Darker Side Of Life

The Parish magazine for September 1888 records that the Vicar set up a Men’s Union, with objects that included the promotion of “Temperance, Soberness and Chastity as well as Truth, Honesty and Peace among men.” Its members agreed to “avoid frequenting or leading others to frequent the Public House for the purpose of drink or dancing” and “to assist the Clergymen in carrying out any object started for the good of the Parish.”

The Vicar explicitly did not call for total abstinence (just as well since every other house made and sold cider). The Vicar of St Thomas, Monmouth said that the Union’s usefulness could be increased if it “carried out the system adopted by the Nonconformist bodies of giving its lay members a definite work to do. This would tend greatly to strengthen the hands of the Vicar.” The Vicar of Penallt lost no time. At the next meeting of the Union he read a paper entitled “What to do and how to do it.” The outcome was the Vicar’s agreement to read a paper at the next meeting on “Betting and Gambling.”

One is tempted to smile at these local initiatives but the difficulty of measuring their effect ought not to mask their value in discouraging excessive drinking and gambling – to which so many resorted to try to ameliorate living conditions we would find appalling.

A disturbing side-light on these conditions is found among the stated objects of the Women’s Union also reported in the parish magazine in the same year. The Union was chiefly concerned with the bringing up of children and so included among its aims the teaching of “modesty and self-respect from their earliest years” and the making of “the best sleeping arrangements” with this end in view. Another undertaking of members of the women’s Union was “to avoid, if possible, sending girls to public houses or letting them go out after dark.” What a pitiable situation is revealed in those words “if possible.”

Living conditions were such that for most villagers keeping away illness and coping with accidents was an abiding problem. Hard winters did not help. The magazine for February 1891 began “The long frost of 1891 will long be remembered as one of the …..most remarkable spells of cold during the present century. Jack Frost has held sway for 56 days or 8 weeks and during the greater part of this time deep snow has been lying on the ground and the roads have been covered with sheets of ice …. Trade has been hindered, coal has been dear and difficult to obtain at all, many men being thrown out of work and an unusual amount of distress has been prevalent. We trust that it may be long before we are again called upon to chronicle such a state of affairs.” Alas, the village was out of luck. In the spring, scarlet fever caused the closure of the school, its “disinfecting” together with the Baptist chapel and a warning from the Vicar to families suffering from the illness to “abstain from any place of worship.” (It was in fact illegal for a sufferer to attend any public meeting.) The parish magazine recommended that every house where fever occurs should be thoroughly disinfected, cleaned and whitewashed; and all clothing and bedding used by the patient should be …. spread out in the room and about half a pound of sulphur burnt in it, the windows and chimneys being closed.” “Great attention” was advised as to drains, “no foul smells being allowed to hang about.”

The Vicar had boasted in the same magazine that it was not often that Penallt was visited by an epidemic. But the autumn of 1891 saw “an unprecedented misfortune” of two epidemics in less than a year. This time it was measles. The Sanitary Authority closed the school which did not open again until 29th December. The magazine published a warning to “our little measles patients.” “As a rule, measles is not serious unless the patient takes cold afterwards, and then it is often fatal…. It is a damp, unhealthy season and much sickness is about, so that every precaution is necessary.” It could not have been an easy job as a caring mother in 1891. On the other hand, some writers of the period give the strong impression that there were not a few families whose children flourished in spite of a lack of any kind of protection or precaution. But the mortality records show what a tenuous hold on life children enjoyed and what sadness must have visited many a mother.

[from: Penallt Revisited]