Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre

Victorian disease epidemics

As well as Community members and chaplains who have ministered to the Community since their earliest days at New Hall, the cemetery is also the last resting place of a number of lay people associated with the Community, including school children who died whilst at school in New Hall. Further investigation into some of these burials is particularly revealing, and can provide us with a glimpse into what life must have been like for the Community and for the children at the school. This also gives a good illustration of the wealth of material that survives in the Community archives, and what can be learn by studying several different types of records at the same time.

Today's post will focus on a particular tragedy that has been revealed during my study of the cemetery, an outbreak of diphtheria at the school during the 1890s. Diphtheria is a highly contagious throat infection, that can severely restrict breathing due to inflammation of the throat, similar to being strangled.  Three young ladies died of the infection during October 1893, two more were dangerously ill, but recovered. Two of the maids who served the Community were also ill, but recovered.

The chantresses books, which function as a sort of Community diary, provide some details of the atmosphere in the school as the disease took hold:

 chantresses book diphtheria

The entry starts towards the bottom of the page, and reads [words in square brackets added by me]:

13th [October 1893]. Friday. Fr Heery anointed & gave H[oly] Viaticum to little Ursula Kendal & Antonia Britten who were suffering fr[om] diphtheria a relapse after scarletina they are up in the High Nursery. Ursula Kendal died on Saturday morning the bell was not tolled in order that Mary K[endal] her sister should not know it. Mary K is also very ill. The remaining children have dispersed today. Antonia Britten died at 10 o clock Sat: evening - F[ather] H[eery] with her to the end. 

15th. Sun. Purity BVM. Father Henry anointed & gave communion to Mary Kendal after 2nd Men. Sara the ^Two^ maids ^are now^ ill also with diphtheria ^not bad^. K Hague is not as ill as MK. A trained nurse for diphtheria came on Friday night.

16th. Mon. Dirge for M M Antonia Britten & Ursula Kendal. Rang to Dead Office 7 minutes to 8. Low Requiem Mass. The funeral put off from 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 on account of the rain. We wore cloaks at the office. The sisters served. 

20th. Friday. Mary Kendal died at 7 this morning. We had only one Mass at 6 1/2 as Father Henry was obliged to take some rest. 

21st. Sat. Dirge for Mary Kendal. Low Requiem Mass 8 1/2 after the Dead Office. We wore cloaks. The funeral was at 3 1/2. We went. 

29th. Sun. Susan Wye has been taken to the school ill with diphtheria.

10th [November 1893]. Friday. Susan Wye received the Last Sacraments late in the evening. After evening prayers some time.  

The notes added by the chantress give some indication of the rapidity of the infection - the entry for 15th October was hurriedly changed from "Sara the maid" ill with diphtheria to "two maids now ill" within a day, and also suggests that they recovered quite rapidly, as this was soon replaced with "not bad". It is unclear where the infection came from, or when it was first apparent, but the Community reacted rapidly. The majority of the children at the school were sent home to their parents, for their protection, by 13 October.  The 1891 census, taken only 2 years earlier, reveals that there were then 28 children at the school, ranging in age from 17 to 7:

census 1891

Children listed at New Hall on 1891 census:

  1.  Gwendoline Blake, 16
  2.  Alice Broadbent, 17
  3.  Annie Costello, 11
  4.  Carmen de Arteine, 16
  5.  Mary Gordons, 14
  6.  Mary Kendal, 14
  7.  Agnes Kendal, 11
  8.  Ursula Kendal, 9
  9.  Irene King, 17
  10.  Ursula King, 11
  11.  Mary Langley, 7
  12.  Mary Lynch, 10
  13.  Lila Main, 15
  14.  Margaret Murray, 16
  15.  Eileen O'Connell, 16
  16.  Kathleen O'Connell, 15
  17.  Edith O'Connell, 11
  18.  Bertha Rooke, 16
  19.  Edith Rooke, 14
  20.  Mary Ryan, 15
  21.  Grace Stoker, 12
  22.  Charlotte Thunder, 11
  23.  Angela Weld, 16
  24.  Ethel Stevenson, 17
  25.  Lily Ward, 16
  26.  Mary Warrington, 15
  27.  Maude Whyte, 15
  28.  Sarah Wolfe, 17

Two young girls from this list, Mary and Ursula Kendal, died during the diphtheria outbreak, Ursula on 14 October and Mary on 20 October, then aged 14 and 17 respectively. The school records note that Agnes and Ursula both had measles in May 1893, and Ursula had also suffered from scarlet fever in September 1893, before

Agnes Kendal being affected by the diphtheria outbreak. The other sister, Agnes, left New Hall in July 1896, and had professed her vows and became a member of the Community as S. Mary Margaret, where she remained until her death in 1935. She is also buried in the cemetery at New Hall. 

A third young lady, Antonia Britten, also died during the diphtheria outbreak in 1893, but she was not listed on the census as she had only arrived in the school less than a year earlier, on 23 November 1892, along with her sister Helen. They were joined at New Hall by their younger sister Blanche in April 1893. Similarly to Ursula, Antonia had also been attacked by scarlet fever only a few weeks earlier, and had contracted diphtheria during her recovery. Antonia's sister Helen was also dangerously ill with diphtheria, which manifested itself shortly after her parents had removed her from the school. Helen received the last sacrament, but recovered, and was back at school with her sister Blanche by Easter 1894.

Although this is a sad tale that has been revealed from my research in to the cemetery, it has also revealed the wealth of material there is available in the archive, and the stories that can be unlocked with a little bit of perseverance and some digging through old records! The story that I have been able to uncover and share with you above has been pieced together from lots of little snippets in a range of records, starting with a simple inscription on a gravestone.