Anthony Errington (1778-1848): Illness, Health and Disability – Writing Lives

Anthony Errington (1778-1848): Illness, Health and Disability

“As in developing countries today, children in large families with poor living conditions and inadequate nutrition, would have been at high risk of dying from a series of interrelated or concurrent airborne, respiratory, and other acute infectious diseases.” (Mercer, 2014, 101)

This final post will explore a distressing topic but also an important and very real one. Anthony suffered the loss of family throughout his life due to the illnesses and poverty that suffocated him and his working class community. The quote from Alexander Mercer above is provides an insight into the mortality rate of children in the 19th century, this is directed more at Anthony’s own children but the societal problems discussed are also represented in Anthony’s youth, which was the century prior. The correlation between class and illness in the 18th and 19th century is a disturbing reality but sadly not surprising. This is because the class system was so brutally inescapable for the working class and they suffered as a result.

Early in the memoir, Anthony remembers his own illnesses as a child:

At 2 half years I was very ill, having ejected in the small pock and being blind 9 days. The only medsine was the white of an egg and brandy. The scab came off my fase by enointing with goose grease and this brought it off without any pimples.” (23)

The graphic detail in this passage represents the gruelling outcome of catching small pox in

English Nurses tend to small pox victims in this 19th century illustration. This was healthcare which Anthony never had.

the 18th century. At such a young age, he had to endure 9 days of being blind due to the extremely infectious virus that took a grip of him. Viruses like this are no longer here in Britain today due to the mass development in healthcare but for Anthony he was extremely vulnerable to such misfortunes. The lack of healthcare is also shown by the only medicine being egg white and brandy, a method that surely must have been excruciating for a boy of his age and rather ineffective.

Anthony also experienced the abyss of blindness when a stone was thrown in his eye at school, “I was blind of it for 6 weeks. But by washing with the water of the Bothe Well every morning I got my sight back.” (26) Caring for an injury normally came down to an individual and their family in the working class. They had to self medicate and come up with innovative methods of recovery that took dangerously long time periods to work, if they ever did. This lack of a healthcare system must have been petrifying but the working class never knew any better. Anthony is certainly not one to complain, another reason for the importance and intensity of his faith.

Inevitably, with the vulnerability to disease, came death. Loss was an ongoing theme in Anthony’s life which can be seen as another cause for his dependency on faith, it was a form of hopefulness that he would be with his loved ones again. Anthony lost his sister, “Isable, who died of the warter in the Brain at 11 years of age,” (20). He lost his wife on the 9 March 1809 to an illness (60) and he lost his 14-year-old daughter who caught a “fever and died in 2 days. Which was a Loss greatly felt.” (79) Although children may have been the most vulnerable to disease, it was found in all ages of the working class and could pounce at any time. Fevers could be transmitted through contaminated milk, coughing and even dust and clothing. (Mercer, 2014) Anthony and his community will have had little knowledge of the multiple ways that devastating fever’s could travel, it was random and unforgiving.

Mental health is an illness that is touched on briefly in Anthony’s memoir but it is clear that there was a complete lack of understanding and empathy towards the man involved:

The servint man of George Worker was up a tree. He had a rope fast to the tree when the horseman got hold of him and said, “Come down, thou must not do that this time!” (65)

One of the first chlorea victims in Great Britain. A girl who died in Sunderland, 1831.

After this, Anthony doesn’t speak about the servant but instead talks about how he and the horseman had a drink together. He abruptly concludes the section, telling us that, “4 years after the farm servant did hang himself.” (66) I’ve spoken about the vast developments in healthcare but with mental health, we are still battling the stigma till this day and it seems like an impossible battle to completely eradicate it. As Anthony’s faith was so strong, suicide was likely to have been seen as a sin by him, so the sympathy he had for the man was probably minimal, and the servant will not have received any help battling the demons in his mind.

Innocent, working class lives were exposed to persistent illnesses and Anthony’s life is an example of the pain, loss and suffering that was commonly endured. On top of this, if you had a mental illness, it was likely that the victim would be isolated from aid. This post is a very bleak final upload but I also felt it was a necessity to cover the theme as it was such a tough part of Anthony’s life and the majority of the working class at the time.



Work Cited:

Errington, Anthony. Coals And Rails: the autobiography of Anthony Errington, a Tyneside colliery waggonway-wright. 1776 – c. 1825. Written between 1823 and about 1830. 1:231.

Mercer, Alexander. “Child Mortality.” Infections, Chronic Disease, and the Epidemiological Transition: A New Perspective, NED – New edition ed., Boydell and Brewer, 2014, pp. 101–117.


Images Used:

’19th Century Small Pox Illustration’ – 

‘Disease in the Victorian city’ – 

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