacuation of Wimbledon Park School.

Children were registered for evacuation and a rehearsal was held for its pupils on 1 September.

Despite the fact that the ‘unprecedented’ ‘Pied Piper’ operation was not compulsory, on the first day of the war – Sunday, 3 September 1939 – 151 children and 17 adults assembled at the school at 7.30 am. Having made their way to Wimbledon Station, the children and their teachers travelled to Arundel in Sussex from where they were taken on to the villages of Barnham and Eastergate to be dispersed among local families. (“I’ll have that one” was the remembered phrase.) A week later, the children started in village schools.

Though parents were urged not to bring children back from evacuation, many did return. One returnee was five year old Raymond Briggs who had been admitted to the School in January 1939. He was privately evacuated to Gillingham, Dorset in the early days of the War, but returned in 1941. His book about his parents Ethel and Ernest tells the story.

There were further evacuations, the last of which was in July 1944, when 30 children went to Keighley, Yorkshire. The disruption and terrors caused by the evacuations, both for the children that left as well as for those that remained, and for their parents during the air raid years left their mark on many. In comparison, at least for the comfortably off, operation ‘Lockdown’ at home seems an easy option.

1 HistoryHit/Weekly Dan Snow
A Note from @The HistoryGuy

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