Family Tragedy in Victorian Darwen


In May 2001 members of the Blackburn branch of the Lancashire Family History and Heraldry Society heard a talk by Tony Foster entitled “Dirt and Disease.  A Victorian Experience.

The subject of his talk was the poor conditions which led to an epidemic of typhoid or typhus in Darwen in 1861.  On 14 October 1861 the local Board of Health heard the following report resulting from an inspection of the town:

“1st,  There appears to be a great neglect on the part of the cottage owners in not providing sufficient yard accommodation, privies, ash pits etc.;

2nd,  In addition to the deficiency, many existing privies and cesspools are badly situated being in some cases against the walls of cottages, and the content percolating through the walls into the house;  and in other, when not against habitations, in such situations the contents flow into the yard or the street adjoining;

3rd,  We find a large amount of imperfect house drainage even within a reasonable distance of the main sewers;

4th,  There appears to be a large number of pigs kept in the town and in many cases the piggeries and neighbourhoods thereof are in a very filthy state, the liquid therefrom running on the surface more or less.”

Recommendations were made as to how these conditions might be improved, though the committee were “sorry to have to report that they have found in their inspection through the town in too many cases an indifference or carelessness on the part of the housekeepers as to the state of their yards, houses, or neighbourhood.  An idea seems to reveal that it is the duty of someone other than themselves to keep the yards or grounds adjoining their houses clean and say they appear to be content to be surrounded with filth, rather than make much exertion to keep all clean about them.  This is not universally the case;  your committee found worthy exceptions, and in some cases confined places were marvellously clean and sweet, through the cleanly and determined habits of the housekeepers”.

I am sure you can imagine the reaction of the audience as Tony’s talk developed – all this filth and liquid sewage and women’s skirts reaching the ground!  Between 13 September and 28 December 1861 there were sixty-one deaths.

Darwen 1841-63

Richard Street lies to the south of Cross Street

Three weeks after this talk, I received a copy of a death certificate for Betty Entwistle, wife of Thompson Entwistle, brother of EFHA member Norma Pierce’s grandfather, Isaiah, and a cousin of my great-grandfather, James. The certificate showed that Betty, aged 24 years, had died on 23 October 1861 at Back Richard Street, Over Darwen, of Typhus. Betty’s was the 38th death to occur during the epidemic, and Back Richard Street was mentioned in the inspector’s report:  “A privy belonging to three houses situated in [/one_half][one_half_last]Back Richard Street, the property of Richard Catlow, is built in the passage ten feet wide and against a house No. 12, over which passage is a bedroom.  The soil from this privy percolates through into the house No. 12.  The flags in the house floor is saturated with it.  Fever is in this house.”

Poor Betty – it can’t have been any consolation that Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert had also succumbed to this disease in the same year!  Surprising, though, is the fact that Betty and Thompson’s baby son, George, who was only 13 months old, survived.  Perhaps he was not in the same house where Betty died, as the cemetery records show that when Thompson purchased the grave his address was given as 13 Richard Street.

Richard Street area 1909.
Richard Street area in 1909 contains newer bye-law houses.
Back Richard Street still shows older houses with
communal privies at the end of the yard,
probably little changed in 50 years.

I have not yet completely unravelled the story of Betty’s short life, but it seems to have been rather eventful.  She was born on 16 September 1837 in Over Darwen, to John Duckworth, a Loomer, and Alice, formerly Taylor.  In 1841 the family were living in Robin Bank, Over Darwen, but I have not yet found them on the 1851 census.  On 10 April 1855 Betty gave birth to a son, Peter, at 56 Duckworth Street, Darwen.  No father was named on the birth certificate.  Seven months later, on 24 November 1855, she married Thompson Entwistle at Blackburn Parish Church.  Both were 18 years of age, he was a piecer and she was a weaver.

When the 1861 census took place, Thompson and Betty were living in Wood Street, Over Darwen, which runs parallel to, and is one block away from, Richard Street.  5-year-old Peter Duckworth is listed as Peter D. Entwistle, but on all later censuses he is named Peter Duckworth, and when he married in 1874 no father was named on his marriage certificate.  Thompson did not leave a will, so it is unlikely I shall ever learn whether Thompson actually was his father.

One can imagine Thompson’s feelings in October 1861, his wife dead, and two young children to look after.  On 5 January 1863 he remarried.  His new wife was Rachel, daughter of Marsden Entwistle.  By 1871 Peter Duckworth had left them to live with his grandfather John Duckworth, and by 1873 when Rachel and Thompson’s daughter, Matilda, was born, they were living in Rishton, Lancashire.

Thompson Entwistle died in June 1886, aged 49 years, of  “Paralysis 5 years, Convulsions”; and Rachel in August 1887, aged 51, of “Chronic Hepatitis 6 months, Dropsy 1 month”.  Both are buried in the same grave where Betty was buried in 1861.

© Barbara Nightingale

A note on typhus and typhoid in Darwen

The outbreak of typhus and typhoid in Darwen in 1861 was noticed nationally by public health authorities and reformers. Although the link between germs and illness was not widely accepted, the fact that these diseases spread more rapidly in dirty conditions had been known for a long time but, another of the suggested causes of the spread in Darwen in 1861 was adulteration of milk by watering it, a common practice at the time, soon to become a scandal and a subject of legislation.

See: Greenhow, Edward Headlam, “History of an Outbreak of Fever at Over-Darwen in the Autumn of 1861,” Transactions of the Epidemiological Society of London vol. 1 (London: John W. Davies, 1863), 337-353.

Brian Cowen, 2013