The Terling Fever of 1867

In November 1867 an outbreak of typhoid fever struck the village of Terling in Essex. Before it died out some six months later, 300 of the inhabitants had contracted the disease; probably more since mild cases were not even notified. Forty-four were dead. Even in the age of numerous epidemics of cholera, typhus and typhoid fever in London and the new industrial cities of the North, this rural epidemic was serious enough to merit reports in ‘The Times’, ‘The Lancet’ and even ‘Punch’. The industrial slums with their polluted water supplies and non-existent sanitary arrangements were natural breeding grounds for such diseases, but were small country villages? Enquiries carried out by Inspectors from the Privy Council came up with sufficient evidence that they were, causing the Boards of Guardians from surrounding areas to look to their own sanitary arrangements before similar misfortune struck. Luckily it did not.

Mercia R Langstone – Author of ‘The Terling Fever’ September 1984 Copyright All Saints’ Church Terling

A list of those who died and their locations (gleaned from census records by Mervyn Bright) can be viewed here.

Bearing in mind the population of the village at the time of the fever was approximately 900, it is clear why this outbreak was so widely reported. Thankfully, the village was blessed by the early intervention and dedication of local Doctor Gimson Gimson* and the Sisters of Mercy, who came from East Grinstead in Sussex, who also supervised seven or eight nurses brought in by Miss Mary Ann Luard of Witham. Mary Ann afterwards founded a county-wide Church nursing agency.

There was widespread support too from others, including Lord and Lady Rayleigh who provided food each week, accommodation for the nurses and had given carte blanche to Dr Gimson to provide everything necessary for the changes to the schoolroom to become a convalescent hospital, and the erection of an ‘iron hospital’ in Ellis’ Field next to the school.

Doctors, Mr Barrow and Mr Proctor, attended very regularly from Witham and offers of help came from all sorts of others including J A Cowell Esq of the N W Chemical Works of Bethnal Green who offered water purifiers. Neighbouring villages offered linen, sheets and other necessities, organised by Miss Luard, and £35 a week of beef tea and wine was dispensed each week from the Rayleigh Arms.

Doctor Gimson’s tireless work, not only visiting and treating the villagers every day for 98 days, missing only two days when he was himself too ill, but also his constant cajoling of others to take action, creating clean facilities and ensuring that patients convalesced sufficiently to properly recover, was recognised by the village. On 4th June 1868 Lord and Lady Rayleigh and many parishioners attended a special presentation to Dr Gimson at the school, by then restored to teaching. The presentation was:

In recognition of his unwearied energy and invaluable services during the outbreak of Typhoid Fever which has lately made such sad havoc in the village, but is now happily classed among things of the past. Dr Gimson has already won golden opinions not only from all classes in the neighbourhood, but from some of the highest medical authorities of the Kingdom, and we cannot but feel that a presentation like that of yesterday reflected high credit on the subscribers themselves as showing that they know how to appreciate at their true value, the exertions of an esteemed friend and neighbour under unusually trying circumstances.

Presentation by Lady Rayleigh

The Testimonial consisted of “two massive silver cups and a purse of 100 sovereigns” and was made in front of a densely packed room of subscribers to the award, who had each contributed from “pounds to pennies and even halfpennies”.

A parchment record of the contributions was still hanging in Terling Church when Mercia wrote her book in 1987. Over the years this record had been damaged by damp, light and previous folding and was in dire need of restoration. In 2022 the Historic Terling Group arranged professional restoration by Jacqueline Coppen Adamick ACR (Senior Conservation Project Manager at the V&A) who has done a fabulous job to restore this unique record of the event. You will need to visit the church to see it at it’s best. Do join us at one of our meetings to see this and more.

Dr Proctor was senior doctor at what we know today as Fern House Surgery and in 1858 hired a young resident assistant, William Gimson Gimson. Dr Gimson then took charge when Dr Procter retired. Dr Gimson died in 1900 whilst helping with an operation at a Witham house. His son Dr Karl set up a practice at number 119, where he was joined in 1902 by his brother Edward (Dr Ted). Karl died in 1926. Dr Ted took other partners, moving eventually to number 129. He retired in 1945 after over 40 years, a much loved figure. His partners continued and the practice flourishes at number 129 to this day, having also incorporated the Gables in 1996. **

Good did come of this terrible fever time. Although the debate continued about the original source of the infection it was clear that the health hazards identified during the fever period, of polluted water and sewage, needed addressing.

Accordingly, the water supply was tackled by the installation of the water wheel by the Dairy Bridge, providing power to send water from the spring at Swan Pond via Church Green, The Street, Owls Hill, and Norman Hill, up to Flacks (Flax) Green, Waltham Road and to Hare Green. A second spring source was piped from the Hospital Field to houses in Monkey Lane and on to the triangle of grass opposite Monks Barn.

Less good came of the need to change the sewage system. Until well into the 20th century wooden privies were still emptied onto gardens and allotments, although later a tanker collected the soil. The effect on the River Ter was to create a stagnant cesspool. It was not until 1966 that mains sewers came to the village – and even then, not if your house lies below, or at a distance from, the mains sewer – but those homes do have proper modern cess pit controls!

Typhoid was a frequently occurring illness at the time of the Terling Fever, but the scale of the 1867 Terling outbreak with 44 deaths among just 900 residents can be seen in statistics relating to deaths in still ongoing outbreaks in Essex and particularly the Southend area (then part of Rochford) in 1890. Southend had grown from approximately 8,000 in 1880 to a population of just over 12,000, plus summer visitors, in 1890.

Remainder of County3237203029148
Notes on an epidemic of typhoid fever in south-east Essex in 1890 / by John C. Thresh.

Despite the passing of over 20 years since lessons were learned at Terling, debate still rumbled on regarding the cause of contagion in the Southend area, and the steps required to improve sanitation. Dr John Clough Tresh, then Chief Medical Officer for Essex, was brought in to review the causes after the findings of the local Medical Officer of Health, Mr. Morris, were not accepted by the Local Government Board. Thankfully, the passing of the Infectious Disease (Notification) Act 1889 (which subsequently became required reporting for all areas of the country in 1899) and it’s voluntary adoption in the Southend Urban Sanitary District, enabled the course of the epidemic to be
easily traced, and meant that statistics were available to reinforce the findings of medical experts. However, despite Dr Thresh’s concerns, little was done immediately to update the Southend sewage system. Two years later in 1892 Southend police sergeant George Galley died of typhoid fever while at work. Finally, a new sewer system for Southend was then deemed necessary.

Dr Tresh went on to write a number of related reference books including: ‘Water and water supplies (1896)’ , ‘A simple method of water analysis : especially designed for the use of medical officers of health’ (1898) and ‘Housing of the agricultural labourer, with special reference to the county of Essex’ (1919).

*Dr Gimson’s name was William Gimson Gimson, a family tradition. Co-incidentally, the Doctor appointed by the Privy Council to review the situation was named similarly, Dr R Thorne Thorne.

**Janet Gyford ‘A History of Witham’.