1877: Diphtheria Tragedy Wipes Out Ellesmere Family

John and Harriett Lawrence were originally from Staffordshire but moved to Ellesmere in the 1870s. John took over the running of the Bridgwater Hotel on High Street.

They had 6 children:

Annie Jane Lawrence aged 12.

John R Lawrence aged 11.

Fanny Lawrence aged 8.

Twins boys Wheally Lawrence and Walter Lawrence aged 7.

Gertrude Lawrence aged 1.

Diphtheria for many months had been reported in the district. In January that year the Local Board were told by their medical officer Dr Thursfield that half of all the deaths from infections diseases had been from diphtheria.

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1902 map. Dudleston Heath top left, Ellesmere bottom right.

In May Dr Thursfield reported that the disease had struck Dudleston. All the children infected with it had gone to one particular school. At around the time of this outbreak some of the Lawrence children were in Dudleston, just 7 miles from their home in Ellesmere, and had gone to a cottage to ask for a glass of water. And one or two of the children had a drink. Unfortunately in the cottage was another child who was suffering from diphtheria, and this infection got passed to the Lawrence children who drank the water.

Signs of diphtheria usually start showing between 2 to 5 days and 8 year old Fanny was the first to start feeling the symptoms. She got a sore throat, her glands became inflamed, she had difficulty breathing and a fever set in.

At the time there was no vaccine or cure and treatment was restricted to the inhalation of iodine and other ‘vapors’.

On the 11th May she died.  In the following two weeks her siblings started showing the symptoms too. On 26th May Gertrude the infant died, and the following day so did the eldest child Annie. And then on the 30th of one of twins also succumbed. You can only imagine the horror Mr and Mrs Lawrence were feeling as they helplessly watched their children dying around them.

On the 31st Mr Lawrence  was at the funeral of his little boy when an urgent telegram arrived. It had come from Lichfield where his eldest son John was at school. John had fallen ill with the infection and the telegram said his dad must come immediately if he wanted to see his son alive. Young John had caught it when he came home to attend his sister Annie’s funeral. Mr Lawrence rushed to the train station, but when he got there he was handed another telegram – it was too late, 11 year old John had already died.

The Lawrences were left with one child – the living twin boy, but on the 2nd June he too died. All were lost to the dreaded child killer diphtheria.

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Oswestry Advertiser – Wednesday 06 June 1877
Church Street Ellesmere

A vaccine wasn’t discovered until 1921 and widespread immunisation in Britain did not happen until the 1940s – but when it was it proved a huge success.

Since 2010, there have been only 20 recorded cases of diphtheria in England and Wales, and one death. Diphtheria is a notifiable disease, which means that if a doctor diagnoses the condition, they must tell the local authority.

Even though the numbers of diphtheria cases in England is low, there’s a risk that an outbreak could occur if the number of people who are vaccinated falls below a certain level.

NHS diphtheria

These days the vaccination is given at two months of age as part of the routine vaccination schedule.

As for Mr and Mrs Lawrence, they left the hotel for a time, and it closed while as it  underwent a deep clean. But they returned. And in March 1880 they had another child, a boy called George Shenstone Lawrence. He lived until the ripe old age of 89.

The pub as it is today – with the current landlady and landlord.


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