Blog Archives

The White Death

Michael McHugh looked at his son, born only minutes before, with sadness. What would become of him? The room was warm and toasty even though it was one of the coldest winters in Scotland1 when Francis McHugh was born at midnight on February 21, 1895.2 Nevertheless Michael shivered in apprehension. The doctor was clear. Michael did not have long to live. He would likely be dead before the year was out.

Michael’s eldest son, Thomas was present at the birth. He was just nineteen and much too young to shoulder the burden of Michael’s family once Michael died even though Thomas was already contributing to the family’s finances. He worked in a jute factory as a yarn bleacher.3 At the age of 19, Thomas should be thinking of starting his own family one day. But how could he do that when he would have his mother and four siblings under nine to take care of?

Francis was the fifth child.4 The family lived in a tenement situated in the overcrowded industrial area near the jute factories. It is unlikely that the flat had a bathroom. The night that Francis was born, the flat would have been crowded. A female relative or two would have been there to help with the birth and the younger children. Thomas would have fetched the midwife or “howdie.”5 She would have stayed until Francis and his mother, Sarah, were comfortable and taken care of.

Michael had worked his 12-hour days at the jute factory6 until he could no longer manage it. He became increasing weak, losing weight at a rapid rate. He coughed up phlegm and sometimes blood. When he saw the doctor, his worse fears were confirmed. He had tuberculosis. The doctor named it phthisis. Michael knew it as “the white death.”

Michael was ashamed. It was known that tuberculosis was contagious, but the stigma remained. It was considered a poor man’s disease because of the unsanitary conditions of the tenements that the poor lived in.7

The doctor was careful to explain to Michael that it was contagious and Michael was careful not to cough or spit when he was with the children. He probably never carried Francis in his arms, out of fear of infecting him.

Michael died at home three months later.8 It would be about six years before Sarah Jane who was eight at the time of Francis’ birth, would be old enough to work and contribute to the family earnings. In the meantime, Thomas took care of them and he continued to do so, even when he immigrated to Canada in 1912, bringing his mother, his two brothers, his wife and his seven children.9

 

  1. Wikipedia web site, “Winter of 1894,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_of_1894%E2%80%9395_in_the_United_Kingdom, accessed November 28, 2017. The British Isles suffered a severe winter in 1894/1895 that ended a decade of harsh winters, sometimes referred to as the Little Ice Age. Because the River Thames froze over, shipping was restricted and the economy suffered. Coal was at a premium.
  2. Birth registration of Francis McHugh, Scotland’s People, Statutory registers, Births, 282/1 384, accessed November 26, 2017.
  3. In the 1991 census, Thomas was 14 and he worked as a yarn bleacher. Scotland’s People 1891 census 282/1 35/48, accessed November 18, 2017.
  4. Scotland’s People 1891 census 282/1 35/48, accessed November 18, 2017. The 1891 census shows the children, Thomas, Sarah and Mary Ann. Edward McHugh was born in 1873, as per the registration of his birth, Scotland’s People, Statutory registers, Births, 282/1 384, accessed November 26, 2017.
  5. National Records of Scotland website. “Safe Delivery, A History of the Scottish Midwife,” https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/learning/features/safe-delivery-a-history-of-scottish-midwives, accessed December 21, 2017.
  6. Dark Dundee web site, “Workers of the Mills,” https://www.darkdundee.co.uk/archive/dundee-landmarks/workers-of-the-mills/, accessed January 18, 2018. A regular working day was 12 hours in the jute mills. Dundee had one of the lowest wages in the country in the 19th century, and the highest cost of living. Low wages meant that there was little for anything that was not a necessity. While the jute mill workers had regular wages, it would have been hard to get themselves out of poverty.
  7. University of Virginia website, “Early Research and Treatment of Tuberculosis in the 19th Century, http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/alav/tuberculosis/, accessed January 18, 2018.
  8. Michael McHugh’s death certificate, date of death May 16, 1895. Scotland’s People, Statutory registers, Death, 282/1 148, accessed November 26, 2017. Cause of death: Phthisis lasting 4 months. It is doubtful that it lasted four months. The four months may have indicated the time that had elapsed since the diagnosis or since he was off work or even bedridden.
  9. Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935 Database, Ancestry.com, accessed November 14, 2017.
%d bloggers like this: