History books tell us that the Plague last struck our country in the 17th century, but they’re wrong. Plague last struck a mere century ago, almost within living memory, and for my wife’s lovely granny, Daisy, it struck very close to home. Much too close: four of its victims lived NEXT DOOR to her. There was just a wall separating Daisy and her family from that terrible disease.
The setting was the Shotley Peninsula in Suffolk, a few miles south of Ipswich, where the River Orwell meets the sea. No towns, not even a village worth the name, just a few scattered hamlets made up of farms and isolated dwellings housing farm workers. The only premises of any size were those of the Royal Navy Training Establishment, HMS Ganges, at Shotley Gate.
The bacteria responsible for plague is Yersinia pestis which can lurk unseen for long periods in wild populations of rats, rabbits, hares and ferrets. It is generally spread to humans when a flea bites an infected animal and then bites a person, but it can be caught by merely touching an infected animal. The illness can manifest itself in a number of forms, the best known being the highly contagious Bubonic Plague which is characterised by large black swellings around the lymph nodes. The most deadly form by far, however, is Pneumonic Plague which affects the lungs and can kill in 2 days and spreads through the air, not just by touch. The plague which struck Shotley, was of this terrifying type.
The first victim was 53 year-old Mrs Ann Church of Charity Farm, Shotley. She took ill on 9th December 1906 with a severe chest infection and died 3 days later on the 12th. Her two daughters, Mrs Edith Ratcliffe, aged 24, and Emily Church, aged 19, who’d nursed their mother, both contracted the disease. Edith took ill on the 17th and died on the 19th, while Emily took ill on the 20th. Happily Emily had what it takes to fight off the disease and she survived and lived on to marry and raise a family of her own.
So far there’d been two deaths, both at Charity Farm, but unfortunately a family friend, 46 year-old Mrs Goodchild, had nursed Mrs Church and her two daughters, and she carried the disease the half-mile to her home at 1 Brickfield Terrace, Shotley. Mrs Goodchild herself took ill on Christmas Eve and died on Boxing Day. The rest of her family took ill over the next few days: 9 year old Herbert took ill on the 27th December, 56 year-old William Goodchild on the 28th, and 7 year-old Reginald on the 30th. Miraculously Herbert survived and lived on until his 60s, but his father William died on 2nd January 1907 and little Reginald on the 4th.
Mrs Goodchild’s mother, 66 year-old Sophia Welham, had travelled the 20 or so miles from her home to attend her daughter’s funeral at Shotley, and when she found that her son-in-law and grandsons were ill, she stayed on to nurse them. Inevitably she contracted the disease too. Her first symptoms showed on 3rd January and Mrs Welham died on 6th January.
Brickfield Terrace as it is today – just as isolated as it was back in 1906.
[Use the Compass to have a look right around.
Not another building in sight!]
That was the end of the outbreak, but the plague wasn’t quite done with Shotley. On 10th October 1911 a sailor at HMS Ganges became seriously ill with a temperature of 104F. A throat swab was examined and Yersinia pestis positively identified. The sailor remained seriously ill for 12 weeks but survived, though the illness left him completely and permanently blind. He was thought to have contracted the disease from an infected rabbit he’d caught.
There were other plague outbreaks nearby over the 11 years following the Shotley outbreak – Trimley St Martin in 1909 (4 deaths from the Bubonic form of the disease), Freston in 1910 (4 deaths from Pneumonic Plague) and, last of all, Ewarton in 1918 (2 deaths, also from Pneumonic Plague). But as at Shotley, thanks to the scattered nature of the settlements, none of these outbreaks involved more than two dwellings. What would have happened if the disease had spread to Ipswich? So far the plague hasn’t re-appeared in this country – but is it perhaps still hiding in the rat populations around Shotley or elsewhere, waiting for conditions to be just right once again?
How does my granny-in-law, Daisy Ethel Dunnett, fit into this story? Well. Daisy was born at 2 Brickfield Terrace, Shotley on 2 December 1896 and lived there until she married in 1918. In December 1906, when Daisy was 10, the Goodchild family lived next door at 1 Brickfield Terrace and it was there that Mr and Mrs Goodchild, Mrs Welham and little Reginald suffered and died from the plague. If Daisy or her siblings had played with or visited neighbours Herbert or Reginald at the wrong time, it could have meant the end of the entire Dunnett family.
|Partial transcript of the 1901 Census Return for Brickfield Terrace,
Shotley showing the neighbouring Dunnett and Goodchild families.
By 1906 there were two additions to the Dunnett family, Ethel
and Edward, but the Goodchild family was unchanged.
|Edward Dunnett||34||Horseman on farm|
|William Goodchild||50||Agricultural Labourer|
As a footnote, there was one final family link to the Shotley outbreak. In the Autumn of 1916 a Zeppelin dropped bombs on HMS Ganges, and as a result an army Searchlight Company was moved into the area to help guard against a repeat attack. One member of that company was 40 year-old widower William Thomas Atkinson from Gateshead. Despite a twenty-year age gap, William Atkinson and Daisy Dunnett fell for each other and they married at Samford Register Office on 22nd January 1918. At the time of the marriage William was lodging at … Charity Farm where the 1906 plague outbreak had begun!
- Plague in East Suffolk 1906-1918
- A plague on five of your houses – statistical reassessment of three pneumonic plague outbreaks that occurred in Suffolk, England, between 1906 and 1918
- 1901 Census for Brickfield Terrace – RG13 Piece 1772 Folio 73 Page 3
- Marriage Certificate – March Quarter 1918 Samford 4a 1899