By Bill Goldthorp
England we think is a malaria free zone and the vector the anopheles mosquito does not breed here. Not so, Mr. Ross Kendall of the Archaeology Department of Durham University for his PH.D Thesis is proving that skeletal remains from Roman, Anglo- Saxon and early medieval periods show signs of suffering from malaria. Plasmodium Vivax, not the severe and fatal African one, Falciparum, it rarely killed itself, but by causing anaemia and general debility made women and children particularly subject to other infections which were fatal. So much so that immune men, born in the Cambridgeshire Fens had to visit the higher areas of Nottingham every few years to get new wives.
The Lancet 6 October 2012. An article dealing with Coroner’s reports in Tudor England. “Between 4 and 5 am one October morning in 1559, Dorothy Cawthorn got up from her bed and went into the kitchen of her widowed mistress Mary Ever’s house at Belton in Lincolnshire. She broke a hole in the wall and made her way to the hop garden. There she went over to the 5 feet deep pool, fell in and drowned.” The majority of even farmhouses were still wattle and daub. Rural areas still used wells, ponds, rivers and streams for domestic water. “ She was ill with a certain quotidian fever…. Such that she behaved herself as though demented, in as much as she did not know what she was doing or saying.” The fever must have made her desperate for a drink and altered behaviour to make her seek it in such a desperate way.
Belton was then in the marshy Isle of Axholme. Probably malaria, it was October and the condition was often called the autumnal ague, occurring after summer when the mosquitoes had ample time to multiply and the female having to fly farther in search of the blood meal needed before it could lay its eggs.
In the marshy areas of England it had several names, using either fever or ague, Paludal fever, Marsh fever, Autumnal fever, Intermittent fever, Periodical fever, the quakes even Bailiff of the Marshes, Lord John’s fever and Old Johnny Axey.
Lincoln Record’s Society, a Publication in two volumes. “Grateful to Providence.” The diary and accounts of Matthew Flinders, Surgeon, Apothecary and Man- Midwife He practised in Donnington from 1771 to 1802 on the edge of the Lincolnshire fens. Every year usually in October he records getting an autumnal ague, but in May 1784 he writes, “I may add that I have been very poorly a week myself, had two fits of a Tertian with a sore mouth, but by an emetic and Bark am thank God well and have been so about a fortnight.
A Tertian means extreme fever and rigors, every third day, typical of vivax infection. Rigors, extreme shivering as the temperature rises, excessive sweating as it subsides. The patient is totally incapacitated and often delirious. The Bark, cinchona bark from South America, a known specific and valuable treatment for malaria. We now know that it contains quinine.
I love browsing on the web site red1st.com. especially to follow the distaff, maternal line. I am fascinated by the number Isle of Axholme families I am related to. Through Page 1my mother I must be related to over half the long-standing families in the Northern part of the Isle and about a third of those in the southern part. I love teasing elderly ladies I was at school with, by noting that their attractive, charming granddaughters are like that because they have some of my genes, their husband having been my second or third cousin.
Many varied families I can follow into the 19th , 18th and even late 17th century, what I particularly note, is the longevity of many I follow and the survival into adulthood of 80 to 90% of their large families of 10 or more. When the mortality in the rest of the country particularly the infant mortality is considered, this is most unusual. Mostly of course we think about the over crowded towns and cities of the Industrial Revolution, but the same applies to other fenland areas of England.
“Fenland Ague in the Nineteenth Century.” By Alice Nicholls. Medical History. 2000. 44. 513 –530 In this Nicholls studies, fevers in the Fens of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Huntingdonshire and never once mentions the Isle of Axholme. There are 66 references in the bibliography but none to the Isle of Axholme. She records the poor health of fen dwellers, high infant mortality, recurrent epidemics of ague. Local fear of living in the fens, so that most are extremely poor. The absence of the well to do. The better of all emigrate to somewhere safer.
Let us return to the Isle of Axholme and red1st.com. Where are the more substantial farmers, landowners, and businessmen? They are living in the Isle of Axholme amongst the rest of us, closely related to us, marrying with us. We have mortality records since 1840 when censuses and birth and death records began, prior to that we only have burial records, but nowhere have I been able find any records of excessive agues in the Isle after 1700 or before.
Efficient drainage in the 20th century has been the answer for most fenland areas. We have had it since Vermuyden corrected his original mistakes when he dug the Dutch River emptying the Don into the Ouse. Although slow, his drainage scheme moved water to outlets on the main rivers and avoided stagnant water so loved by the anopheles mosquito. Add to that raising the lower areas by a few feet of warp has also helped.
In my youth we often fished in the drains and rivers of the Isle. Then they were full of fish whose young would be eating mosquito larvae. Now due to the run off of nitrates from excessive use of fertilisers, those drains and rivers are full of weeds which slow the water flow, they reduce the oxygen and thereby the fish but encourage mosquitoes. I rarely see people fishing there now. It seems we have lost one of our protections against the ague. Let us hope that global warming increasing the length of the mosquitoes breeding season and rising water levels due melting of polar icecaps do not reduce the others. So that another young woman becomes delirious from fever and drowns herself.
Human activities have unintended consequences. The descendants of those Isle of Axholme inhabitants, who were appalled by Cornelius Vermuyden’s activities have reason to be extremely grateful for them.