The Plague Destroys a Grisdale Family

Posted: December 1, 2013 in Cumberland, History
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From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us.’  English Liturgy, 1547 The plague, along with starvation and repression, has been the perennial lot of the English people, as indeed of so many others. Cumberland was no exception. Here plagues have struck from time to time from at least the thirteenth century. A hundred years after the above English Liturgy was written the plague came once again to Cumberland and wiped out dozens if not hundreds of families. One of these was a Grisdale family in the small Cumberland market and industrial town of Keswick.

St. Kentigern's, Crosthwaite, Keswick

St. Kentigern’s, Crosthwaite, Keswick

On the 5th of February 1620, Thomas Grisdale married Alice Birkett of Seathwaite in St. Kentigern’s Church in Keswick. With one (perhaps relevant) exception this is the first mention of a member of the Grisdale family in Keswick. Over the next twenty-five years with two wives Thomas had nine children, some died young but many survived. What had brought Thomas to Keswick? And where had he come from? As to the reason that Thomas came to Keswick, there is I believe only one explanation. The only reason for someone to come to the town of Keswick at this time was to work in the German-run copper smelter situated at Brigham in Keswick. In an earlier article I showed how German miners had been brought over by Queen Elizabeth, and how the industry had developed (see here). Once the mines and the smelters were fully up and running in 1569, we find a certain John Grysdall mentioned twice. In the August 1569 accounts – the Germans did accounts seven times a year- John is listed as a ‘peat carrier’. He received payment for delivering 3 hundred (loads) of peat from ‘Flasco’ (present-day Flaska near Troutbeck in the north of Matterdale parish) to the copper smelter at Keswick. He did the same again later in the year. And in 1571 an Edward Gristal (Grisdale) of Threlkeld was also paid as a peat carrier for deliveries from Flasco.

In the middle of 1567 the Company began keeping its own carts and horses, for building and for carriage of special articles close to Keswick; but this did not supersede the use of English packhorses for charcoal, peat, ore, and a little later for stone-coal.

An eighteenth-century Copper Smelter

An eighteenth-century Copper Smelter

While one can imagine why charcoal was needed for the smelting of ore, what was the peat for? Chemistry, Society, and Environment: A New History of the British Chemical Industry (ed. Colin A. Russell et al, Royal Society, 2000) explains:

Copper ore was mined and smelted at Brigham, near Keswick in Cumberland, under the auspices of the Company of Mines royal… The sulphide ores used at Keswick were subjected to preliminary roasting to burn off excess sulphur, and then treated with nine horseloads of peat and five horseloads of ‘stone coals’ (a horseload was equivalent to 109 litres). Limestone was added as a flux and after smelting a matte or “green stock” was run off. Subsequently, about eight days’ recovery of matte was roasted with six peat fires, each hotter than the last, to produce “copper stone” or “black copper”. This was smelted once a month to give “rough copper”, and involved three separate smelting with lead ore to extract the silver from the copper matte. This process of making copper at Keswick took eighteen weeks and five days.

I believe Thomas either worked in the Brigham copper smelter or worked for the German miners in another way. As to my second question: Where had Thomas come from? There can really be no doubt. Thomas married in 1620 and thus was most probably born in the 1590s. At this time, and for a while thereafter, there are no Grisdales recorded anywhere else but Matterdale, and the majority of those lived in Dowthwaite Head. We have already seen that there were two Grisdales lugging peat to Keswick shortly after the Germans started copper mining and smelting, thus Thomas too descended from the Matterdale Grisdales – even if (as might just be the case) he was related to Edward Grisdale, the 1571 peat carrier of Threlkeld.

Dowthwaite Head Farm

Dowthwaite Head Farm

In the vast majority of cases the sixteenth-century Grisdales are listed as living in Dowthwaite Head. Clearly this was where the family had originally settled (see here). Around the time that John and Edward Grysdall were lugging peat on their packhorses from Flasco to the smelters at Keswick, we find Robert, two Christophers, Edward, Thomas, Richard and two John Grisdales, all with two exceptions living at Dowthwaite Head. Finally, in 1581 the Cumberland militia was called out yet again in the face of the never-ending threat of Scottish raids. At the Penrith Muster on that year nine Matterdale ‘bowmen’ of military age turned out: John, William, Christopher, Robert, Edward, Richard and three named Thomas. I think it highly likely that our Thomas Grisdale of Keswick was either a son (or possibly a grandson) of one of these nine Matterdale bowmen. We left Thomas marrying Alice Birkett in early 1620. Six children followed, all baptized in Keswick church: Susanna 1621 (died the same year), Jayne 1625 (died the next year), Alice 1628, Edward 1631, Robert 1632 and Ann 1638.It seems that then Thomas’s wife Alice died, because on 24 July 1638 Thomas married again, this time to Ann Hayton of Abbeyholme. Four more children were born to Thomas and Ann: Joyce 1639, Edward 1641, Thomas 1643 and Jayne 1645. From this we can imply that as well as Susanna and Jayne (from Thomas earlier marriage to Alice) who had died as babies, son Edward (1631) had in the meantime died as well. This just left six children: Alice, Robert, Ann, Thomas and Joyce and Jane. I mentioned that Thomas’s wedding in 1620 was the first mention of a Grisdale in Keswick, except for one. On 14 January, 1620 just three months before Thomas married Alice, there is a record of a Jenet Grisdale being baptized in Keswick church, the daughter of ‘Thomas Grisdale of Keswick’ and his wife Jennett. It is of course possible that Jenet’s mother Jennett died in child birth and, if we are dealing with the same Thomas, he very quickly remarried Alice. As we will see it is sure that daughter Jenet survived.

A Plague Victim

A Plague Victim

And so the years passed and Thomas’s children started to grow. But then in 1646, only a year after Thomas and Ann’s last child Ann was born, disaster struck. The plague came to Keswick. I’d like to follow Dr. Henry Barnes, who in September 1889 gave a talk to the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society called Visitations of the Plague in Cumberland and Westmorland. Barnes asked: ‘At the outset it may be asked, What was the plague? What kind of disease was it?’ He continued:

It may be sufficient to remark that among the various nationalities of antiquity and in the middle ages the word plague was used in its collective sense, and included the most various diseases that occurred in epidemic form, ran an acute course, and showed a heavy mortality. Some of these visitations have no doubt been visitations of the true oriental plague, a disease characterized by inflammatory boils and tumours of the glands, such as break out in no other febrile disease. On other occasions it may have been the sweating sickness…. It is probable also that smallpox and typhus formed some of the epidemics and were included under the head of plague.

Back to Keswick. Andrew B. Appleby in his Famine in Tudor & Stuart England (1977) tells us:

Plague ravaged Carlisle in 1645, spread to Keswick in 1646, Cockermouth in 1647, and St. Bees in 1650. This seems to have been the same epidemic, although it took four years to cross Cumberland.

Keswick, Cumberland

Keswick, Cumberland

Regarding Keswick, which is in the parish of Crosthwaite, Appleby continues:

The number of burials increased dramatically in May (1646) and continued high through September – the usual plague season. Of the 93 persons dying between May 14, the beginning of the epidemic, and July 28, 80 came from Keswick, 11 from “Estenbec” (nearby in Crosthwaite), and the homes of two others were not shown.

He says:

The striking characteristic of all the dead who can be geographically placed in no more than two communities indicates that the disease did not spread into the rural parts of the parish. Most of the parish was spared in 1646, in contrast to 1597 and 1623.

When I first looked at the early Crosthwaite parish registers I was appalled to find dozens of deaths and burials within a few short months in 1646. The registers also show what Appleby states, namely that the plague started to bite on May 14. One of the Keswick families it struck was the Grisdales. Here are the Crosthwaite burial entries for just a few days in May:

May 17 – Alice Grisdale of Keswick May 17 – Robert Grisdale of Keswick May 19 – Thomas Grisdale of Keswick May 20 – Joyce Grisdale of Keswick May 20 – Jenet Grisdale of Keswick May 29 – Thomas Grisdale of Keswick

The Plague in seventeenth-century England

The Plague in seventeenth-century England

This means that  at least three and possibly four of the seven remaining children of Thomas Grisdale died in the plague in just a few days. Also one of the two Thomas Grisdales who died was obviously Thomas himself. The Grisdale family of Keswick had been completely wiped out. It’s most probable that the Alice who died was Thomas’s 18 year-old daughter, which would imply that mother Alice either survived or had died in childbirth in 1645. (See comment below for more information of the survivors) Unfortunately as most of them died there is no testament of any sort to the destruction of this poor family, with of course the exception of the parish records. In place of such a testament I’d like to quote a Rector called Robert Lenthall whose family died of plague in 1647 in the village of Great Hampden. Below is what he wrote. I’ve left the spelling unchanged and not replaced the ‘YE’s and ‘YT’s by THE and THAT. Contrary to popular belief people never said YE (as in ‘Ye Old Pub’), the Y was just a letter signifying the sound TH.

My daughter Sarah Lenthall was buied ye eleventh day of August Ann: Supra (1647) she came from London to Whickham (High Wycombe) & on ye Saturday only to see us and so to returne ye morrow in ye afternoon to Whickham againe, but then fell sick & on Wednesday morning following being ye 11th of Aug. About an houre before Sun rise dyed of ye sickness & so on ye Evening we buried her in ye Meade called Kitchen-meade by ye hedgeside as you go downe into it on yor left hand, a little below ye pond at ye entrance into ye meade: She was aged 14 yeares eleven months & seaventeene days – had she lived to Bartholomew day she had been 15 yeares of age. Susanna Lenthall my wife dep’ted this life Thursday evening about eight a clock ye 26 of August, she died of ye sickness comfortably & in peace & was buried ye 27 by hir daughter Sara. John Gardiner a childe yt lived in my house died of ye sicknes & was buried August ye 29th. Adrian Lenthall my sonne a hopeful young man & neere one & twenty years dep’ted this life of ye sickness, Thursday morning a little before day breake & was buried at ye head of his sister Sara’a grave ye same day, being ye 2nd of Septe’b. My cosen John Pickering a lad of about 13 yeares of age, dying of ye sickness, was buried the 25 of Septeb 1647. Robert Lenthall, Rector

J. F. D. Shrewsbury recounted this story in his A History of the Bubonic Plague in the British Isles. He added:

It is more than 300 years since this simple yet moving lament was written in the bitterness of his grief and loneliness by a man bereft by bubonic plague of wife, children, and kinsman within the space of one month. Because they were the victims of that dreaded disease he dared not bury them in consecrated ground and erect a monument over their resting place; but he has given his loved ones a more lasting memorial, one that will endure as long as the printed word is read and long after the costliest gravestone has crumbled to dust.

Indeed. What happened to the Keswick copper smelting works where Thomas might have worked?  I’ll let the great Lakeland historian Collingwood explain in his own inimitable words:

In 1604, James I granted a charter confirmatory to the Company, including the names of Emanuel and Daniel, sons of the late Daniel Hechstetter. The Keswick mines survived them both, though Joseph, son of Emanuel, lived to see the wreck of the Smelthouses, which he managed in his turn, at the Civil Wars. It is usually said that this was perpetrated in 1651 by Cromwell’s army on the march from Edinburgh to Worcester. But General Lambert’s troops took Penrith in June, 1648, and Colonel Ashton’s forces came in September of that year to raise the siege of Cockermouth Castle. There were several opportunities, without casting the usual blame on Cromwell, for Parliament men to attack the headquarters of a royal monopoly. How far it deserved attack is quite another matter.

Keswick today

Keswick today

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