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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

From ankle deep to knee deep

If I was hoping to find some easier surnames to research while wading through the Roberts quagmire (see, The Nightmare of the “too difficult” list) so far I’ve been disappointed. Of the six siblings of my great-grandmother, Eliza Roberts, three of them just added to my pain - Ann married a Griffiths, Sarah married a Jones and Jonathan married a Davies!

Thomas appears to have remained unmarried and George… ah, yes. Poor little George. He sadly died as a baby, buried in Pontesbury churchyard in August 1851 at the tender age of 8 months.

Infant mortality

George died of diarrhoea – not an uncommon cause of infant mortality. A report by Ruth Proctor, of Birmingham University puts infant deaths attributed to diarrhoea in the latter half of the nineteenth century at 15%. Health authorities of the time noted there was an increase in such deaths in hot dry summers, but nothing I’ve found out about the weather in Shropshire suggests that August in 1851 was anything out of the ordinary.

A fascinating website set up by Cambridge University called Populations Past has tracked infant mortality in the Victorian and Edwardian eras across the country on an interactive map. The rate in Pontesbury in 1851, the time of George’s death, was just over 95 per 1,000 births which was at the lower end of the scale. Pontesbury is in a rural area but in densely populated parts of central Birmingham in the same year it was as high as 216 per 1,000. The rate in the UK today (2018 figures) is 3.8.

Another sad story

While the rest of Eliza’s siblings appear to have thrived, I uncovered one sad story -something which hadn’t occurred to me before. Eliza’s mother, Sarah (nee Meredith) had died of bronchitis in April 1871, aged 56. What I hadn’t appreciated was that my great-grandmother would have been only 12 years old at the time, as she was born when her mother was 41.

I believe the photograph above is of Eliza standing beside her mother. If it is, it must have been taken shortly before Sarah’s death, as Eliza looks about the right age. This fabulous photograph would have been cherished by Eliza and perhaps explains why it was kept and passed down, and why I’m lucky enough to have it in my family history collection today.


Click on the image to find out more about the books in the Esme Quentin Mystery series

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