Nostalgia: Surviving the perils of infancy

Kirklington Hall between Ripon and Thirsk where Alice Thornton was brought up.
Kirklington Hall between Ripon and Thirsk where Alice Thornton was brought up.

In England four centuries ago, the elderly were conspicuous by their absence. Today the number of under 16s is roughly equal to the growing number of over 60s, each representing approximately 20 per cent of the total. In contrast, in 1616, the under 16s numbered 36 per cent and the over 60s only seven per cent of the population.

In other terms, England’s demography at the start of the seventeenth century was similar to that of one of today’s third-world African countries – a high birth rate counter-balanced by a very high death rate. Expectation of life span was then on average 40, half of what it is here today. Who nowadays is one of the many 80-year-olds would in Shakespeare’s time have been 50, an age that was then considered elderly. Shakespeare himself just managed to get to his 52nd birthday.

In the past, and until quite recently, life expectancy figures were depressed by high infant mortality. Between a fifth and a quarter of all children born alive died before they reached their tenth birthday, most of them in their first year.

One of the most revealing and poignant testimonies of a woman’s life in the seventeenth century is to be found in the autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton, which was published as long ago as 1875. In three small volumes it ran to 810 pages, all in her neat, tiny handwriting.

Alice was born in 1627 and died in her eightieth year in 1707, but far from having a quiet, secure and healthy life she endured nearly all the acute hazards of her time, mental and physical.

She was brought up in a privileged Yorkshire family, well-to-do and well-connected. Her father, Christopher Wandesford of Kirklington Hall between Ripon and Thirsk, was first cousin to Thomas Wentworth, who became the Earl of Strafford and the most powerful of the ministers of Charles I, and his mother was sister to Sir Edward Osborne, another rich and influential Yorkshire Royalist. However, the early deaths of both of these gentlemen and the Civil War defeat of the King meant that Alice was obliged to marry down to William Thornton of East Newton in Ryedale, a man of small means.

During the next 17 years of her marriage, Alice had nine children, but only three of them survived to maturity. Her account is a graphic description of the perils of pregnancy, childbirth and infancy. Her first baby, Alice, died within half an hour, still unbaptized; Betty, her third, died of consumption and rickets at 18 months; her fifth, a son, was delivered feet first and also died unbaptized; William lasted only a fortnight and died covered in red, round spots; her eighth, Joyce, also succumbed to smallpox after four months; and Christopher, her ninth, died of convulsions and “looseness”. Fortunately for Alice her husband then expired, freeing her from further misery and pain. Otherwise, she might have suffered the same fate as her sister, Catherine Danby, who gave up the ghost at 30 after giving birth a 16th time!

Even before her marriage, Alice’s survival through birth, infancy, childhood and adolescence seemed to her like a miracle. Of the “evill accidents” of her childhood she mentioned “the neglect and brutishness” of nurses, the hazards of “overlaying” and the “badnes of there food and milk”. (Students of the subject have concluded that infant mortality was higher among wet-nursed offspring of the upper classes than in the majority of families where babies were suckled only by their own mothers.)

In retrospect, Alice came to believe that her endurance was due entirely to God’s “guardian Angell”, though her longevity probably owed something to her habit of taking Scarborough’s spa waters. At the age of three she nearly bled to death after her forehead was cut open by a fall on to the corner of a stone hearth. Soon afterwards she was poisoned after eating beef that had been undercooked. At four she made a full recovery from smallpox. In addition to all these common dangers, fires destroyed her homes in London and Dublin and crossing the Irish Sea a storm drove her ship on to the sands near Dublin.

Alice’s “miraculous” escapes from sudden, violent death were not much different from those related by Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby, who was born at Roxby castle (now Thornton le Dale) in 1600. He attributed his relatively poor physique to a hired wet nurse who could not feed him so that he was first suckled by his grandmother who then had a six-month-old baby of her own. At the age of three, he was saved by a nimble servant who prevented him from falling out of an upper-floor casement at the castle. At seven he fell off a galloping horse under the hooves of another and had only his hat crushed. At eight, he was gored by a “great fearce sow” in the yard of Whitby abbey house and rescued from certain death by the family butler. At ten he had both measles and smallpox. At eleven, now a boarder at Beverley grammar school, he was struck down by “a feaver” which killed his mother after she visited his sick bed.

Like Alice Thornton and other contemporaries, Hugh believed that he had been spared by “God’s providence”. Subsequently, during the Civil War, when he commanded troops, he again survived many dangers without even a scratch. On one occasion, during the siege of Scarborough castle, the man standing right next to him on the outer wall was simply blown away by a cannon ball. Sir Hugh lived to the ripe old age of 57.

In short, even the social elite were not protected against a multitude of life-threatening experiences from conception to the grave. After you had survived the first hours and days there was always “the bloody flux” (dysentery), the sweating sickness (influenza), the “chin” or whooping cough, the ague (malaria), endemic smallpox and the most feared of all, the plague.

In one or more of its three forms, bubonic, pneumonic or septicaemic, the black death was almost always fatal, particularly amongst children and made no distinction of class. And ever since the first “visitation” of 1348-9, the English everywhere, in town and country, in seaport and hamlet, were victims of periodic epidemic until as late as 1665.

The next instalment will describe how, where and when the black death ravaged this part of Yorkshire 400 years ago.