Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

140227smallpox-handrobert-carswellwellcome-library

Watercolour of a hand with smallpox by Robert Carswell in 1831 (Wellcome Library, London)

Mr Selfe had only just taken his seat at Westminster Police Court on the morning of the 12 April 1863 when the officer of health for the parish of St George’s, Hanover Square approached him. As a magistrate Selfe had to deal with all sorts of problems and issues of everyday life, but few were as sensitive as this.

The health officer, Dr Aldis of Chester Place, explained to the magistrate that a three year-old child had died of smallpox, a disease that remained widespread in poorer communities in the nineteenth century despite Edward Jenner’s best efforts to promote vaccination against it.

The unnamed child was lying in his cot so people could pay their respects, as tradition dictated, at a room in a house in Pimlico and Dr Aldis was worried about the public health consequences of this. The ‘small back room’ was home to the ‘boy’s father and mother and three other children’ and no fewer than 26 other persons lived in the property. Moreover, the doctor insisted, this was a crowded locality ‘in which the smallpox is very prevalent’.

He wanted to have the child buried quickly to avoid contagion but the mother was resistant. She wanted to grieve for her son and to do so in the customary way. The family were part of London’s large immigrant Irish community and they fully supported the bereaved mother.

Mr. Badderly, the overseer of the poor for the parish, had attempted arrange the funeral and had sent a man named Osborne to the house to try and remove the dead boy. He brought a small coffin and with the father’s permission placed the child within it. When the mother found it however, she removed her son and placed him back in his cradle. When Osborn objected a group of local Irish gathered and ‘intimidated him with their threats [so that] he felt compelled to retire’.

Here then was a clash between the parish and its obligations towards the health of the community and the very personal wishes of one grieving mother and her friends and family. Since the child’s father either agreed with the health officer or simply felt much less strongly that his wife, the court was bound to side with the parish. Mr. Selfe agreed that the child needed to be buried immediately, for the sake of public health, and since the father had no objection the mother’s wishes were of no consequence. The magistrate said that in his opinion ‘there could be impropriety in the police accompanying the parish officers to see that there was no breach of the peace from the removal of the child’.

It is a desperately sad story which reveals both the reality of infant mortality in the Victorian period and the poverty and overcrowding that condemned so many to a premature death. It also demonstrates the difficult decisions that some magistrates had to make when faced with evidence that ran counter to the wishes of individuals who had not done anything wrong or in any way ‘criminal’.

The mother’s desire to mourn for dead boy in her own way is completely understandable, but when this was countered by what was (at the time) understood to be a risk to the health of very many others, the justice’s decision is also easily understood. This week we have had the heart-rending story of the struggle of Connie Yates and Chris Gard who have lost the latest stage of their battle to keep their son, Charlie, alive in Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Mr. Justice Francis, who made the decision knew, as everyone in the court did, that when he told doctors ‘at Great Ormond Street that they could withdraw all but palliative care, was to all intents and purposes delivering a death sentence’.* He acted in what he considered to be the best interest of the child and against the interests of the parents. Time alone will tell whether he was right to do so.

At Westminster court in 1863 Mr. Selfe may have done the right thing, and saved many other lives. Given what we now know about smallpox it is unlikely that anyone would have caught it unless they had physical contact with the child whilst his exposed scabs still covered him, but the magistrate was not necessarily aware of that and so his actions were perhaps the best thing he could do in the circumstances.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 13, 1863]

*www.guardian.com [accessed 13/4/17]

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