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Death early 20th Century and before


The death of a baby in a working class family in the early 1900s

By the webmaster’s mother, 1906-2002

An unforgettable experience

I was too young to remember much about my younger sister, Dorothy, but I do remember when she died, probably because it was so emotional. I was four years old and she was 18 months. She died of pneumonia.

Dorothy's cot was in my mother's bedroom and there was a canopy over it. There was also steam kettle which looked like an ordinary kettle with a long spout. Although I didn't at the time know its function, I now know that it was to moisten the air to help a patient breathe.

My brother Ted was also very ill at the time. I can't recall any faces, only the bedroom and the doctor saying, "You'll lose that one, but that one may pull through".

Young as I was, what also struck me about the bedroom was the smell of the linseed poultice, which was a sort of gruel mixture, made very hot, then put between two layers of flannel, and placed onto patients' chests. To me, it wasn't an unpleasant smell and I can always recall it when my mind goes back into the past.

I recall that an aunt who lived in our road was in the bedroom with my mother and the parson. The parson did something with water and I assume now that Dorothy was being baptised.

I have a hazy picture of a small white coffin and neighbours sitting in silence in our kitchen. I also have a vague picture of a neighbour from next door being in our kitchen, and I should think this was the day at the funeral, as it was common practice for someone else to be asked to look after the tea-making when the mourners came back to the house afterwards for the wake.

I suppose that the deaths of children was something that our parents lived with because it was so common, but it must have been very difficult for them. Much later my mother briefly gave way to her emotions and told me, "I can't bear to think of her (baby Dorothy) lying in that cold churchyard all alone".

My mother always said that Dorothy was the most loveable of her children. I don't think my mother meant to be unkind to the rest of us children. It was just that we never seemed to want to cuddle or be cuddled, whereas Dorothy did.

My mother kept a pair of white dolls shoes in her chest of drawers in memory of Dorothy. I understand that they had been taken off the doll that was buried with Dorothy, but my mother never spoke of them.

Page based on the recollections and notes of the webmaster's mother (1906-2002) with additional research and editorial work by the webmaster

Text and images are copyright

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