The White Plague

The arrival of two death certificates from the General Register Office in England has helped to fill gaps in the life stories of two Casbon ancestors and also serves to highlight a topic I’ve touched on before—tuberculosis.

The certificates are for two sisters-in-law, Lydia (Burgess) and Elizabeth (Waller) Casbon. Lydia was married to Joseph Casbon (~1811–1847). She was born about 1812 and died in 1851.[1] Elizabeth was the first wife of Joseph’s brother, James Casbon (~1813–1884). She was born in 1815 and died in 1852.[2]

Here are the death “certificates” (copies of the official death registrations).

Death registration of Elizabeth Casbon. (Click on image to enlarge)
Death registration of Lydia Casbon. (Click on image to enlarge)

Starting with Lydia, we can see that she died 8 June 1851 at Meldreth (Cambridgeshire, England). She was said to be thirty-five years old and the “Relict [widow] of Joseph Casbourn, Labourer.” The cause of death is a most interesting word—Phthisis. Sarah Worland, the informant, was also the informant for the death registration of Lydia’s husband, Joseph, who died in 1847.

Phthisis is an old medical term that generally refers to the wasting away of the body from any cause, but during this period of time referred to pulmonary consumption, i.e., tuberculosis.[3] This diagnosis confirmed my earlier suspicions that Lydia, and probably her children too, had perished from tuberculosis. More recently, I wrote that her husband Joseph also died from a form of the same disease.

Now looking at Elizabeth, she died 16 August 1852 at Melbourn (Cambridgeshire). She was thirty-six years old, the wife of “James Casbon, Labourer.” She died of “Consumption
1 year,” i.e., she also died of tuberculosis.

It’s hard today to imagine the impact that tuberculosis (TB) had in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. The disease had been around for millennia, but by the early 1800s had become epidemic.[4] Death rates in London and other major European cities were as high as 800 to 1,000 per 100,000 per year, meaning that up to one percent of the population died from the disease every year.[5] Young adults were hardest hit: in the late nineteenth-century England and Wales, almost half of the deaths in twenty to twenty-four-year-olds were caused by TB.[6]

TB has been referred to as the white plague or white death, perhaps because of the extreme pallor of those afflicted with the disease.[7] Unlike many epidemic diseases, its course was slow and progressive, sometimes taking many years to claim its victims. Charles Dickens described it in Nicholas Nickleby:

There is a dread disease which so prepares its victim, as it were, for death; which so refines it of its grosser aspect, and throws around familiar looks unearthly indications of the coming change; a dread disease, in which the struggle between soul and body is so gradual, quiet, and solemn, and the result so sure, that day by day, and grain by grain, the mortal part wastes and withers away, so that the spirit grows light and sanguine with its lightening load, and, feeling immortality at hand, deems it but a new term of mortal life; a disease in which death and life are so strangely blended, that death takes the glow and hue of life, and life the gaunt and grisly form of death; a disease which medicine never cured, wealth never warded off, or poverty could boast exemption from; which sometimes moves in giant strides, and sometimes at a tardy sluggish pace, but, slow or quick, is ever sure and certain.[8]

Although TB occurred in all social classes, “it was a disease above all spread by overcrowded homes, unhealthy working conditions and poor nutrition; it was in other words … a disease of the poor.”[9] Which brings me back to Lydia and Elizabeth.

We know that Lydia was poor. She was listed as a “pauper” in the 1851 census.[10] By that time she had lost her husband and two of her four daughters.[11] (A third survived her by less than a year.) Her death registration says she suffered from Phthisis for three years. In other words, she had been visibly wasting away for at least three years; but she likely contracted the disease several years before it became apparent. Life must have been difficult even before her husband died, and unbearable afterwards. We don’t know anything about the family’s home or living conditions but can guess that they were far from ideal. Lydia almost certainly received some poor relief from the parish, but not enough to lift her from extreme poverty.

We can also surmise that the family of James and Elizabeth Casbon was poor. James was a laborer his entire life, near the bottom of the social ladder. In the seventeen years of their marriage, Elizabeth had born eight children, the youngest only a year before her death. The ten of them were probably squeezed into only a couple of rooms. In the 1851 census, only the oldest son, William, was earning additional income as a laborer.[12] There were many mouths to feed on meager wages. Elizabeth probably already had symptoms of TB when her daughter, Emma, was born in 1851. (Emma was baptized just three days before Elizabeth’s death – was this done because she was dying?[13]) Young Emma died in November 1853 at the Royston Union Workhouse, located in Bassingbourn (a few miles from Meldreth).[14] The location of her death is another indication of the family’s poverty. Considering the circumstances, it’s amazing that the remainder of James and Elizabeth’s children, as far as I’ve been able to trace them, lived normal lifespans.

I’ll try to end on a more positive note. As sad as these stories are, they are a testament to the fortitude of our ancestors. It may be a bit of a cliché, but comparing their lives with ours today, we can look back on their endurance and survival with both gratitude and awe.

[1] 1851 England census, Cambridgeshire, Melbourn, p. 29, enumeration district 11c, schedule 114, Lydia Casbourn; image, Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=8860 : accessed 22 February 2019), Cambridgeshire >Melbourn >11c >image 30 of 36; citing The National Archives, HO 107/1708/206. England, death registration (unofficial copy) for Lydia Casbourn, died 8 Jun 1851; registered June quarter 1851, Royston & Buntingford District, vol. 6/405, Melbourn Sub-district, no. 410; General Register Office (GRO), Southport.
[2] Parish of Meldreth (Cambridgeshire, England), Register of Baptisms, 1813-67, p. 8, no. 57, , Elizabeth Waller, b. 11 Sep 1815, baptized 15 Oct 1815; imaged as “Parish registers for Meldreth, 1681-1877,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/search/film/007567609?cat=210742 : accessed 28 April 2017), image 201; citing Family History Library microfilm 1,040,542, item 5. England, GRO, death registration (unofficial copy) for Elizabeth Casbon, died 16 Aug 1852; registered Sep. qtr 1852, Royston & Buntingford Dist, vol. 3A/134, Melbourn sub-dist., no. 117; GRO, Southport.
[3] Robert Hooper, M.D., Lexicon Medicum; or, Medical Dictionary: Containing an Explanation of the Terms  … on All These Subjects , rev. 8th ed., Klein Grant, M.D., editor (London: Longman, 1838),  p. 1026, “Phthisis”; image copy, Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.a0000834499 : accessed 6 February 2019).
[4] Thomas M. Daniel, “The history of tuberculosis,” Respiratory Medicine, Nov 2006, vol. 100, no. 11, pp. 1862–70; html edition (https://www.resmedjournal.com/article/S0954-6111(06)00401-X/fulltext : accessed 22 February 2019).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Richard Evans, “The White Plague,” transcript of lecture given at The Museum of London, 27 Nov 12; MS Word transcript, Gresham College (http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-white-plague : accessed 22 February 2019).
[7] John Frith, “History of Tuberculosis. Part 1 – Phthisis, consumption and the White Plague,” Journal of Military and Veteran’s Health, 22/2; online archive (https://jmvh.org/article/history-of-tuberculosis-part-1-phthisis-consumption-and-the-white-plague/ : accessed 22 February 2018).
[8] Charles Dickens, Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, reprint of 1st ed. (London: MacMillan & Co., 1916); html edition, Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/967/967-h/967-h.htm : accessed 22 February 2019).
[9] Evans, “The White Plague.”
[10] 1851 England census, Cambridgeshire, Melbourn, p. 29, Lydia Casbourn.
[11] Jon Casbon, “Joseph and Lydia (Burgess) Casbon, Our Casbon Journey, 2 Mar 2017 (https://casbonjourney.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/joseph-and-lydia-burgess-casbon/ : accessed 22 February 2019).
[12] 1851 England census, Cambridgeshire, Meldreth, p. 32, James Casbon.
[13] Meldreth Parish, Baptisms, 1813–1867, p. 75, no. 599, Emma Casbon; accessed as “Parish registers for Meldreth, 1681-1877,” browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/007567609?cat=210742 : accessed 29 August 2017); citing Family History Library microfilm 1,040,542, item 5, image 234.
[14] England, death registration (unofficial copy) for Emma Casbon, died 4 Nov 1853; registered Dec. qtr. 1853, Royston & Buntingford Dist., vol. 3A/107, Melbourn Sub-dist., no. 319.

4 thoughts on “The White Plague”

    1. Yes, the Industrial Revolution probably contributed because of crowded living conditions and poor nutrition. Later it probably contributed to improved survival as incomes and nutrition improved and families got smaller with less crowding.

    1. I agree. I’ve seen some parish records where all the deaths caused by consumption were marked with a capital “C”. There were periods of time where the pages are full of “C”s. Thanks for your comment.

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