The Dreaded ague, a.k.a. malaria

The Curse of the Essex marshes

It is not yet a hundred years since the Rev. Julius Henderson, vicar of South Benfleet (1859- 72), had to resign his living on the advice of his doctor, being so long ill of the ague that if he stayed he was given no more than a few months to live. His daughter described what happened when his first headache and lassitude were followed by the violent attack of shivering.

“My mother filled hot water bottles, piled up blankets and eiderdowns, but my father still felt deathly cold and the bed shook with his shivering. High fever followed and he became burning hot, and after that came such excessive perspiration that the sheets might have been dipped in water. Then the patient would come back to normal, though be left very weak.”

The Maladie Aigue in the Thames Estuary

The maladie aigue,  as the French called it because of its intensity and rapid development, was more prevalent in the Thames estuary than in any other part of England. Because it was thought to be caused by the fetid air rising from the marshes, an English doctor invented the term mal-aria, but the layman still continued to call it by the old name.

In some patients the attacks came on at the same time each day and in some every other day. It was well-known in the Middle Ages, and Shakespeare often alluded to it, using it as a pretext to remove Falstaff from the stage. “Ah, poor heart,” said Mistress Quickly, who nursed him in his last illness, “he is  so shaken of a burning quotidian tertian that it is most lamentable to behold .”

The Poor and their Suffering

It was all very well for parsons and professional people who could move away from the marshlands, but many of the poor and unemployed were in a sorry plight. Men who applied for relief in Hornchurch parish were sometimes put to work in the pit, where they toiled for seven and sixpence a week digging gravel for repairing the roads, often up to the knees in water. In December 1830 William Burr applied to the Hornchurch vestry for relief, “being ill with the ague”.  He was sent to the pit to earn his keep. How long his poor physique stood up to the terrible cold and damp is not recorded. Like many of his neighbours, he must have been continually sick, his disease developing into remittent fever with periodic attacks which could be forecast almost to the day.  Schoolchildren in these parts were kept at home when it was their “ague week”, and one old man asked about his health replied ” If I be alive and well, it be my ague day tomorrow.”

Daniel Defoe’s tour in 1724

Daniel Defoe, chatting with the marsh-men during his tour of the eastern counties in 1724, was told how it was common among them to go to the uplands to get wives, but when these girls, fresh from the wholesome air, came to live amid the fogs and damp they rapidly changed in complexion, got an ague or two and seldom lived more than a few months.

“And then,” said one merry fellow, “we go to the uplands again and fetch another.” In this way these marsh farmers might have anything up to 15 wives, or even more. Although Defoe suspected  one or two of them of “fibbing a little” he was convinced that there was a great deal of truth in their stories. An examination of the parish registers hardly bears this out, though there are records of men having been married four or five times. An epitaph  in South Benfleet churchyard on the stone of James Matthews, farmer and churchwarden, who died in 1733, now so weathered as to be quite illegible, ran thus :

“Sixty-three years our hoyman sail’d merrily around;
Forty four lived parishioner where he’s aground.
Five wife’s bear him thirty three children, enough,
Land another as honest before he gets off.”

On his arms still visible, is a stork with its wings folded, an apt comment on his remarkable achievements.  The ague was probably responsible for disposing of more than more than one of his wives.

Why They Thought It Occurred

Because of the belief that the disease rose out of the undrained marshy creeks and inlets it was customary  in these parts to close all windows and doors during the early evenings, and to avoid going out at that time to breathe the polluted air . People visiting the Thames marshes remarked on the sickly looks of the inhabitants, especially the women and children, and it was often necessary, in order to attract enough labour, for the farmers to offer higher wages than the usual rate.

Various Cures

Various cures were advised. Two hundred years ago it was customary to pound a variety of herbs to a paste, mix them with white wine, vinegar and rose water, spread the paste on a cloth and apply it to the wrists , where it was believed to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Another favoured  remedy when an attack was expected was to take on an empty stomach as much gunpowder as would cover a shilling, in a little water. This, composed of sulphur, saltpetre and carbon, if it did no good could at least do little harm.

For those who could afford it, the best remedy was the bark of the Cinchona tree of Peru. It was said to have been brought to Spain by returning Jesuit missionaries, was therefore known as Peruvian bark, and was the base of Quinine. A favourite method of preparation was to take the powdered bark and mix it with aromatic herbal ingredients and treacle to make it more palatable.

Champion Russell, of Stubbers, North Ockenden, always had at hand  a supply of quinine for ague sufferers, and folk for miles around, even from Gravesend, came to him for help. When he died in 1887 his son found more than a gallon of quinine, two large bottles of which had not been broached. During his last years there were very few applicants for it, as the disease was by then rapidly disappearing. The malaria parasite carried by the mosquito had been isolated in 1880. It was thought on Thames-side that the mosquito was being wiped out by the dust coming from the new cement works and by some very high tides which had scoured and purified the marsh ditches.

Today, thanks to good drainage and improved preventative medicine, ague has disappeared, leaving hardly a memory.

This 1970 magazine article reproduced with permission from Essex Countryside now Essex Life.

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