Five little ducks went swimming one day
Over the hill and far away
In the School registers for admission to RMIG were five pupils whose names all appeared on the same page and for whom the ink barely had time to dry on their names before, sadly, their deaths were being noted.
Ann Brett Ashby’s life was barely longer than her name. Born on 10th December 1823, her death is noted as being on 23rd July 1835 whilst absent from the School on account of illness. Clearly not an entirely unexpected death then but still before she was 13 years of age.
Surrey Lyton Hassell, the very next entry in the register as it happens, was born on 1st October 1822 but died in her mother’s care on 10th September 1834. Again, a presumed death following illness as she was at home with her mother.
To we of the modern age, it seems surprising that the pupils of RMIG, once accepted by the School, moved to the School House and stayed there until they were ready to leave school at fifteen years of age, even if their homes were nearby. Parents were allowed to visit on a Thursday afternoon only, although this severe rule might have been relaxed a little by the time the School had been established forty years or so. Nevertheless, by 1834, there were still no recognised school holidays or weekends at home for the pupils so for Surrey to be in the care of her mother when she died rather implies she had gone home ill. From the outset, the School had always taken the greatest care of the girls’ health and welfare and they possibly had access to greater care at the School than they might have at home. Medical care was, at this time, paid for by the recipient of it and there are many examples in the record books of pupils receiving extensive medical care until their health was improved, regardless of the costs involved. So it is unlikely that Surrey would have been ‘sent home’ for her family to shoulder the burden of her medical costs rather than the School but more a case of the medical practitioners attached to the School realising that there was nothing more they could do and only palliative care was left. Of course, this is all speculation as we do not have anything but the entry in the School register to go on.
Catherine Elizabeth Swendell, born on 21st October 1823, was admitted to the School on the same day as Surrey Hassell. Less than two years later, her death was noted in 1834. In her case, it was at the School.
It is not specified what kind of fever but since at least 1795, the School’s authorities had been aware of how quickly any kind of infectious disease could spread in a closed community. From 1795 onwards, applicants for places at the school were required to submit, as part of the total documentation needed, a completed medical certificate, signed by a doctor.
“I have examined X and find that she has had the small pox, has no defect in her sight or limbs and is not strumous nor afflicted with any disorder or infirmity whatsoever as witness my hand this…. day of …. 1795.”
Strumous is the adjective arising from struma, a swelling of the thyroid gland or a goitre. It is a form of tuberculosis affecting the lymph nodes. In developed countries this has been brought under control by an understanding of its cause – spread by unpasteurized milk from infected cows. Although the condition was treatable, there were probably as many quack remedies as serious medical discourse. The Wellcome Library in London has a plethora of recipe books listed in its catalogue purporting to offer cures. In the eighteenth century, any form of tuberculosis was feared as being highly infectious.
Although, apart from Catherine Swendell, no cause of death is recorded in the School register for any of the girls who died, the fact that Surrey Hassell died within two months of Catherine might suggest that the same fever had affected both girls and that Surrey, after being cared for by the School until it became clear she was not going to survive, was then taken home to be looked after by her mother. There is nothing in any other School records to suggest that there had been a serious outbreak of a contagious nature but it is not beyond reason that this was so. The School was at this time in Southwark and the plans of the house show that the girls lived in three dormitories. Any girl who was ill would have been in close proximity to other girls – the very thing the School sought to ameliorate in Rule 26: “in case of any infectious disorder, the person be forthwith removed if thought necessary by the faculty.”
Jane Gilpin arrived at the School in the cohort admitted on 19 October 1832. She was younger than the other two being born on August 14th 1824. She was an orphan when she arrived at the School. Her mother, Esther, died in 1827 leaving her father a widower for the 2nd time. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Esther may have died in childbirth although there are no records to confirm this. She died in June when Jane was almost three years old, and her father, Josiah, remarried in December of that year. In 1831, her father died leaving Jane’s half-sister, Sarah, as her guardian. Sarah had been born in 1811 and had married George Legge in 1830 although Sarah Gilpin is what appears in the School register. The home address for Jane was given as ‘Sarah Gilpin – sister, Romsey, Hants’. In 1841, Sarah & George are at Cherville Street, Horse Fair, Romsey Intra, Romsey & Whitchurch, Hampshire. Jane died on 11th September 1835 at the School but no cause is written in the register.
Emma Sheffield, admitted on the same day as Jane, was almost a year younger. Her birthdate is given as 20th April 1825. She died under the care of her mother four years after arriving at the School, almost to the day. The register indicates that her home address was ‘Mrs Sheffield, Durham’. In fact, we know from newspaper reports that her father Thomas, an ironmonger, ran his business in Silver St, Durham and that he had died in 1828.
It is worth noting that Durham is 260 miles from London which takes about five hours by car today. At the time, the journey from London to Durham would have been by stagecoach travelling at an average speed of about five miles per hour and covering perhaps 70 miles on a good day with good weather. Not only did Emma make this journey but so did her sister Fanny who also became a pupil at the School. Furthermore, it appears that Emma died in London at City Terrace, St Luke which presumably means that her mother travelled to London to take care of her. It is recorded that Emma –
In 1834, Mrs Dorothy Sheffield is recorded in Pigot’s Directory as residing in New Elvet, Durham but many of the later references to her children are found in London which possibly suggests there might have been a second home there. It is not known whether Emma’s mother, Dorothy, returned to Durham or whether she entrusted the business to her eldest son Thomas. In 1851, she was living in London with her daughter Fanny, by then married and with two children. In both the 1861 and 1871 census returns, Dorothy was still in London and she died there in 1873 so perhaps by then she had left Durham completely.
Of Dorothy’s many children, it was not only Emma who died young. In Durham St Mary the Lesser is a memorial to Emma’s grandparents:
“In memory of Elizabeth the affectionate wife of Thomas SHEFFIELD of the City of Durham ironmonger who died October 11th 1798 aged 56 years Also the above named Thomas SHEFFIELD who died May 4th 1805 aged 64 years Also George grandson of the above and son of Thomas and Dorothy SHEFFIELD who died Sept 21 1809 aged 6 months Also Edward son of Thomas and Dorothy SHEFFIELD died Jany 4th 1823 aged 3 weeks”
This chapel lies within the grounds of Durham Cathedral otherwise St Mary the Greater. In its cemetery “There is a badly worn grave to the Sheffield family, which proudly gives their occupation as Ironmongers.” https://community.dur.ac.uk/parish.stmary/the_church/burials.htm
In 1818, The Book of Governors printed for the School made the proud boast that of the 272 girls committed to the care of the Charity by 1818, only five had died whilst at school, which was less than 2%. This could be compared very favourably with the national average for child mortality to the age of 10 at the time which was reckoned at 50%. The admissions page in the register for 1831/2 somewhat blemished this record with five deaths out of 18 pupils between 1834 and 1836. It must have been a difficult time all round. The nursery rhyme Five little ducks ends on a happy note when all the little ducks come back. Sadly, in this case, none of the little ducks went home again. If these girls have gravestones, it is not known where they are. This image represents them all.