The modern concept of a pandemic is novel to the recent memory of our society. But in Victorian times, it was a regular occurrence for diseases such as scarlet fever (or scarlatina), diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles to sweep through communities and kill large numbers of children and other vulnerable populations. The winter of 1864/65 was such a year in which Victoria and other towns along the Pacific coast experienced widespread casualties, primarily of children.
Statistics were not maintained in the manner they’re kept today, and death notices for children were infrequent and lacking in information. It is often the records relating to more prominent families that provide a window into the impact of a particular pandemic, as they were more likely to have published death notices in newspapers, and were more likely to have been the subject of contemporary accounts. Two of Victoria’s more prominent families—the Cridges and the Tolmies—demonstrate the power of such diseases in the winter and spring of 1864/65.
The pandemic that spread throughout the region that year is most often described as a scarlet fever pandemic, but there are some records that attribute deaths that year to diphtheria. This may be the result of similar symptoms that lead to differing diagnoses, or simply that more than one of these diseases spread through the community that year. Scarlet fever was so prevalent throughout the Nineteenth Century that some historians describe it as a single pandemic that spanned most of the century, recurring on a regular basis, while others describe a series of pandemics or epidemics. But however it is described by modern historians, these pandemics received little contemporary discussion in newspapers, suggesting the routine nature of such recurring illnesses, even though they carried the power to wipe out families.
In the autumn of 1865, Rev. Edward Cridge, reverend of Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral, and his wife, Mary, had six children, ranging in age from ten months to nine years, and were known for providing refuge to orphans. Mary was pregnant with a seventh, a daughter who would arrive in July 1865. But between December 11, 1864, and February 13, 1865, they lost four of their six children, three within a period of only nine days.
The first was ten month-old Frederick Pemberton Cridge, who died on December 11, 1864. He was followed by seven year-old Edward Scott Cridge on February 4, 1865. His younger brother, six year-old Eber Cridge, died a few days later on February 11, 1865. And two year-old Grace died two days later, on February 13, 1865. The deaths of all four are most frequently attributed to scarlatina, though there is at least one account attributing the deaths to diphtheria, and some modern claims of “black measles.” Death notices were published for each child, but none of them referenced a cause of death. The birth of their daughter, Rhoda, the following July was hardly a new beginning for the family, as she was sickly from her birth, and remained so throughout her life.
Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, and his wife Jane (formerly Work), also experienced loss from the pandemic in 1865. They had a much larger family at the time—six boys, three girls, and a fourth girl who would be born that spring—but lost their two youngest daughters within a matter of days. Annie Fraser Tolmie, just seventeen months, died on April 25, 1865. And their newest arrival, Margaret Cecilia, just six weeks old, died on May 2, 1865. Death notices do not state the cause of death, but the timing of the two deaths, just a week apart, suggests the likelihood of a contagious illness in the household.
Reliance on the limited records that describe the reach of the pandemic—death notices published by more prominent families—can’t begin to describe the impact that the pandemic may have had on families of lesser means, living in more crowded conditions, who were unlikely or unable to publish a notice describing the loss of one or more of their children. But that alone demonstrates a vast difference between a pandemic that would spread through a community in the mid-Nineteenth Century from one that spreads across the world today. Death counts from today’s pandemic may be undercounted for a variety of systemic reasons, but they are widely reported, along with articles that delve into the details of the pandemic. Death counts from pandemics in Victorian times, and the actual cause of each death, will remain somewhat of a mystery for all time simply because the pandemics were treated as something far too ordinary each time they occurred.