Thursday, 24 May 2018

The death of Julia Wheelwright

Little more than a month after the death of Martha Taylor, another English friend of the Brontës, Julia Wheelwright, died in Brussels, on 17 November 1842. She was only seven years old. Again Winifred Gérin, without giving any evidence, attributed it to cholera, and again it certainly is not true. There was no cholera in the city, nor another serious contagious disease. It is just another Gérin lie.


Julia was at a still rather more vulnerable age. On the 30th of October she had reached the age of  seven. She had thus only just reached the stage of getting mentioned by name in the newspapers’  lists of the city’s registered deaths. Had she died three weeks earlier she wouldn’t have made it to the newspapers, but would only have been listed as one of those children under the age of 7 that had died.

From L’Indépendant, 21 November 1842, with the death of Julia


We know nothing of her last days, which makes it rather difficult to try to assess the cause of her death. Charlotte and Emily had already left Brussels, following the news of their Aunt Branwell’s severe illness. An analysis of what we do know helps quite a lot though, to get to a good educated guess. As with Martha, a main question is whether or not it could have been a contagious disease.


The typhus theory
Joseph Green in his 1916 Wheelwright article stated that Julia “contracted typhus or typhoid fever at the Pensionnat Héger.” He also wrote that “our aunt, Fanny Wheelwright, informed us that the sanitation of the school was of a primitive and wholly inadequate character, and this may account for the death of the youngest child, Julia Wheelwright, of typhus, or typhoid fever.”
Typhus and typhoid fever are caused by the consumption of drinking water or milk, or eating food contaminated by the salmonella bacteria. It can also be caused by getting into contact with defecation from someone who has got the disease. But there is no reason to believe such contaminated drinks or food were served at the Pensionnat, also because there are no indications that other girls fell (seriously) ill. Poor sanitation helps to spread the disease but it isn’t the cause.

Besides, Julia was not a boarder at the school. After lessons had ended she went back to the Hôtel Cluysenaar, where the Wheelwrights were living. It may also be the case that Fanny compared the sanitation at the Pensionnat with the general state of sanitation half a century later. By 1900 vast improvements had been made in creating more hygienic living standards. The water closet should especially be mentioned here. It had been invented before 1842 but very few people had one in that year. Sixty years later many people had a water closet.

The most important part of what Fanny said is perhaps that it was a sort of fever. As Julia will have eaten and drunk the same as her sisters any other sort of drinks or food poisoning can be excluded, as well as typhus really. So here again, the question is what it could have been that killed Julia, when it was obviously not a case of a contagious disease, or at least something that would have affected her sisters too, or other girls at the Pensionnat, who had consumed the same drinks and food. To answer this it is first useful to have a look at the deaths of this month.

The deaths of November
 For any day the names of the registered deaths in Brussels were given by the newspapers, with their age and address. This had started in April, and from it we can gather that none of the boarders of the Pensionnat Héger died while the Brontës were staying there in 1842. It is an indication that the sanitary circumstances at the school will not have been that poor. The total number of deaths in November was barely higher than in October: 295, a relatively low figure.
This information also make a good analysis of the ages of death possible. A good many of them of November are included in this survey, as well as some deaths from surrounding towns like Ixelles and Molenbeek. It is quite shocking as always to see that more than 40% were children of seven years and younger.

Age category/number of deaths
0-6  96
7  5
8-16  6
17-20  4
21-26  11
27-36  15
37-46  20
47-56  16
57-66  22
67-76  23
77-86  13
87-93  2

The figures show that when having reached the age of 8 there was not much chance anymore of dying soon. Having reached the age of 20 brings a higher risk, perhaps because of appendicitis, which appears to hit men and women in their 20s and 30s especially. Statistically at least one would assume that Martha Taylor certainly wasn’t the only one to probably get killed by it.
It is interesting to note that between 16 and 19 November in Brussels itself the death toll of children aged seven or younger (15) was almost twice as high as that of people older than 7 (8).

The weather
The Brussels weather of November may be a good explanation. It was a cold month, with freezing nights, according to the highly valuable records of the Observatoire Royal. On the four days before Julia died a lot of rain had fallen. Before that there was a fierce storm that raged for two days, between 11 and 13 November.  The children may already have caught a cold, before getting soaked wet. The latter alone though, in combination with cold weather especially, could already be fatal for a young child. It would certainly lead to a feverish condition. In the end, as a result then, it was probably pneumonia that caused her death. There was nothing that could be done against that.

We will never know of course, but this is at least a plausible scenario, as opposed to any sort of contagious disease. It also seems unfair therefore to blame the Pensionnat for any role in contributing to Julia’s death. It may have been the weather, and a cold virus that killed poor Julia, or at least contributed to it.

In a later article we will have a look at the health situation in general in Brussels, and compare it with other places. It can already be pointed out that the relative number of dead children under 7 in Brussels appears to be quite the same as in Haworth in 1850, as mentioned in the Babbage report, often quoted in Brontë literature, and seen as alarming. It appears that it did not matter much where you lived, there was a 30 to 50% chance of dying before reaching the age of about 6. A quite large part of these however consisted of babies.

Julia may thus have just been very unlucky, having almost reached a quite safe age, with the weather of her last week. She won’t be forgotten though. “She was a great favourite in the Héger establishment, “Joseph Green said, “and was much caressed by the principals, pupils, and staff.” In 1916 the Wheelwright family still had some mementoes of her, including a lock of hair, which her mother had cut off on the day of the funeral. They’re probably lost though now. The Brontë Parsonage Museum has a few great Wheelwright Brussels memorabilia, but apparently nothing from Julia, let alone that lock of hair.

Eric Ruijssenaars



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