Saturday, 17 October 2009

We All Have One Thing In Common

I was watching, on BBC TV, a programme about Darwin's Theory of Evolution when the presenter, his grandson, made an observation which is both obscure and self-evident. It doesn't matter whether one believes in the theory, wholly, partially or not at all, and it is that we all have one thing in common - we are the children of survivors. His point was, of course, that the weaker members of society did not survive, leaving the stronger to advance the species. This is not my point, but it did get me thinking.

From the late 1930s, I was brought up in Eccles, Lancashire, England, which was then a town on the western edge of Salford, although it is now part of that city. From being a rural area Eccles had developed into a mixed industrial and farming town following the construction of the Bridgewater Canal in 1763; the main industries being cotton and engineering. Where I lived, in a house built in 1938, we had farmland facing us and to the west, but at the top of the road, to the east, was a cotton mill and over the Bridgewater Canal the Royal Ordnance Factory. My father was a crankshaft turner for Gardeners' Diesel Engines, a couple of miles away. Interestingly, during WW2 the field near the cotton mill and facing the ordnance factory was a barrage balloon site, with its ack-ack guns, always an attraction for us kids!

I have given this description to illustrate that Eccles was a mixed town with a variety of housing and people, and cannot be stereotyped as a poor industrial area with people living in cramped accommodation lacking basic facilities. Yes, there were some areas like that, but they were atypical.

When I was a kid we all suffered from what we called childhood illnesses, measles, mumps, whooping cough etc. and although medicines were less advanced than now I do not recollect anyone dying from them. There were the odd cases of polio and TB from which there were some deaths, but my two sisters and brother all got scarlet fever and survived, I had nearly 2 months off school, in isolation, as a result - great! I can remember very well the men coming round and using a sulphur spray around the house in order to kill the infection.

What brought all this back to mind, was a visit to Manchester Central Library researching the Eccles Parish Burial Registers between 1835 and 1850 when I was forcibly struck by the mortality rates for children. I recorded details of seventy people with one of two surnames, so the selection was reasonably random and found that 59% of the deaths were children, that is died before the age of 21 years. Obviously during the 100 years between then and the period to which I refer above there were improvements in housing, sanitation and medicine. But we still had no vaccines and, other than the new penicillin, no antibiotics, so if one became ill it was very much a matter of letting the illness take its course "in a quiet darkened room" (from a 1930s medical book).

This does indicate, therefore, that our forefathers who did survive had a greater, natural resistance to childhood illnesses than those who died, and maybe passed this on to the next generation. Or did they?

© Ron Ferguson 2009

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