EXPLORING AN EPIDEMIC THROUGH OLD NEWSPAPERS

These are strange and unprecedented times with the Covid 19 pandemic.  There have been pandemics before but not quite like this one where most of us have been asked by the Government stay at home and mind our own business for a while.  I use the term ‘mind our own business’ loosely as the furore a Town Councillor has caused in the East Coast town of Southwold during this pandemic has received national attention.  The Councillor has had several large banners printed and placed around the town and on approaching roads, demanding that visitors and, in particular second homeowners execute a swift U turn on the A12 and bugger off back to London. 

The local social media forum on Next Door Southwold has given an interesting insight into the thoughts and concerns of some of the townsfolk.  Many residents have given the banner a bit of a bashing believing the wording to be ‘bullying’ and an excuse for some to indulge themselves in their favourite passion of sneering at second homeowners in the town.  Others wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of the banner and some have taken up the cause of ensuring that anyone who they believe is not a resident should be ‘outed’ and reported. In several cases this has not ended well and the police have actually been called to properties of permanent residents or second homeowners who have been staying in town well before the lockdown.  Permanent residents have been misidentified as second home owners or visitors and have been abused in the street or on their own doorstep. 

Using the wonderful British Newspaper Archive I took a quick look to see how historically residents reacted to visitors to their town in times of fear and epidemic and found that suspicion and misinformation in the media is nothing new.  In September 1848 The Times reports that  “a communication was received at Lloyd’s stating that one of the crew of the Helen…having died from cholera off Southwold.. the master took the body ashore for internment; the authorities, however, ascertaining that the man had died of cholera, positively refused to allow the body to be buried, and the crew consigned their deceased shipmate to the deep”.

Reports of this action appeared in many newspapers and publications all around the country and James Maggs who lived in Southwold and who kept a diary from 1818-1876 reported that great displeasure arose in the minds of the Yarmothians respecting the proceedings of the Mayor of Southwold” over the incident.

If this had been on Next Door Southwold then The Mayor, Daniel Fulcher, would have swiftly responded to the forum discussion to put his side of events.

 As it was, he wrote a letter to the the newspaper explaining that the “boat was put off from this place to the Helen…… in consequence of a signal being hoisted for assistance, when it was ascertained that medical aid was required for one of the crew, who had been taken suddenly and dangerously ill.  The boat then put to the shore for this purpose and succeeded in putting a medical man on board……but during which period the man had died.  The captain immediately gave orders for the body to be taken ashore by the boat…….I went off and met the boat with the corpse about 200 yards from the vessel and finding the medical man unable to state from what cause the man had died and the vessel being only a few hours sail from her place of destination I directed the men to re convey the body to the vessel.  To this the master readily assented and the vessel proceeded on her way to Yarmouth, where the deceased, John Baldry received Christian burial on Sunday last in a very respectable manner and was attended to the rave by a relative who resided here and who has expressed a wish to have the above mis-statement corrected”.  

These are worrying times, of course, and the concerns of residents that visitors could carry the infection and spread it within Southwold is quite natural too.  In March 1845 Napier Lincolne from Halesworth wrote to the Editor of the Suffolk Chronicle complaining of the attitude of the Town to his presence in Southwold following a bout of smallpox.  He begins his letter saying “The press is the voice of the Community”, writing today he could well say Next Door Southwold is that voice.  He continues:

Allow now to give utterance to the remonstrance of invalid, l am convalescent from small-pox, and last week engaged lodgings at Southwold, upon the edge of the cliff, for the purpose of enjoying the refreshing sea and recovering more rapidly from debility which the disease has fell upon me. Mayor and Corporation, receiving the information, held a council, and decided that I should not be allowed enter the town, upon the grounds of danger of infection. The history of the case had been mentioned to one their medical men, who gave his opinion that no fear was to be apprehended, as did also my own professional attendant the Mayor of the town. But these opinions were deemed unsatisfactory, they further required certificate assurance that there is risk of contagion”

Lincolne argues that The gentlemen the Corporation, in the discharge of their functions as guardians of the town, have been, I cannot but think, too stringent in their precautionary policy. There are other patients in the neighbourhood like myself wearied with the monotony their homes, and anticipating a change of air and scene by removal to Southwold; this letter will prepare them for the fiat of the Corporation not to enter within the precincts of the borough”. 

Libraries are closed, of course, so accessing the British Newspaper Archive for free at the British Library or other participating libraries is not possible at the moment.  The BNA is a source I use a great deal for my research and interests and so I willingly pay a £6.67 a month subscription to access the archives at home.  

Through the pages of old newspapers you can see how your home community was faring during epidemics such as Cholera or the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu.  You many find many similarities to now as, like our ancestors, we face so many unknowns.  Stay in, stay safe and keep well everyone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s