Unfortunate ways to die in Elmstead

Elmstead’s earliest burials register contains the cause of death for a few of the residents, and they give an insight into how life was lived – and death was… deathed four hundred years ago.

Lydia, wife of Henry Sumerson, died on 6th June 1651, and was buried the next day. She had been killed “ex ustione domus sua” – which appears to translate as being burned in their home. And in January 1643/4, William Kettle was “killed wth the fall of a tree.” In July 1643, Thomas Beure of Wivenhoe “died suddenly in the parish limits of Elmstead.”

But other deaths were more watery. On 26th February 1655/6, Thamar Wade, daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth, drowned in the well next to their house. This sort of death wasn’t reserved for children – on 10th March 1650/1, William Heckford, “summus connstabularius de nostrae Hundredae de Tendring” or Chief Constable of the Tendring Hundred, drowned in a well beside his home too. Back in 1597, another member of the Heckford family had been associated with a death by drowning: James Naylar “was buryed in the Queens highe waye by the howse of John Hecford beinge drowned wth Water.” Bearing in mind James was buried in the road and not the churchyard, it seems that his death was considered a suicide. It is not recorded how John Heckford felt about James being buried near his home. It’s tempting to wonder if locals who knew about James’ burial speculated as to whether his ghost might have been responsible for William Heckford’s similarly watery demise over fifty years later! In 1680, another Elmstead local drowned in a well – Nathaniel Potter fell into one by the house of Laurence Ellis.

Epidemics possibly visited Elmstead too. Twenty-four people were buried in 1638, far more than usual, with twelve burials between December and February alone. Half of those twelve were from just two families. It could have been plague and the port of Harwich, not far from Elmstead, was an entry point for it, but the deaths are perhaps that little bit too spread out as pneumonic plague, passed on by sneezing and coughing, spread fast and killed quickly. Given the time of year, it may have been flu or another respiratory disease, or even small pox. With some of the deaths clustering around families, it seems it was contagious. Samuel Wallis lost his wife Margaret and two children William and Margaret between December and February, and he himself died in March. Geoffrey Catch lost his wife Mary and two sons Geoffrey and John between late January and early February.

There were thirty burials in Elmstead in 1650, three of which took place in April, five in May and eight in June. Nicholas Kembould died on 7th April and his widow, Catherine, died on 23rd, which suggests something contagious. Two members of the Latham family died in this period – Rose, daughter of Robert Latham on 23rd May, and her uncle Edmund Latham died on 15th June. As dates of death are included at this time, it can be seen that both Sarah Underwood and Mary Fen died on 6th June and Edmund Latham and Joan Goberd died on 15th. William Rich, and Joan’s widower, William, both died on 17th June. They don’t share surnames, so a family connection isn’t immediately obvious, but seeing several people die on the same day is unusual outside of a contagion charging through the village.

John Underwood, servant to William Mosse, died on 26th February 1648/9, “starved, ut putavur”. The record here is written in English, then lapses into Latin to say “it is supposed.” There is nothing else to explain how this happened – did the unfortunate John fall ill and wasted away? Presumably if something sinister had been afoot and someone had deliberately starved him to death, it would have been recorded. The “ut putavur” suggests to me that it might have been medical in nature, but an illness that in the mid-1600s was difficult to explain.

And last but not least, we have John Freeman of Wivenhoe who died on 27th November and was buried six days later. The register tells us that “he fell into a ditch in thorne Lane & [was] found next day frozen to death.” Not a nice way to shuffle off this mortal coil.