An epidemic in Brightlingsea, 1803

A group of physicians bow down to a yellow, thin figure representing "influenza"
Physicians expressing their thanks to influenza, 1803. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

I’m finishing off the transcription of Brightlingsea‘s burials, in a register covering 1765-1812. It’s not a very interesting register, and is frustrating for genealogists because it rarely gives any information other than a name and the date of burial. There’s hardly any ages, and very rarely does it give the deceased’s relationship, so no “son of” or “wife of” as we often see. Although there are some occupations given – as this is Brightlingsea, it’s no surprise that there’s some dredgers among the dead.

Each year, there were between 20 to 40 burials in Brightlingsea:

1800: 21 burials
1801: 38 burials
1802: 38 burials

Then, in 1803, the number of burials leapt, more than doubling to 86 in just one year.

There was an influenza epidemic in 1803, and the spike in deaths that we see in the register is likely to have been caused by it. Looking at the burials by month, comparing those of the three years before, gives us an idea of when the epidemic was at its worst.

Brightlingsea epidemic 1803


It’s clear from the table that the worst month was April, and that the earliest part of the year is when most deaths took place – 61 out of the 86 (70.9%) burials in 1803 took place in the first third of the year.

From mid-nineteenth century medical journals that I studied for my book Fatal Evidence, it was a given back then that most deaths in the winter months were respiratory – bronchitis, influenza, etc – and most deaths in the summer were caused by severe stomach upsets, sometimes referred to as “English cholera”. So when we see a spike in burials in August 1804 – eleven compared to just one in 1802 and 1803 – we might assume that “English cholera” was at large in Brightlingsea that year.

Of course, we don’t know, because the causes of death haven’t been given, how many people died of other things: women dying due to childbearing complications, and things we’re familiar with today, such as cancer and heart disease. But if someone was already ill, they might be more at risk of dying when a virulent infection was doing the rounds.

Some of course must have died in accidents. These are occasionally mentioned in the register: Thomas Stafford of Manningtree who died in 1796, “killed on the Hall Hill” – did he fall from a horse, or was he run over by a wagon? Thomas Ward, who in 1797 was “scalded to death” – it doesn’t give his age but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a child. In Acton, Suffolk, the burial register records several children who were scalded or burned, and further investigation in newspapers throws up inquests because the children’s clothes had caught fire by going too near the fireplace, or because they had fallen into the wash copper – utterly horrible ways to go. The occasional drowning is mentioned among the Brightlingsea burials too.

Looking in the newspapers for mentions of the influenza epidemic in 1803,[1]I ran a search on the British Newspaper Archive, for just “influenza” in 1803. This is not an exact science, but it’s helpful for a ballpark figure. I received no results for January or February, but there were 56 mentions of “influenza” in local newspapers in March and 77 in April, dropping to 18 in May. This suggests that it wasn’t only in Brightlingsea that the ‘flu was at its height in April 1803.

The Ipswich Journal had this to say about the epidemic on 2 April 1803:

The disorder stiled Influenza is very rife at Plymouth and the West, as well as in London, in the county of Hants, and many other places. A letter from Bristol says, it is very fatal to the young, the old, and the sickly. It is remarkable, that the Influenza has prevailed at 3 different periods, each about 20 years distant from the other; namely, 1762, 1783, and 1803.

This “letter from Bristol” is possibly the one penned by Dr Beddoes of Clifton, which was published in the Bury and Norwich Post on 30 March. He mentions methods for preventing the spread of the illness once it arrives in a house, and notes that:

The very young, if attacked, the aged, the consumptive, the puny, and the infirm in general, will suffer severely, and even be cut off immediately, or in the end.

“Cut off”, in case you hadn’t guessed, is a careful way of saying they will die.

Other parishes

The ‘flu doesn’t seem to have touched other parishes in the area to the same extent as it visited Brightlingsea.

  • Wivenhoe: there’s a lot of movement of people along the River Colne, but only 31 people were buried in Wivenhoe in 1803. This compares with 25 in both 1802 and 1804. Those extra few people might have died of the flu, but we can’t know for sure and it’s not a massive spike as we see in Brightlingsea.
  • East Donyland/Rowhedge: opposite the river from Wivenhoe. There were 15 burials in 1803, 11 in 1801, 5 in 1802 and 16 in 1804. So again, there doesn’t seem to be evidence of an unusually high number of deaths in the influenza epidemic year.
  • Fingringhoe: also opposite Wivenhoe, and next door to East Donyland. There were 16 burials in 1802, 15 in 1803, and 20 in 1804. Again, no evidence here of the flu reaching epidemic proportions.
  • St Osyth: very close to Brightlingsea. There were 68 burials in 1802, 45 in 1803, and 41 in 1804.
  • Thorrington: By road, you have to pass through Thorrington to reach Brightlingsea. There were 9 burials in 1802, 13 in 1803 (only two of those were in the first third of the year), and 9 in 1804.

So why is it, then, that Brightlingsea seems to have suffered so much from the epidemic, while nearby villages were little, if at all, affected?

I wonder if it’s to do with Brightlingsea’s position. We know that Bristol, a sea-faring city, was badly affected, and Brightlingsea had a lot of sea trade. All it would’ve taken is for one sneezy, ‘flu-ridden person to travel to Brightlingsea, and their germs would easily spread. But because Brightlingsea’s main habitations are far down a very long road, nearly three miles from Thorrington Cross, it’s possible that this situation served as a natural quarantine. The ‘flu was contained, which was good news for everyone else, while the people of Brightlingsea dropped like flies.


Dr Beddoes mentioned that “Whole families fall down together, or within two or three days.” Looking at the names of those buried in Brightlingsea in the first four months of 1803, we can see which families were affected.

There are 51 different surnames recorded in that period.

The Barns family

The only two people with the surname Barns to be buried in that period were John and Elizabeth, both on the same day: 9th January. This might lead us to assume that they were siblings, but comparing the names to the baptism register, they appear to have been the children of different couples. However, given that they have the same surname, they could well have been cousins, and the families may have lived closely together. Two children playing together could easily have caught the infection from the other.

A John Barns was born to John and Hannah in 1790 – as there’s no ages or other details in the register, we can’t know if it’s the father or the son who died in 1803.

Elizabeth was possibly the daughter of Joseph and Elizabeth, baptised in 1798 – as we know the very young were particularly at risk, and the child was only 5. However, it could equally be the mother, or even Hannah Elizabeth, who was born to John and Hannah in 1792.

We can’t say for sure which families they came from, but for them to both be buried on the same day suggests (although does not definitively prove) that they were close relatives.

The Farrington family

Four members were buried between February and March.

  • Thomas, on 11th February
  • another Thomas, on 20th March
  • Susannah, on the same day – and this entry tells us that she was the wife of the man buried the same day.
  • Shadrach, 23rd March

The first Thomas Farrington to die, an oyster dredger, left a will. He had sensibly written it in 1799, while he was “in good Health of Body”. In 1795, he married Martha Fen, and they don’t appear to have had any children; certainly none are mentioned in his will as he leaves everything to his wife. He is quite possibly the son of Thomas Farrington and Ann (née Munt) who was baptised in Brightlingsea in 1771.

Samuel Bockin, a baker, was co-executor of the will with the widowed Martha. It is possibly the same man whose son James was baptised at the end of 1802; a James Bockin was buried on 20th February 1803, which could be the same child. Did Samuel’s relationship with Thomas Farrington lead to his own infant son contracting influenza?

Ann Farrington, née Munt, died in 1777. In 1784, we find a marriage between Thomas Farrington and Susannah Brown. There are no marital statuses in the register, so we don’t know for sure, but the groom may have been the widower of Ann and therefore the father of the Thomas Farrington who died, as his will tells us, on 6th February 1803. If this is the case, then father, son and step-mother all died in the space of six weeks.

Shadrach Farrington, which I keep in my mind to use for a character in a novel one day, was baptised in 1793, the son of Thomas and Susannah Farrington. He was only ten, then, when he died in March 1803, and was buried three days after his parents were.

Considering the epidemic raging, then it seems very likely that husband and wife Thomas and Susannah, and their son Shadrach, all died of the ‘flu. And that, if he was Thomas’ son from his earlier marriage, the other Thomas may have died of it too.

It may be significant that a Thomas Farrington witnessed the marriage of John Barns and Hannah Thompson in 1788 – it might indicate that they all lived and worked closely together and hence the infection could spread. That said, the Barns family died in early January, which might be too long a time, but it does seem that the ‘flu was raging in Brightlingsea for those first four months, skipping from family to family.

The Letch family

Sarah and Elizabeth Letch were both buried on 1st April 1803, followed by another Sarah Letch on 5th April.

Richard Letch and his wife Sarah baptised their daughter Elizabeth in 1793. Richard, it seems, died in 1801. So it appears that mother and daughter both died in April 1803. It’s possible there’s another Sarah somewhere, a daughter of Richard and Sarah, which accounts for the second Sarah.

A Jemima Letch was buried in July 1803. This was after the epidemic petered out, but her death might be connected with the loss of the other three Letch women earlier in the year.

The Purdy family

Elizabeth Purdy was buried on 7th February and William Purdy on 10th March. There’s no information to work out how they’re related to other Purdys, but we do know that William Purdy married Elizabeth Pitchford in 1781. They had four children, including an Elizabeth and a William. A William Purdy of Little Bentley was buried in Brightlingsea in 1799, and we don’t know how he’s connected. But it seems that with these burials, we’re looking at possibly husband and wife, or parent and a child, or brother and sister. They are buried over a month apart, however, so unlike other clusters, such as with the Farringtons and Letches, it’s more difficult to guess if they were victims of the ‘flu epidemic as well.

The Tabor family

William Tabor was buried on 22nd March 1803 and on 6th April, Mary Chinery Tabor junior and senior were both buried.

Mary Chinery Tabor senior was baptised in 1772, the daughter of William Tabor and Mary (née Chinery). She married Matthew Tabor in 1791, and so her surname didn’t change. I cannot see a baptism for a child called Mary Chinery Tabor to Matthew; their children were Mary Ann (1794), Jemima (1796), and Sophia Chenery in 1799. A Matthew Ramsey Tabor was baptised in 1792 in Brightlingsea but his parents’ names aren’t given in the register – as Mary Chinery Tabor senior had a brother called William Ramsey Tabor, it seems possible that Matthew Ramsey Tabor was the first child born to the couple, a year after their marriage.

In December 1803, Matthew Tabor, a widower, married a widow called Elizabeth Jefferies. It would seem this came about following his wife’s death that April – and one assumes, the death of one of their children, although the names don’t quite fit the baptism register.

Matthew Tabor was buried in Brightlingsea on 1st June 1814; he was 44. So he was 21 when he married Mary Chinery Tabor, and 33 when she died. His will mentions his wife Elizabeth, and three people with the surname Jefferies who are presumably her relatives, possibly children. He mentions his daughter Sophia Tabor, who was a minor at the time. Interestingly, it was a Samuel Bockin who witnessed his will – could that be the same man who was executor of Thomas Farrington’s will?

It is presumably his daughter who is the Sophia Tabor who married in 1815; she was only 16, but she was by then an orphan, who had lost one mother and presumably a sister in the ‘flu epidemic.

Clustering people by surname alone means we don’t pick up households where family members had different surnames, but the sparsity of detail in the burial register makes it difficult to reconstruct the families without further evidence from other sources, such as wills. Neither do we know, without letters or diaries, who fell ill with the ‘flu but survived it.

However, by putting together what information we can gather, we can shine a light on what happened to the people of Brightlingsea who lived through – and sometimes didn’t – the influenza epidemic of 1803.


1 I ran a search on the British Newspaper Archive, for just “influenza” in 1803. This is not an exact science, but it’s helpful for a ballpark figure.