Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Monday, 2 April 2012

Causes of Death : What Did He Die of?

Five Top Tips to Help You Find Out More About Your Ancestor’s Last Illness

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Your ancestors’ death certificates tell you the bald truth about their cause of death, but you can add a great deal to your picture of their final illnesses using the internet and record offices, providing you know where to look and what to look for.

  1. What exactly did he die of?
Death certificates will give you the cause of death in medical language, for example: ‘phythisis’ was tuberculosis (also known as consumption), and the mysteriously named ‘cancrum otis’ was an ulcer of the cheek and lip. For more accurate information on medical terminology use an online medical dictionary such as  If you interview elderly relatives, be aware that they may use more colloquial language to describe the sufferings of their ancestors: ‘bad blood’, for example, was a common euphemism for syphilis, ‘chin cough’ meant whooping cough, and ‘brain fever’ probably meant meningitis.  All this can be confusing. For terms that may be particularly useful to family historians see

2. What were his symptoms?

Sometimes death certificates will tell you how long an ancestor’s final battle lasted: ‘6 hours’, for example, in the case of acute illnesses, or ‘three weeks’ for longer-term problems. But that’s about as far as a death certificate goes in telling you anything about the degree to which your ancestor suffered. Help is at hand, however. There are now many websites dedicated to describing the symptoms of diseases. You can simply put the name of the name of the disease in which you are interested into google and see what comes up. Alternatively, the following general NHS site is very useful and can be searched by disease at Some websites describing symptoms include illuminating surprises. At, for example, you can actually listen to someone with whooping cough!

3. Was he the victim of an epidemic?

Your ancestor’s death may not have been an isolated event in his local community. Cholera reached the UK in 1831, for example, and attacked thousands of people across the country. In 1918 and 1919, much of Britain fell prey to the worldwide influenza pandemic. On the other hand, some outbreaks of disease, such as that of scarlet fever in Marylebone, London, in 1885, were more localised. If the death certificate records an infectious disease such as typhus or smallpox, it’s worth asking in the local library, or archive whether there was an epidemic of that disease in the locality at the time in question. Other clues to the fact that there might have been an epidemic are graveyards with large collections of gravestones from the same year and parish burial registers with many entries close together You can also see a timeline of epidemic diseases in the UK at

4. What treatments were around?

If your ancestor’s disease was infectious, check to see whether or not immunisation was available at the time of his death. Useful websites include and  The first vaccine for cholera appeared in 1879, for example and the first vaccine for typhus in 1937. But vaccines were expensive: don’t assume that your ancestor was vaccinated, just because a vaccine existed at the time he was ill.

If your ancestor was wealthy enough to be able to pay a doctor, he may have partaken of a wide range of imbrications, liniments or inhalations. Take a look at the website of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society which can be searched by the name of the disease. The British Library history timeline allows you to see the advances made in science, medicine and technology in each decade of the past.

Unless your ancestor was very well off, his or her last illness was probably treated by the family with home remedies that had been passed down from generation to generation (rather than with expensive pharmaceuticals). You can listen to people describing home remedies from the mid-twentieth century at You can also find out more about home remedies (and tips on how to keep the sick room in an acceptable condition) by reading medical advice books from the time that your ancestor died. These can often be picked up cheaply in second-hand bookshops or online at sites such as The Sunlight Year Book for 1899, for example, has an alphabetical list of medical conditions and possible home remedies from abscesses and anaemia through diarrhoea and diphtheria to shingles and toothache!

In the Treatment of Measles

Begins like a cold; feverishness, headache, cough supervenes, About the fourth day, a rash appears, usually first on the face, raised above the skin and running into half moon shaped blotches; spreading downwards it covers the body in twenty four hours. It should be encouraged to come out; there is s great danger in suppressing a rash; great care should be taken against chills, especially at night; and the room should be warm but well ventilated. The special danger is trouble with the lungs; bronchitis and pneumonia may arise. There may also be diarrhoea, sickness, inflammation of the eyes and of the windpipe.

From The Sunlight Year Book, 1899, Lever Brothers Limited, 1899

In the Treatment of Smallpox

Keep room well ventilated, use plenty of soap and smear the eruption with bacon fat daily, when it is well out; sponge patient with tepid water, as it soothes and aids convalescence. Never permit patient to feel chilly. After pustules have burst, continue the sponging and dust powdered starch over them to absorb discharge. Insist on absolute cleanliness, thorough ventilation without chilliness or draughts, and removal of all dirty linen worn by patient.

From The Sunlight Year Book, 1899, Lever Brothers Limited, 1899

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5. Where did he die?

A death certificate will record the place where your ancestor died. This will usually have been at home. However, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a stay in hospital became increasingly likely. If your ancestor was in hospital at the time of one of the nineteenth-century censuses, then he will have been recorded as a patient by the manager of the institution.

Some hospitals kept records of their patients including dates of admission, case notes detailing symptoms and treatment, dates of discharge and/or death, and even post-mortem results. You can check to see if such records have been kept for the hospital to which your ancestor was admitted by searching the Hospital Records database at the National Archives website ( Once you have checked that patient records exist for the time in question, contact the relevant record depository to view.

The patient records of a few hospitals are now online and freely available at The Historic Hospital Admissions Records Project at This includes the records of three London children’s hospitals (Great Ormond Street, The Evelina Hospital and the Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Disease) and the Glasgow Royal Hospital for Sick Children.

Useful Books 

Jerger, Jeanette L. A Medical Miscellany for Genealogists, Heritage, 2009.

Porter, Roy. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine, CUP, 2001.

Flanders, Judith Inside the Victorian Home: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. HarperCollins, 2003.

Townsend, John, Bedpans, Blood and Bandages, A History of Hospitals, Raintree Publishers, 2006.

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Useful Websites Gateway to many medical sites useful to genealogists. The British Library history timeline including advances in science, medicine and technology.  A multimedia site dedicated to the Victorians and their health A free online medical dictionary­_medicine_01.shtml
 - History of Victorian medicine

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Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, British Isles, UK, England, English, death, death certificate

On His Death Bed

His Final Moments

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[This article was first pubished in the now obsolete Practical Family History]

As their death certificates show, most of our Victorian and early twentieth-century ancestors died at home in their own beds. With high infant mortality rates and many people succumbing to infectious diseases well before old age, death of loved ones was a very frequent occurrence in family life – something to be participated in and shared rather than hidden away on the hospital ward. In the certain belief that they would be judged in heaven for their conduct on earth, many of our forefathers sought to make a ‘good death,’ as far as possible, with all the preparation this entailed.

The Sick Room

What we know about the environment of death in the Victorian period comes mainly from advice books. A sick room should be warm and should attract a plentiful supply of sunshine and air. Drafts were to be avoided at all costs. As in most aspects of Victorian life, there were rules and regulations to adhere to in the sick room. Creaking shoes and rustling gowns should be avoided. People should be quiet, but should not necessarily need to tiptoe or whisper. The patient’s condition should never be discussed in his presence. If the fire required making up whilst the patient was asleep, newspaper was recommended as a quieter alternative to coals.

Other recommended furniture for the sick room included a screen to keep out the light and a couch onto which the patient could be lifted whilst the bed was being made. It was recommended that a bedpan be provided and that it should be taken out of the room and washed regularly. Medicine bottles were to be kept out of sight and any ointments or liniments placed in a separate area. The floor of the sick room should have rugs that could be ‘taken up at a moment’s notice and be swept and shaken in the open air.’ Bedding should consist of a spring mattress and ‘good overlay.’ Feather beds were to be avoided as they were thought to harbour dust.

Any nourishment given to the patient was to be daintily served and in small quantities so as to be easily digested. It was deemed important to keep food out of the sickroom, especially when a patient was suffering from a disease such as typhoid fever that could potentially be contracted by other members of the family through contaminated food.

As all this shows, Victorian advice writers had very definite ideas about how a sick room should look and how it ought to be equipped. Of course, it is impossible to know how closely this advice was followed. Working-class people were largely illiterate before the Education Act of 1870: and many people would not have been able to read advice books even if they could have afforded them. In addition, most homes were not large enough to accommodate separate sick rooms. Nevertheless, advice volumes can give us some idea of what was commonly thought to constitute good practice.

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Last Days

The Victorian deathbed was not a place of solitude. Quite the reverse. It was usual for all members of the immediate family to join the nurse periodically at the bedside and to take an active part at the end. They would hold the hand of the patient, soothe and pet him, and read psalms or poetry. When Branwell Bronte died on the 24th September 1848, his whole family including his three sisters and his father, were around him. Love, sorrow and faith were all openly expressed in ways that would seem perhaps overindulgent to us today.

During a patient’s last days, if at all possible, he was expected to sort out various aspects of his life. This included the distribution of his worldly goods and instructions for his own funeral. Before ex- Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone died in May 1898, he asked to see each of his servants in turn - no doubt to convey some final words of thanks and wisdom.

The Last Hours

Dying persons were encouraged to bear their pain and suffering with fortitude and to look forward to the afterlife. If the sick person was an Anglican or a Non-conformist (Baptist, Methodist, Unitarian etc), he was increasingly expected to make his own peace with God at the end. Clergymen were present less often at the death in the nineteenth century than they had been in previous ages. But there were, of course, some deathbed conversions, where the dying person requested the presence of a priest and embraced the Catholic Church. For confirmed Catholics, the deathbed was the place for a final confession to be made and for the final sacrament to be taken. This was supposed to take place once the patient had accepted that death was inevitable but before they were too ‘far gone’ not to understand what they were doing.

A patient’s last words were also considered to be very important, showing his or her fitness for salvation. Queen Victoria’s last words (‘Oh that peace may come! Bertie!’) unsurprisingly made reference to her dead husband Prince Albert whom she had mourned for nearly forty years. The writer Lewis Carroll was more practical, ‘Take away those pillows, I shall need them no more,’ whilst intellectual wit Oscar Wilde retained a dry humour, ‘I am dying as I have lived. Beyond my means.’ Sometimes, in the knowledge that a memorable last speech was expected, patients composed something fitting ready for the occasion. At other times, where the dying person was too weak or delirious to think clearly, relatives would try to elicit something appropriate by asking questions. Patients were occasionally refused drugs at the end in an effort to assist them to talk more clearly: it was always hoped that they would say something profound or enlightening.

Immediately After Death

After death the nurse or neighbour in attendance would ‘lay’ out the corpse. The body would be undressed, washed and re-clothed in a shroud, pennies would be placed on the eyelids to keep them closed and the body would be ‘arranged.’ When the body of Doctor James Barry was attended on July 25th 1865, his charwoman, Sophia Bishop, let out a scream. Despite the doctor’s wish that he should be buried in the clothes he had died in, Sophia removed them and realised that he had harboured a great secret throughout his life. He was in fact a woman!

It was common for family and neighbours to be invited in to the house to view the body prior to its transferral to a coffin. The corpse might remain in the house from anything between five and eleven days. As doctor John Simon remarked in 1852 (in a report on burials in the city of London), this didn’t really matter in a rich man’s house where the body could be kept in a lead coffin in a room away from the family, but in a poor man’s house, there was great cause for concern: ’the sides of a wooden coffin, often imperfectly joined, are at best all that divides the decomposition of the dead from the respiration of the living.’

A few Victorians kept deathbed memorials (detailed diary accounts) of how their relations had died. But, it was more common for the story of the final moments - in all their gory detail - to be circulated among family members by word of mouth or by letter. Of especial interest to those who had not been there, were accounts of deathbed visions, moments of pre-mortem clarity and the smiles of ecstasy that may have accompanied the actual moments of death.

After all this, of course, began the elaborate ritual of mourning which, depending on the wealth of the family, potentially involved paintings and photographs of the corpse, the making of death masks and the taking of hair for mourning jewellery. The Victorian etiquettes of bereavement advised the wearing of black-ribboned underwear, jet jewellery and top-to-toe black clothing for up to two years after the death.  There was nothing a dying man could do to ensure that he was properly mourned. Little wonder, therefore, that so many directed their attentions to making a ‘good death.’

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Useful Books

Bailin, Miriam, The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of Being Ill,  Cambridge Books Online, 2009.

Curl, James Stevens. The Victorian Celebration of Death, Sutton Press, 2004.

Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. HarperCollins, 2003.

Jalland, Pat. Death in the Victorian Family, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jupp, Peter, and Gittings, Clare, Death in England: An Illustrated History. MUP, 1999.

Useful Websites On the life and death of William Ewart Gladstone. On the life and death of Branwell Bronte

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, British Isles, UK, England, English, death, death certificate

Links to The Past: Cuff Links

Links to the Past

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‘Batchelor buttons’, ‘sleeve links’ or ‘boutons de manchette’  - cuff links (by whatever name they have been known), have long been a favoured gift for male relatives. And the value of these small, decorative items to you now might be more than purely financial. Indeed cuff links can give many clues to aspects of your ancestor’s life in the past.

Like other items of inherited jewellery, cuff links are, of course, most useful to family history when there is paperwork connected with them; a letter or a will, for example, in which particular pieces are described and perhaps even valued. Alternatively, there might be a family story that explains how certain cuff links came into the possession of your great-grandfather or uncle. They were often given, for example, as gifts for weddings and – particularly – graduations. But even without this supporting evidence, there are a number of ways in which the items themselves can point us to aspects of our ancestors’ lives.

There is, for example, the matter of class. ‘Double sided’ (‘double panelled’ or ‘double-faced’) cuff links are traditionally of the highest quality and may indicate the wealth or elevated social status of an ancestor. From the late nineteenth-century, ‘single-faced’ cuff links (consisting of a one piece, ‘button-back’ design with decoration on the crown at one end and a smaller, plain metal head at the other) became popular with the masses. These, together with ‘dumbbell’ or ‘shank style’ cufflinks (with a gently curved but rigid shank) which came to fashion in the early 1900s, may also denote an ancestor of lower social status. As a brief rule of thumb - the more difficult a cufflink is to fasten, the higher the class to which your ancestor probably belonged!

And then there is the matter of identity. In the late nineteenth century, cuff links became increasingly more personalised. Some were engraved with initials or dates, and these are a genealogist’s delight, of course. Monograms of men’s names tend to have all three initials in the right order and at the same size. On some cufflinks the initials of the owner are on the reverse of the decorated face. Be careful, however, not to confuse monograms with the maker’s mark which may also be made up of initials.

Cuff links might also signal membership of an association. Some clubs, societies and military regiments issued cuff links to their members. In 2008, a single cuff link dating back to the late eighteenth century was found in the mud on the banks of the River Thames. It was dicovered that this was one of a limited number of such items which were presented to the officers serving Admiral Adam Duncan of Lundie to celebrate his victory at the Battle of Camperdown (11th Oct 1779), against the combined Dutch and French Fleets. Be careful, however, of ascribing your cuff links to one organisation or another in the past. There are many modern novelty cuff links with occupational or military themes.

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Cuff Links Timeline

Your cuff links may provide you with a taste of the era and social circumstances in which your ancestor lived. If you have an unidentified pair of cuff links, this brief timeline may help you to date them.

17th century. First cuff buttons (made of glass) appear linked with a chain. These will gradually replace the ribbons or pieces of string that have traditionally been used to fasten cuffs.

18th century. Cuff links are still seen as precious objects and remain the provenance of the very wealthy. They are handmade and comprise gold or silver with precious jewels as decoration.

1840s The ‘French cuff’, or ‘double cuff’ shirt becomes stylish and produces a higher demand for cuff links. The middle classes start to wear cuff links using cheaper materials such as gold-coloured alloys and fake diamonds.

1850 Cuff links are becoming much more popular. A variety of fastening mechanisms are devised but the most popular are those which have one decorative panel with a swivel bar mechanism at the back to secure the cuff link in place once it has been pushed through the button holes. 

1860 Electroplating (which combines gold and silver with other metals) helps the large-scale manufacture and distribution of gold- and silver- plated cuff links. Mourning cuff links made from black jet were very popular, particularly after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Another method of displaying grief was to wear glass cuff links which framed a lock of an ancestor’s hair.

1887 The Parisian Boyer establishment – specialising in collar studs and removable shirt fronts -  is founded. Cuff links are created in mother-of-pearl, pearls, enamel, miniature mosaic work and precious or semi-precious stones. Tiffany, Cartier and Faberge start to design different cuff links to suit different occasions and mood.

1880 American George Kermentz begins mass-producing single-sided cufflinks from a converted, Civil War-era cartridge shell machine. This technology combined with the earlier invention of electroplating enables much cheaper cufflinks to be produced

1900 Cuff links appear with Art Nouveau motifs including garland, foliage and irises and the profiles of women. Women start to wear cuff links.

1900-1910 Shirt companies started mass-producing shirts that already have buttons attached to their cuffs and consequently the trade in cuff links declines somewhat.

1920-1930 The Art Deco movement gives rise to abstract geometic motifs and enamel work. Eventually, top fashion precursors like Cartier, Chaumet, Mellerio and Boucheron pursue this trend and produce more Art Deco inspired cuff links.

1924 The Boyer establishment creates the ‘rolling button’ or ‘rod-type’ cuff link made up of a stud linked to a rod that swivels along its whole length between two stems

1930 ‘Press stud’ or ‘snap style’ cuff links come into fashion. These consist of two identical studs often in bakelite, mother-of-pearl or enamel which lock together via a small projection on one end and a matching depression on the other end.

As well as alerting you to the historical period in which they were acquired, cuff links may also tell you something about your ancestor’s interests or character. The predilections of the owner of a pair of ‘fox head hunting horn’ cuff links (made 1900) speak for themselves. The superstitious Charles Dickens always wore the same pair of dented cuff links for luck when he gave public readings. At times in history when there were few other fashion accessories available by which a man could show his individuality, the diamond or decorated cuff link peeking out from his sleeve was a rare opportunity for self-expression. Flamboyant or conservative, gadfly or company man – the chances are that you may glimpse your ancestor’s personality in the cuff links he left behind.

Useful Websites links-Came-About&id=3247913 Article on the history of cuff links by Mary Michaels For more about the cuff link belonging to Admiral Duncan of Lundie’s officer. For a gallery of interesting and unusual cuff links in a variety of designs and from a variety of periods.

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Useful Books

Flusser, Alan. Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion. HarperCollins, 2002

Pizzin Bertrand and Liaut Jean-Noel, Cuff Links, Assouline, 2002

Jonas, Susan, and Marilyn Nissenson, Cuff Links, Harry N. Abrams, 1991

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Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, British Isles, UK, England, English, fashion, men, male, clothing