by Peter Christie

For many today their dream home would be a thatched cottage in the country – and North Devon has many of these. Go back a century, however, and such cottages were reservoirs of disease and despair. The truth of this is starkly proved with a series of events in 1904.

In September of that year the Medical Officer of Health for the Barnstaple Rural District, Dr.J.Harper, reported a serious outbreak of diphtheria at Westleigh. Thirteen cases had been notified two of whom, both children under 6, had died. The doctor had hurried to the village where he traced the outbreak to two children out of the 84 attending the local school.

He then visited the school buildings and found the outside toilets in a very ‘unsanitary condition.’ He immediately ordered that the school be disinfected, the walls whitewashed and ‘all the books should be burnt, and any needlework thoroughly washed in disinfectant and boiled or destroyed.’

From here he visited the Badcock family at Lower Southcott where he found five of the seven members ill. One daughter, Maud, was lying dead in one of the two bedrooms with all the others sleeping in just one room. The cottage was disgusting with ‘the floor of the living room being to a great extent only earth, the walls dirty and the whole house absolutely unfit for human occupation.’

He then went to a cottage behind the pub where a family called Smale lived and which was next to three stinking cess pits. There had been two cases of diphtheria amongst the family in the preceding year but he didn’t think they were the source this time.

Two weeks later it was reported that one of the Smale’s children had died of the disease. Dr.Harper, as a precaution, set up a temporary ‘hospital’ cottage at Westleigh under a trained nurse to treat further sufferers. Within a short time the outbreak was under control though the number of those affected was said to be 22 overall with another child, called Pidler, dying.

Mr.Edger the Sanitary Inspector had been sent to Westleigh to report on the state of the houses. Two of the four Southcott cottages were variously described as ‘overcrowded’, dirty’, ‘unfit for human habitation’ whilst the other two were ‘clean’ though all needed rethatching. Southcott Mill was ‘very dirty and surrounded by pighouses, dung pits and offensive ponds.’ The yard of Weir Land Dairy (which supplied many customers in Bideford) was ‘full of dung liquid manure’. Even the pub had no ‘convenient water supply.’ This report was described as ‘a serious and terrible account’ – but little could be done to force landlords to remedy the defects. Indeed all the local council could do was write to the owners ‘with the request that the matters mentioned should receive immediate attention.’

As the outbreak diminished so coverage in the newspaper declined – until November when the Journal reported some ‘Extraordinary Allegations’ made at a meeting of the Rural District Council. Mr.Balsdon, the Westleigh councillor (and landlord of some of the affected properties) attacked Edger’s report as ‘exaggerated, sensational, misleading and in a great many points absolutely false.’

After a lot of huffing and puffing by the councillor Edger then complained about Councillor Balsdon saying that at a meeting in Westleigh Balsdon had ‘called him a liar and a fool in the presence of many villagers’ as well as alleging that the vicar, the Rev.Germon, had bribed him ‘to make the report regarding the filthy state of Southcott Cottage.’ The chairman immediately closed the meeting but not before ordering a new inspection of the condition of the properties in dispute.

This new inspection revealed that the original report had been substantially correct and when this was presented to the committee they considered a whole raft of changes to be carried out to the houses. At this meeting Councillor Balsdon was noticeably more conciliatory than previously – clearly he had been blustering before and now realised he had better accept the criticisms with as good a grace as he could muster.

So ended this diphtheria outbreak. Today this killer disease has largely been eradicated in this country – through a combination of improved sanitation and vaccination.