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A Christmas Tragedy

On Saturday the 28th of December 1907 several national newspapers carried a letter from George H. Gibson, Surveyor and Inspector to the Radstock Urban District Council in Somerset, telling of a Christmas tragedy at the hamlet of Foxcote (shown below from the six inch Ordnance Survey map for 1885 courtesy of the National Library of Scotland) .[1]

Taking five of his eleven children for a walk on Boxing Day, Gibson came across a thatched cottage where during the previous few days three children in one family had died of diphtheria. According to Gibson the family had only recently moved to Foxcote, and but for his intervention the children’s father would have had to bury his children unaided. Gibson clearly thought that the poor condition of the cottage, bad drains and a suspect water supply were responsible for the deaths and went into action with a public appeal for aid for the family.

I found this account because I had been asked to investigate a tombstone in Foxcote churchyard which had puzzled the viewers. Because of the current pandemic they were not able to return to photograph it, but they had given me enough information to uncover the sad story of the Short family, and to explain the puzzling references on the tombstone to its having been funded by donations from far afield.

Diphtheria is fortunately rare now, thanks to vaccination, although outbreaks do occur when vaccination is reduced, such as after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a droplet borne bacterial disease and quite simply causes a horrible death by suffocation when a foul smelling pseudo-membrane closes the throat. No wonder it was often known as a ‘putrid sore throat’. Moreover the illness can release a toxin into the system of the sufferer. Readers of the Little House on the Prairie books may remember that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband both contracted diphtheria as adults and that he suffered life-long after effects, having gone back to work too soon. An anti-toxin was developed in the early 1890s, and in 1925, in an heroic mid-winter effort, the ‘Great Serum Run’ by dog sled to Nome, Alaska, saved many lives threatened by a diphtheria epidemic.

Following the publication of George Gibson’s letter a generous public came forward with donations for the family, headlined by the London Daily News as ‘Readers Save the Situation’. In total over £25 was raised, equivalent to average wages of about £9,630 now, and the charitable Mr Gibson telegraphed the newspaper to say that he intended to deliver blankets, bedclothes, nightdresses and ‘other necessaries’ and to obtain the services of a trained nurse for the remaining children to give their mother some relief.

One consequence of all this generosity  was the eventual erection of the tombstone to commemorate Gilbert George Short aged ten, and his sisters Lilian Maud aged seven and little Sarah May aged twenty-one months.

A further result was a considerable local row, expressed through the columns of local newspapers, as the authorities sought to deny any suggestion the family had been without help.

Part of the problem was that Frome Rural District Council did not have an isolation hospital, which would normally have been the destination for patients from Foxcote requiring quarantine and nursing. Moreover the cottage which had only two downstairs rooms and two interconnected bedrooms upstairs was unsuitable for billeting a nurse.

The ensuing furore involving the Local Board of Guardians (responsible for poor relief) and the Frome Rural District Council was described by The Somerset Standard. On 3rd January it reported that a ‘want of kindness’ towards the Short family had been firmly denied.[2] In fact the cottage, which was isolated and about 800 feet from the nearest other building, had been recently renovated. The farmer, John Edgell, had paid the children’s father George Short a week’s wages of fourteen shillings to help the family and had told him to ask for anything he needed. The Board of Guardians had supplied mutton and milk to the family before it was realised the children were suffering from diphtheria. The local vicar had sent beef tea and brandy, and Mr Edgell sent eggs and milk, while the Frome District Council Inspector had paid the children’s mother Lucy Short fourteen shillings to act as nurse. A local woman had offered to assist in nursing the children, but Lucy Short had declined her help, later agreeing to a qualified daily nurse who was billeted at Writhlington.

There was clearly a great deal of resentment that the Radstock Inspector, George Gibson, had suggested the authorities were delinquent in their duties. The critics expressed themselves astonished that a father of eleven children should have risked entering a house with diphtheria cases, and also heavily criticised his remarks about the drains and the water supply which had in fact been inspected and were in good order.

“There is too much writing to the papers by people who do not trouble to verify the facts”, said the Chairman of the Frome Rural District Council.

They agreed to send a stiff letter to Mr Gibson and the Chairman was recorded as saying, “I should like myself to have told Mr Gibson to mind his own business” ! The affair rumbled on into February and a further meeting of the Frome Rural District Council, by which time the other two Short children who had become ill had recovered.

And who were the Short family?

Lucy Jane Mogg, from Cossington in Somerset, had married George Short, from West Kington in Wiltshire, in 1891, when she was seventeen and apparently already pregnant with their first child. By 1907 she had had nine children, and until the diphtheria outbreak had lost only one, a girl called Clara May born in 1904 who died in 1905. The first three children – Beatrice Ellen (1891), Annie Dorothy (1894) and Hilda Hester (1895) – were born at Cossington; Gilbert George (1897) at Puriton; Alice Mabel (1898) at Woolavington; Lilian Maud (1900) at Yatton, and Francis Charles (1902) at Claverham. Clara May’s birth was registered at Clutton in 1904 while Sarah May was registered at Frome in 1906. In other words Lucy Jane had nine children between 1891 and 1906 by which time she was still only twenty-eight! Moreover the uncertainty of agricultural employment had seen them move house a number of times during this period.

You might have thought this was the end of the Short family story, but subsequently Olive Gertrude was born in 1910, Harold John (who may have been her twin) died before the census in 1911; Millicent Margorie (sic) was born in 1912; Lucy May was born and died in 1914; Lilian Alexandria was born in 1915 and Joyce Kathleen in 1919 when their mother was about forty-six. Lucy Jane had had fifteen children in twenty-eight years. Nine lived to grow up, marry and have children of their own.

The Short family settled for good in Foxcote where George Short was employed as a waggoner on the farm, and several were still there or nearby when the 1939 Register was compiled.

George Short died in 1950 aged eighty, and was buried at Foxcote. Lucy Jane joined him in 1966 at the great age of ninety.[3]


[1] A Christmas Tragedy. London Daily News. Saturday 28 December 1907. http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 01 April 2020.

[2] Distressing Occurrence at Foxcote. Somerset Standard. Friday 03 January 1908. 7a. http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 02 April 2020.

[3] I would normally send for birth and death certificates to confirm these dates, but during the current pandemic the General Register Office have asked that ordering is delayed for now.