Jones Rayne White Grave Grisdale was a Durham-born surgeon in the service of the East India Company’s medical establishment in Bombay. He was to lead a short but full life; being for a time in charge of an army plague hospital, a “pest-house”, in Egypt. We don’t know much about him. This is a rather scanty story of just some of his life.

At the beginning of 1801, the British army under General Ralph Abercromby was trying to kick the French out of Egypt. It wouldn’t be too long until it succeeded. But London had felt that some reinforcements would help. The situation in India, following recent troubles, had become calmer, and the East India Company, which still controlled British India, felt it could spare some of its forces for Egypt. It agreed to dispatch a mixed force of British and Indian troops.

General David Baird

They set sail in three divisions from Bombay and Ceylon in January and February 1801. In total the force “consisted of about eight thousand men; of which number about one-half were natives of India, and the other half Europeans”. It was commanded by General David Baird, and he departed with the Bombay contingent – which included two regiments of Indian soldiers, the 2nd and 7th Bombay native regiments of foot, commanded by British officers. Among these officers was a young 23 year old Assistant Surgeon called Jones Grisdale. What he was about to experience would probably mark him for the rest of his life.

The head of the army’s medical establishment for the Egypt campaign was “Superintending Surgeon” James McGregor. In 1804, he would write a fascinating report titled Medical Sketches of the Expedition to Egypt from India, in which he described what was to follow in terms of the health of the army and how the army surgeons tried to fight dysentery, fever, ophthalmia and other diseases and what happened when plague started to take a grip in the army’s ranks.

“The route which we took from India to Egypt”, says McGregor, was “remarkable for having been that by which, in the earliest ages, the commerce of Asia, its spices, its gums, its perfumes, and all the luxuries of the East, were conveyed to Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, Rome, Marseilles, and in a word to all the coasts of the Mediterranean, from Egypt, a country rendered extremely interesting by various recollections.”

The Anglo-Indian forces anchored at Kosseir on the Red Sea coast in May, because “the prevailing winds in the Red Sea, at this time” rendered “it impossible to get so far up as Suez”.

Battle of Canopus – 1801

Actually by the time they arrived the British army under General Abercromby had already defeated the French in March, at the Battle of Canopus.  The French retreated to Alexandria and the British were preparing to besiege the town. Unfortunately Abercromby had been wounded and would die of his wounds a few days later.

The Indian force was requested to join the British army on the Mediterranean coast, to help with the siege and to perform garrison duties when the French surrendered, which they did on 2 September.  They would first however have to march 140 miles across the Theban desert. A route, wrote McGregor, “unattempted by any army for perhaps two or three thousand years”. He added: “The course which we took was nearly that travelled by Mr Bruce.”

The desert march of the Anglo-Indian regiments was filled with incident, hardship and adventure; but that lies outside the scope of this brief article.

By July the army was encamped near Ghenné (Qena), on the banks of the Nile. While there had been some deaths from disease, and even a few suicides, the surgeons, including Jones Grisdale, had managed to keep the army in reasonable health. After a month’s recuperation they set off north for Lower Egypt, some by land, but most by boat – 400 miles down the Nile. By way of Ghiza, the army reached its destination at the port of Rosetta (modern Rashid) in August. They had 1200 sick, but as yet no cases of the plague. This was to change in September, when the first case of plague was discovered. McGregor wrote:

On the morning of the 14th, I discovered a case of the plague in the hospital of the 88th regiment: Anthonio, one of the hospital-cooks, who had for thirty hours laboured under febrile symptoms, shewed me two buboes in his groins.

Memorial to James McGregor in Portsmouth

Over the coming weeks more cases would appear, at first isolated, but soon more frequently.

Our situation now became very alarming. There were the clearest proofs of the hospital which the 88th regiment occupied being thoroughly infected, consisting of about fourteen or fifteen rooms, but all the cases had hitherto come only from three of the rooms. Lamps for the nitrous fumigation were kept constantly burning both in them and in the observation-room. A very large building was procured near Rosetta; and, with all possible haste, the men were moved to it.

By December the main Indian force had moved to El Hammed, but the 7th had remained in Rosetta. McGregor writes:

On the evening of the 15th, it being reported to me that a Sepoy had suddenly died of fever in the line of the 7th Bombay regiment, I examined the body, and found the inguinal glands swelled on both sides. About an hour after, Mr Grisdale, the surgeon, showed me a case in the hospital of the same corps, which – was evidently the plague, and which I instantly ordered to the pest-house.

In the course of the month 38 more cases of the same disease, most violent and rapid in their progress, appeared in the same regiment. Three died, either in the hospital or on the lines, before they could be conveyed to the pest-house, and one died in his way thither. One man of the 1st Bombay regiment died of the same disease, who had clearly got the contagion from the former corps, near which their hospital was situated.

Napoleon visits plague victims in Jaffa

As more soldiers started to contract the plague and the surgeons decided to introduce quarantine measures and had started to establish plague hospitals – which they called “pest-houses”. Medical science was still relatively crude and the surgeons tried to cure the stricken men by the use of mercury and nitric acid, which McGregor wrote,  appear to be “excellent remedies for the plague : but they must be very early and very liberally exhibited”. Though he did elsewhere admit that: “In the treatment of this disease, a variety of modes were put in practice, but so little success attended them, that some were inclined to despair of success from any.”  Jones Grisdale wrote in one of his reports to McGregor that, “in two of the cases, I for five days pushed calomel and mercurial ointment to a very great length, but never could succeed in affecting the gums”.

The native Indian troops were not convinced of their chances should they contract the disease. McGregor wrote that, “so much dejection prevailed among the natives of India, that, from the moment of the attack, they gave themselves up, and said they were sent to the pest-house to die. They never could be prevailed upon to swallow a morsel of food nor any medicine, and some actually starved themselves”.

The bulk of the Anglo-Indian army moved on to join the British army at Alexandria in December, but the troubled 7th Bombay, with Surgeon Grisdale running the pest-house, had been left behind.

All the army, during this month, was in Alexandria, where they attained a degree of health they never had at Rosetta. No case of the plague had been known at Alexandria when the Indian army arrived there; and the strictest precautions were taken to cut off the communication with Rosetta and the 7th regiment.

Rosetta Stone

On the 1st of January, 1802: “Mr Price, who was in charge of the pest-house near Rosetta, was himself attacked with the disease, which with him proved very violent.” The next day “symptoms of the plague were discovered on Dr Whyte, who the day before had inoculated himself, and he died on the 9th”.

But what of Jones Grisdale? McGregor tells us that on January 3rd: “A soldier of the 61st regiment, a servant of Colonel Barlow, Commandant of Rosetta, was sent into the pest-house there, now under the charge of Mr Grisdale and Mr Rice, with the plague.” After Mr Price had contracted the plague, Jones Grisdale had been put in charge of the Rosetta pest-house to tend the stricken 7th Bombay native regiment based there. Rosetta was the epicentre of the epidemic in Egypt affecting the British/Indian forces.

During the next few months all the British and Indian forces were at Alexandria, only five Europeans had been left in Rosetta. “The disease here raged with the utmost violence.” Even the 7th native regiment had moved on. It’s possible that Jones Grisdale was one of these five, left behind to tend the plague victims.

Butcher’s island, Bombay

In May 1802, General David Baird received orders to return to India. After a trek back across the Suez desert to the port of Suez, which was, says McGregor, “performed with much greater ease than that over the desert of Thebes”. The bulk of the Indian army commenced its embarkation for home on the 2nd of June. The 7th Bombay regiment, however, was left in quarantine for another two months. Yet it too finally departed for India, and arrived at Butcher’s island off Bombay in August 1802.

McGregor writes:

As this was the corps in which the plague had principally prevailed, though they were not unhealthy, I judged it prudent to detain them a month. On my last inspection of them before they left the island, of a total of seven hundred, including Sepoys, their wives, and the public and private followers of the corps, I found only four sick, and these I believe were all catarrhs.

Assistant Surgeon Jones Grisdale had not died of the plague, as had many of his colleagues, and countless British and Indian troops, despite the fact that he had been in charge of the pest-house of the most affected regiment and the most affected town. He had tried valiantly, though with the state of medical knowledge at the time, mostly in vain, to save the lives of the Indian soldiers in his care.

Back in Bombay in late 1802, we find Jones listed as an “Assistant Surgeon” with the East India Company’s forces, but he was not attached to any specific regiment. Perhaps he was still in charge of looking after those plague sufferers who had not died?

Saint Nicholas Church, Newcastle

He remained in India, but in 1804 he must have been granted some leave (“furlong”) because on the 8th December of that year he was back the north-east of England, where he married Jane Robinson in Saint Nicholas’ Church in Newcastle. The parish register lists him as being 27, from All Souls Newcastle and “a surgeon of EICS” (East India Company Service). Jane Robinson (28) was of Saint Nicholas’ Parish, Newcastle, but originally came from Claypath, Durham.

It’s quite possible that Jane Robinson was the sister of one of Jones’ surgeon colleagues, because in the 1841 Durham census (after Jones’ death) she is shown living in Claypath with her three Robinson brothers, one of whom, Matthew, was also a “surgeon”!

Who was Jones Grisdale? Or to give him his full name, Jones Rayne White Grave Grisdale.

Claypath, Durham

Like his future wife, Jones was born in the Claypath district of the ancient city of Durham on 7 November 1777. He was the son of John Grisdale “sawyer of Claypath” and his wife Jane White. He was baptized in Durham’s Saint Nicholas Church on 29 April 1778. It seems his father John was not a poor man. When he died in 1790, as part of the probate an admin bond of the not inconsiderable sum of £1800 was posted. His mother Jane died in late 1793 (probate in January 1794).

Possibly with his new wife, Jones returned to his Indian medical service in Bombay. But his life as an East India Company Army surgeon sadly wasn’t to last much longer. In August 1807, by now a full Surgeon with the 4th native regiment of infantry, his death was announced in the Asiatic Register, as well as back in England. Having not died of plague in Egypt, perhaps he had finally succumb to a disease contracted during his work?

And this, I’m afraid, is all that is known, or in any case all I know, of Jones Grisdale – a short life, but not without success and adventure.

Finally, who were Jones’ parents? From what Grisdale line did Jones come? I don’t yet know. There are many John Grisdales who could have been Jones’ father.

It’s possible that John and Jane Grisdale also had a daughter called Mary Hall Grisdale in 1772 (baptized in 1774 in Durham). She was later to marry Sunderland master-mariner William Henderson in 1792.

I hope that I, or someone else, will be able to definitively establish Jones Grisdale’s ancestry. Some clues undoubtedly lie in his wonderfully full name. Some of these names are for sure the names of local Durham families – Rayne for instance – but why Jones? It’s not an abbreviation; it’s his real name and not one that, to my knowledge, ever appeared among the Grisdales. I think it’s a family name and so maybe a “Jones” was important in John Grisdale’s life or maybe it’s the family name of Jones’ mother Jane? Who knows?

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Comments
  1. Margret Grisdale says:

    Very interesting material, I wonder if he is related to our John Grisdale, my father in law. Thanks for your research on the Grisdale family, Margret Grisdale, Calgary Alberta Canada

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