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In early Victorian times the very young were greatly at risk. Nationally, 50 per cent of all recorded deaths were of children aged five and under. Figures for Witheridge were somewhat better with 31 percent in the 1820. However, the children were at the mercy of diarrhoea, whooping cough, croup, smallpox and measles, with measles being a major killer at this time.

In rural areas there still persisted a general belief that 'fever' was forever in the air waiting to strike. Although age brought greater immunity, people were subjected to greater dangers at work, such as dust in the bakeries, quarries, mills and barns, as well as mishaps with mill and barn equipment, work implements and horses. For example a man jumped from a 'Rick' and was impaled on a pitchfork; a man fell from the shafts of his man and the wheels passed over him and he died 'within the hour'; a blacksmith was kicked in the face by a horse; and a child was burnt to death in a cottage.

From about 1838, death rates for people over 14 began to improve as a result of better diet, sanitation and medical care. The poor did not always benefit, as they had to weigh up the cost of treatment against the chance of a cure, medicine was still rare and costly. Folk remedies have always played an important part in healing, especially in rural areas. Whilst many people could not afford to buy medicine from the apothecary, others preferred to reach for tried and tested family remedies or follow the advice of a local wise woman who was experienced in herb lore. Some poor people were too ashamed to use the free services increasingly provided as the 19th century progressed.

In villages such as Witheridge, woman in childbirth or with sick children often preferred to rely on the knowledge of a local (although untrained) woman who in addition to helping at birth would clean, help with the washing, feed the husband and care for other children. Medication came in gradually, but for a long time, people preferred their traditional methods. For example, there were those who preferred to take a sick child to a field in the early morning and lay it face down in the 'form' where a ewe had slept.

Witheridge had some advantages over towns, in as much as it was not blighted in the same way by polluted water and sewage-ridden streets. In addition, there were less people, so conditions were not so cramped. In 1851 an average household in Barnstaple held between five and six persons, while in Witheridge the figure was about four. An Act of 1834 put emphasis on work in workhouses and the chronically sick were already classified with the insane. Soon, however, these places were occupied by aged paupers; the last Witheridge infant to die in South Molton workhouse was in 1864. There were no cottage hospitals until the next century. Witheridge was lucky to have a few places in the Devon and Exeter Hospital since its building in 1841, primarily because of the role William Chapple played in its construction.

In 1872, the South Molton Board of Guardians became, in addition, the South Molton Sanitary Authority. Reports were requested to assess village drains, including, those of Witheridge. In 1875 diphtheria was reported here, and in 1876 a local mother was taken to court for allowing her daughter with 'scarlatina' to come into contact with others. In 1897 a case of smallpox was reported. The sufferer was a local man and his wife was summoned for 'exposing clothes in a public place without disinfecting them'. It was a far cry from earlier, easier going days.

Over the century the life expectancy figure rose, and some improvement in general health began, thanks to work performed by the Witheridge Union Society. However, it was not until the 1900's that local funds were raised to employ a village nurse. (WV) was, for a time, treasurer of The Witheridge and Thelbridge Nursing Association. A Miss Bell, of 6, Woodbine Terrace, Exeter, was Superintendent of district Nurses and she came out and stayed at the Angel while she toured round on her bicycle, inspecting the nurses at Rackenford, Meshaw and Rose Ash. Nurse Gillard (See 1914 Directory) was the first nurse taken on. She was smart and lodged with Mitchell, the Clerk to the Parish Council, at 10, The Square. She was conscientious and worked hard, going round on her bicycle. If here was an emergency, someone would ride in or come in a pony and trap and take her out. February 12th 1898 - Influenza: and in many cases it has developed into other diseases, is still holding its sway here. Many are even now just recovering from a very serious illness. May 2nd 1908: Witheridge as a Health Resort: Witheridge being 10 miles away from a station does not get so many visitors as it deserves. However, this Easter a medical man in flourishing practice in Monmouth sought change of air and rest at Witheridge, and found both much to his satisfaction. He tells us that although he had been round the world, taking 6 years in the process, he was never in Devon before save for one day in Ilfracombe. Of the beautiful scenery around Witheridge, our medical friend spoke with warm appreciation. He was specially struck with the beauties of Bradford Pond, a fine stretch of water three quarters of a mile in length, embowered among trees and teeming with fish - an ideal spot for a picnic in fine weather. There are swans and heron in the vicinity. It forms part of the estate of the Vicar, the Rev J P Benson. From a doctor's point of view the chief drawback of Witheridge, apart from its isolation, seems to be extreme healthiness. Nobody ever seems to be ill there. There is however plenty of sport.

1831 The Cholera Act created Boards of Health to deal with an epidemic, and the 1832 Local Boards were given powers, using the Poor Rates. In 1840 it became compulsory to receive vaccination against smallpox which had been discovered in 1790. A further Act in 1853 made it compulsory for all infants under the age of three months to be vaccinated with the costs being born by the Poor Rate. Poor Sanitary matters were tackled by the 1866 Sanitary Act which made Authorities responsible for the removal of nuisances, with the rural areas excluded until 1872 when a further act allowed the creation of Rural Sanitary Boards.

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Last Edited 13/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

Unless otherwise indicated on the page in question, the photographic images reproduced on this site belong to the Witheridge Archives, and, as such may not be reproduced for commercial purposes without written permission. However, you are welcome to use any of the photographs belonging to the archive for personal and/or non-commercial use. Any material shown as not being owned by the archive may not be reproduced in any form without first receiving written permission from the owner of the material in question. The above article is based on notes deposited with the archive, and written by Dr Houghton Brown around 1942.