Frank George Marling (1863-1954): Illness, Health and Disability – Writing Lives

Frank George Marling (1863-1954): Illness, Health and Disability

[…] I was rather a delicate child. It must have been when I was not very well that one morning before I was out of bed Father brought me up some castor oil in a cup of tea! I could not get it down and have never since been able to take any castor oil!(p.46).

Growing up in Berkeley and Sharpness, Frank was ill a number of times as a child. In his memoirs, Frank writes about illnesses and disease briefly throughout. He even had to resign playing the triangle in the “Band of Hope” (See Habits, Culture and Belief). This was due to his parents being worried that he may become unwell: One Summer evening during a march out we were caught in a storm of rain. Most of the boys parents thought lightly of it but in view of my being somewhat delicate my Father and Mother felt it was inadvisable I should be exposed to the risk. So I had to reluctantly resign my instrument! (p.58).

Typhoid and Smallpox are the two main diseases that Frank mentions. , Liza Picard explains that during the 19th century, people believed that “bad smells” caused disease This was known as the “miasma” or “bad air theory” . If there was a rotten smell in the air, from open cess pits and sewage, then people believed that a disease could be contracted from it.

Farmer, Alexander; An Anxious Hour; Paintings Collection; 1865

However, this was not completely the case. Disease was spread through poor sanitation and hygiene. The “bad smell” was simply a bad smell and did not cause the disease itself. Frank himself states that there was a bad smell in the air that caused the spread of Typhoid (p.47). This has also been briefly discussed in my introductory post. Frank explains that the cause of his Typhoid Fever could have been either from the smell from the drains, or the smell from the open “cess pool” in his garden (p.47-8). However, he does suggest that “germs” from elsewhere could have also been the culprit (p.48). This shows that during the 19th century, people had a limited knowledge of what caused disease.

I was unconscious for a week + when just coming round, the nurse who came to attend to me, and the Doctors’ sister, Miss Bridgman, who was awfully kind and at great risk went round to help with the fever patients, were both by my bedside. “Do you know who we are?” One of them said. “You are Mrs McIntosh and the other is Miss Mallett”, I replied. Whereat they laughed, for they were neither! […] After this I rapidly regained my consciousness and made headway. I had very bitter medicine to take but […] always kept it down until one day when the nurse had given me yolk of egg on thin bread-and-butter when it all came back! (pp.48-50).

Frank also explains how his “playfellow”, Johnny Bell, had sadly died from Typhoid Fever whilst Frank was still ill with it (p.48). Unfortunately, this would have happened to many children during the time due to poor public health and the spread of diseases. Even the Prince of Wales (King Edward VII) was ill with Typhoid Fever during this time, according to Frank.

The Smallpox vaccination was “compulsory” from “1853” However, as stated on the , this law was “repealed in 1909” due to “public opposition”  This “opposition” to vaccinations was an opinion of Nora Elliott, another one of our working-class authors, who noted that neither of her nor her “brothers and sisters were vaccinated as children” (Richardson, 2017). This appeared to be a different opinion to Frank and his family.

Smallpox Vaccination poster from 1851;

Frank describes the Smallpox vaccination experience in his memoirs. He explains that during his time living in Salter Street (see part two of my Home and Family post), “an epidemic of smallpox broke out in the district and many people were re-vaccinated” (p.106). His sister, a baby at the time, was also vaccinated. During this time, Frank tells a small story about how a young woman who wanted to be re-vaccinated but hated going to see the doctor:

I will vaccinate you”, said my mother, “Roll up your sleeve.” Thereupon she took a needle, scratched the girl’s arm in two or three places, removed some of the pus from our baby’s arm + smeared it on the scratched spots! The process was a complete success! Even the doctors in those days used the matter from one child to vaccinate another and you had to depend upon their taking it from a healthy child (p.107). Frank’s account of the procedure of a smallpox vaccination demonstrates how different public health was compared to today.

Frank was also “confirmed non-smoker” throughout his life (p.59). This was most likely due to his respectable upbringing, and his time at the Band of Hope. In his “early manhood years”, Frank found out that his “Band of Hope Superintendent”, Mr Robinson, had sadly died due to “cancer of the throat brought on, so it was said, by excessive smoking” (p.59).

This made no difference to my habits in this respect because I was a confirmed non-smoker but it was saddening to know that he who had been instrumental in causing many to avoid drink should have become the slave and victim of nicotine (p.59).


  • Burnett, J. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • ‘Frank George Marling’ in Burnett, John, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945. 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989)
  • Harrison, J, F, C. Late Victorian Britain 1875-1901. (1991). [Google Books]. New York: Routledge, 2005. Available at:  (Accessed:20/04/18).
  • Marling, Frank George. ‘Reminiscences’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Brunel University Library. Special Collection, 1:492.
  • Picard, L. (2009). ‘Health and Hygiene in the 19th Century’. British Library. 14th [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 20/04/18).
  • Richardson, E. (2017). Nora Elliott (b.1903): Illness, Health and Disability. 15 April. [blog]. Available at: /health/norah-elliott-b-1903-illness-health-and-disability (Accessed: 22/04/18).

Images used

  • Farmer, A (1865). ‘An Anxious Hour’. [Artwork]. Available at: 30676/view_as/grid/search/keyword:illness/page/2 (Accessed: 21/04/18).
  • ‘Smallpox Vaccination Poster’. (1851). BBC Primary History. [image]. Available at:  (Accessed: 21/04/18).

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