36 grains of sesquicarbonate of ammonia

½ ounce of simple syrup

The Scarlet Fever Pestilence........

On Saturday 24 December 1870 the Leicester Chronicle published it’s usual weather report - “A continuance of the present weather during the Christmas holidays, will be most acceptable, and will give zest to the enjoyment of the festivities so bountifully provided at this season of the year, even by the poorest amongst us, whom the improved trade of the past year will, it is to be hoped, have helped to provide them with exceptional means of obtaining ample fare for an agreeable and national celebration of Christmas, and a sufficiency of warm clothing and fuel to provide them from the keen air and biting frost.”

On Christmas Day Sunday 25 December 1870, a good fall of snow had fallen, frost was on the ground and temperatures struggled to get above minus seven degrees Celsius. 

On this particular Christmas Day of 1870, eleven funeral services were held at Welford Road Cemetery in Leicester. Amongst those mourning was a young family that once was five was now four.  Joseph Rockley Merrick, his wife Mary Jane and their two children, Joseph and Marian stood by the newly dug graveside of their precious William Arthur. William had died four days previously on 21 December aged only four years.

By the winter of 1870, when a young Joseph Merrick was only eight years old, William only four and Marian just three years old, an epidemic of scarlet fever swept through the schools in Leicester, a dreadful and potentially fatal disease with deadly consequences. The epidemic was at its highest in the old overcrowded part of the town, and once the initial symptoms had passed, especially if it was a mild case, parents sent their children back to school or let them play out on the streets. However, this was one of the most infectious stages of the illness, with weeping open spots, coughing and sneezing, and cross infection was inevitable. In November 1870, Councillor Crossley stated there were 700 to 1,000 cases of Scarlet Fever in Leicester.

The weekly mortality returns spelt out the undeniable figures. On analysis the victims are proved to be chiefly infants.

In the cases of the rich and well off Leicester citizens, misery was alleviated by the aid of medical attendance, good nursing, domestic luxury, and the consciousness of no perceptible pecuniary loss — in the case of the poor, misery intensified by the absence of good nursing and fireside comforts, and with the knowledge that the week's wages are unearned the whole family would be impoverished in consequence. When Scarlet Fever invaded the hearth, even without Death as its companion, it was an enemy so formidable it demanded the putting forth of every energy possessed by the public institutions to confront it and to crush it without delay.

The Leicester Infirmary was built to cope with such emergencies. It was supported by the public in the belief that, when any epidemic broke out, it will be ready with its help and resources to check the progress of the destroyer. Unfortunately, in the November of 1870 this wasn’t the case. A deputation from the Local Board of Health waited upon the Governors of the Infirmary to inform them of the existence of the epidemic and its ravages, and to solicit their assistance in preventing the increase. The Governors heard the statements of the deputation— deliberated upon them and then it seems did nothing.  At the Town Council meeting, the Town Clerk is reported to have said

 "he felt it his duty to say, on behalf of the Governors of the Infirmary, that the application made to them was well and carefully considered, and it was felt that if permission were given for the erection of a temporary building on the Infirmary grounds, as was suggested, there would be a danger of the convalescent patients taking the contagion there. With respect to the Fever House, they had only sufficient accommodation for the cases of ordinary fever that were taken there, and the medical staff were of one opinion as to the undesirability of admitting cases of this infectious disease in that institution."

The Governors of the Leicester Dispensary on the other hand, met the views of the Local Board. They not only heard what its deputation had to say, but they offered to supply the requisite medicine at cost price, and requested their medical staff to render all the help they could, a gratifying example of what a public institution should do, in comparison with what the Infirmary Governors refused to do. The Town Council endeavoured to provide a building for the isolation of patients, and the Board of Guardians found beds, and nurses.


In December of 1870, the Lancet reported on Leicester’s Scarlet Fever outbreak.

The Sanitary Condition of Leicester.—

For many weeks past the town of Leicester has been suffering from epidemic scarlet fever, and the general mortality has been extremely high. Scarlet fever has been very malignant, and there have been more than 150 deaths during the present quarter. A public meeting has been held for the purpose of establishing a hospital for small-pox and scarlet fever, as these diseases are not admissible into the fever hospital or infirmary. Dr. Barclay's proposal to erect some small wards in the grounds of the infirmary, of which we spoke in terms of approval some weeks ago, was negatives by a large majority, apparently from the fear that the infection might extend to patients in the general wards. We believe that the authorities will do wisely to look to the fundamental conditions of a good sanitary state. It is confidently affirmed that the sewers are exceedingly foul, that they are all but impervious, that from insufficient ventilation the gases escape into the houses through defective service drains, and that the single outlet is insufficient to take away the sewage when it is increased to any considerable extent by rain. Sometime ago the subject of disposing of the sewage by irrigation was discussed • but as usual, the landowners of the district are so blind to their own interests as to refuse to countenance the scheme The Corporation is at this moment threatened with legal proceedings, the river Soar being in a very polluted state for many miles below the town. — Lancet


Scarlet Fever was so severe and contagious that you could be fined or imprisoned for exposing the public to the infection.

In October 1891, Joseph Bent of Russell Street in the town of Leicester took his daughter out after she had been diagnosed with the disease. The family doctor had recommended his daughter, Mary to be admitted into the fever house where she would have proper grounds to run around in rather than on the streets. But it seemed very difficult to convince parents of this. Bent said the child was kept at home, and no one allowed to go near her. She was thoroughly bathed and cleaned, and the doctor ordered her to get as much fresh air as possible. She was not allowed to go out but slipped out of the house unknown to her mother. Although he stated his daughter had left the house without his knowledge the magistrate decided to convict him, and he would be fined either £3 or serve three months in goal.



All these reports came too late for the Merrick family and sadly William Arthur Merrick, Joseph’s little brother, became one of those statistics when he fell dangerously ill. All his mother could do to nurse him was to keep him cool and comfort him. William would have started with sickness, a headache, shivering and a sore throat. These symptoms were followed by a rash all over the body which was mostly visible on the neck and shoulders, and white fur coating his tongue, which gives the disease its nickname of ‘strawberry tongue’. Symptoms appear very quickly, breathing being loud and difficult, the temperature very high, and the child may convulse and hallucinate. There was no treatment for scarlet fever during this period as antibiotics had not been discovered and because of this it was one of the most feared diseases in Victorian England. Death could occur within one to two days, and sometimes before the characterised rash had appeared. All Mary Jane could do was keep William in bed and mop his brow with cold water to help with his temperature. She may have given the following mixture, common in this period if she was unable to obtain medical advice:

36 grains of sesquicarbonate of ammonia

½ ounce of simple syrup


6 ounces of water would have been given every three hours and the throat kept clear with the mop.

Sadly, all this proved useless, and on 21 December 1870, William passed away.

Scarlet fever is a bacterial infection caused by a Group A Streptococcus. ... There's no vaccine for scarlet fever.  Prevention is by frequent handwashing, not sharing personal items, and staying away from other people when sick.

Once contracted, it's treated quite easily with a course of antibiotics, which at least partially contributed to the disease's decline in developed countries after about 1945

Welford Road Cemetery, Leicester (Authors own collection)

Overcrowded streets of Leicester 1904

(Authors own collection/postcard)

Fianl resting place of William Arthur Merrick and Mary Jane Merrick (nee Potterton) - Welford Road Cemetery, Leicester. (Authors own collection).

Image Google.com/imagesuk