Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

History revisited - disease in early New England

On 20 October 1874, Dr Samuel Spasshatt died of typhoid fever. He was still relatively young, in his early forties, and had been practicing in Armidale since 1863.

Spasshatt’s death left his wife Angelina in a difficult position. There was not a lot of money and she had four young daughters to support. To support the family, she decided to establish a school for girls. “I must do something and I am glad of it,” she confided to her brother. “If it were not for the children I should give up and die.”

Samuel and Angelina are part of the texture of Armidale’s history. Samuel was a pioneering doctor, while Angelina’s school contributed to the rise of Armidale as an educational centre. However, it was not this that caught my eye, but the reference to Samuel’s death from typhoid.

Today, deaths from cholera or typhoid are rare in Australia. As a consequence, we forget that they were once common killers

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, a team of economic historians from the University of New England including Ron Neale and Graydon Henning undertook a major study of Hillgrove. The project looked at Hillgrove in a broader context, at the way that the study of a local mining community might inform the broader study of economic history.

The team called their second report Life and death in Hillgrove 1870-1914. Beneath the sometimes dry analysis, we can glimpse very human stories.

Hillgrove was often short of water. The mines had first claim on the water that was available. There were no sewerage or waste removal services.

Bracken Street, Hillgrove’s main street, ran along a ridge. On Bracken Street, filth and rubbish accumulated from homes and businesses. When it rained, the debris and filth were carried down the ridge and especially to Brereton Street, another main thoroughfare with its own waste, forming putrid pools.

This is not the mediaeval world of Europe with its noisome alley ways. This is New England in the last part of the nineteenth century. During dry periods when water was scarce, people gathered water where they could. Not surprisingly, water borne diseases were common, especially among the young.

In 1893 and 1894 there was a major outbreak of food and water borne diseases. Twenty one people died, nine from typhoid, two from dysentery, ten from infantile diarrhoea. In 1897/98 there was another serious outbreak, leading to eighteen deaths. This time, something was done. A Government funded water supply was created, then a municipality was formed.

Over the last twelve months I have written a number of columns about the history of community progress associations and local government. To my mind, the Hillgrove story is another example of their importance.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 8 January 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.

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